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What Great Teachers Do Differently: Nineteen Things That Matter Most

reviewed by S. Mia Obiwo & Diane Truscott - February 16, 2021

coverTitle: What Great Teachers Do Differently: Nineteen Things That Matter Most
Author(s): Todd Whitaker
Publisher: Routledge, New York
ISBN: 0367344653, Pages: 150, Year: 2020
Search for book at Amazon.com

Effective educators know that the act of teaching involves careful consideration of what propels student learning and what can deter it. The classroom represents a positive learning context built through intentional educator decisions and moves to satisfy the students’, the school’s, and society’s purposes (Norris, 2008). The third edition of What Great Teachers Do Differently: Nineteen Things That Matter Most by Todd Whitaker examines the beliefs, attitudes, interactions, and behaviors of great teachers that form the fabric of their lives in classrooms and schools. The book does not provide a step-by-step teaching approach, so educators seeking guidance on concrete instructional strategies or specific pedagogical moves should look elsewhere. Teachers can think of Whitaker’s book as a “why-to” guide. The information provided in the text can help teachers establish a successful learning context. Each of the nineteen concepts consistently emphasize that teaching is not about what we know. Teaching is about who we are as educators and how that directly influences what we do in the classroom.

The book’s overall readability—including the short chapters (ranging from four to eight pages), straightforward language, and story-like examples—is ideal for busy, practicing teachers looking for a quick yet thought-provoking read. The concepts are not necessarily novel ideas, but they are phrased and explained in ways that bring new meaning to the importance of our roles as educators. The book is full of salient reminders for all teachers, regardless of the number of years spent in the profession. However, the nineteen concepts may be particularly useful for pre-service and early career teachers who can most benefit from guidance on why and how to manage themselves in a professional manner that will benefit all students.

The introductory chapter provides context for why it is important to study what effective teachers do. Following the introduction are chapters dedicated to observations of what great teachers do differently. For example, Chapter Eleven, “Ten Days Out of Ten,” avows that effective educators always take a positive approach, treat everyone with respect, and understand the power of praise. New to the third edition are two chapters focusing on improving student behavior. Chapter Six, “It Is More Than Relationships,” divides classroom management into three categories: relationships, expectations, and consistency. In this chapter, Whitaker expresses that great teachers understand the importance of relationships and work hard to deliver engaging lessons on a consistent basis. Following this discussion, the new content of Chapter Seven, “Choose the Right Mode,” articulates that “the best teachers consistently and intentionally establish a business mode in their classroom, which allows for maximum student learning” (p. 45). Though it may sound rigid initially, Whitaker explains that fun and laughter can all be a part of the business mode. Lastly, the concluding, and most compelling chapter, asks teachers to clarify and adhere to their core beliefs—a discussion that distinctively grounds the book’s purpose.  

So, what exactly is a great teacher? And what makes author Todd Whitaker qualified to recognize and describe the things that matter most for all teachers in a universally applicable manner? In Chapter One, “Why Look at Great?” Whitaker identifies research studies on effective teachers spanning the last two decades. The findings of these studies illustrate the range of what constitutes great instruction. While some studies emphasize the importance of teacher content knowledge or subject area expertise, others associate effectiveness with advanced degrees. Whitaker uses this research to argue that there is more to teaching than results on test scores and degrees. Teaching involves people. He believes “great teachers give equal weight to the part that involves teaching ‘people skills.’ They think of this as shaping the good neighbors, responsible citizens, and capable parents of tomorrow—and they feel good about it” (p. 107).  Utilizing his prior experiences as a math teacher, principal, middle school coordinator, and professor, along with his years of observing schools and classrooms in action, Whitaker presents insights into the attitudes and behaviors that accompany great teachers and lead to student success.

Books that are marketed as universally applicable to teachers across varying school contexts often raise red flags for scholars who study developmentally appropriate practices, culturally responsive pedagogies, and inclusive education due to their “one size fits all” approach. Whitaker’s book does not explicitly address the transferability of the nineteen things that matter most across school contexts—including differing age, race, language, ability, or socioeconomic status among students. However, Chapter Ten, “Focus on Students,” emphasizes that great teachers prioritize students while maintaining a consistent vision that keeps everything in perspective at both micro levels (the students, families, and school) and macro levels (districtwide, statewide, nationwide, and worldwide). Additionally, Chapter Eighteen, “Put Yourself in Their Position,” contends that students bring their worlds into the classroom. The best teachers embrace student difference while openly seeking to understand the world from their students’ perspectives. On the final page of the book, Whitaker acknowledges, “This book does not present a cookie-cutter approach to teaching, or a narrow doorway to success. Instead, it shows the framework that sustains the work of all great educators” (p. 126). This statement highlights the purpose of the final chapter, “Clarify Your Core.”

Though the concept is not listed as one of the nineteen things great teachers do best, the idea of teachers centering their core values and beliefs may very well be the most essential advice Whitaker gives throughout the book. He maintains that it is difficult for educators to make daily decisions without a core of firmly held beliefs. This core allows teachers to feel secure and act with confidence. As teachers model their core beliefs through interactions with others in the classroom, students also begin to express a sense of security, confidence, and, ultimately, success. The process of identifying and adhering to one’s core beliefs and values requires a great deal of self-reflection, which Whitaker discusses across several of the concepts mentioned in the book. Chapter Two, “It’s People, Not Programs,” proclaims that the quality of the teachers in a school determines the quality of the school. Thus, “the person, not the practice, needs to change… [T]he first step may be the hardest: The teacher must recognize the need to improve” (p. 11). Similarly, Chapter Eight, “High Expectation—for Whom?” and Chapter Nine, “Who Is the Variable?” express that effective teachers have high expectations for their students, but even higher expectations for themselves. Likewise, great teachers look within themselves for answers and accept the responsibility for their classrooms and performance. Chapter Fifteen, “Intentionalness,” synthesizes the importance of self-reflection by stating that great teachers have a plan and purpose for all they do. They reflect on what they could have done differently when necessary and adjust their plans accordingly.

Overall, the third edition of Todd Whitaker’s book, What Great Teachers Do Differently: Nineteen Things That Matter Most, accomplishes its goal of identifying and describing a set of beliefs and behaviors that may assist early career and experienced teachers in becoming more effective in the classroom. One of the book’s challenges is that the title may initially be misleading to educators seeking a “how-to” guide with step-by-step directions for instructional strategies or pedagogical moves. Whitaker mentions classroom management extensively throughout the text. Thus, the information provided in the book may not actually be about learning that takes place in the classroom, but it is rather about preparing the learning environment for students.

In the introductory chapter of the book, Whitaker acknowledges research studies that affirm effective teachers by the knowledge they hold and the academic success of their students. He goes on to explain that his professional experiences and intuition provide support for his focus on teacher beliefs and correlating teacher behaviors. Readers may be unfamiliar with the importance of teacher beliefs, core values, and dispositions in relation to practice. Including review of the salient research by seminal scholars like Arthur Combs and colleagues (1974) and Martin Haberman (1995), or more present scholars like Ana María Villegas (2007) and Deborah Schussler (2013) would have helped the reader begin to think about this critical component of effective practice. Content knowledge, pedagogical expertise, and management are not enough if a teacher does not have the beliefs and attitude to work at becoming an effective professional. Nonetheless, Whitaker deserves commendation for his ability to weave his professional knowledge and personal experiences together to create an individualized book full of opportunities for reflective thinking about things that matter most.


Combs, A. W., Blume, R. A., Newman, A.J., & Wass, H. L. (1974). The professional education of teachers: A humanistic approach to teacher preparation (2nd ed.). Allyn and Bacon.

Haberman, M. (1995). Star teachers of children in poverty. Kappa Delta Pi.

Norris, D. (2008). Teachers’ dispositions: Supporting democracy or forcing indoctrination. International Journal of Educational Leadership Preparation, 3(3), 19.

Schussler, D. L., & Knarr, L. (2013). Building awareness of dispositions: Enhancing moral sensibilities in teaching. Journal of Moral Education, 42(1), 7187.

Villegas, A. M. (2007). Dispositions in teacher education: A look at social justice. Journal of Teacher Education, 58(5), 370380.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 16, 2021
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23601, Date Accessed: 3/4/2021 7:09:08 AM

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About the Author
  • S. Mia Obiwo
    University of Memphis
    E-mail Author
    S. MIA OBIWO, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of early childhood education in the Department of Instruction and Curriculum Leadership at the University of Memphis. Obiwo’s professional work and scholarship focus on critical issues in urban elementary schools and teacher education. Particularly, her work examines the salience of urban teacher dispositions in an effort to support the development of culturally responsive, equity-oriented teachers for urban classrooms and communities.
  • Diane Truscott
    Georgia State University
    E-mail Author
    DIANE TRUSCOTT, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Early Childhood and Elementary Education in the College of Education and Human Development at Georgia State University. Her research and teaching support teachers, urban public schools, and their communities through examinations of teacher dispositions and equity-based educational practices.
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