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Teaching Without Connecting is 'Futile': An Interview With Annette Breaux & Todd Whitaker

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This summer, I'll be alternating between publishing thematic collections of past posts (ones on Student Motivation, Implementing The Common Core,  Teaching Reading & Writing, and Parent Involvement have already been published) and sharing interviews with authors of recent books I consider important and useful for us educators (Meenoo Rami was the first, co-authors Carmen Fariña & Laura Kotch were the second, Warren Berger was the third).

Of course, I'm still accepting answers to a special "question-of-the-week": Has Race To The Top been a success, a fiasco, or something in between?  Responses will be posted on Monday.

For today's author interview, Annette Breaux and Todd Whitaker agreed to answer a few questions about the new second edition of their popular book, Seven Simple Secrets: What the BEST Teachers Know and Do!

LF: I especially liked the self-reflective questions you recommend at the end of each chapter.  What do you think are a few of the most important ones educators should ask themselves about their professional practice?  

Annette Breaux & Todd Whitaker:

Though it's difficult to choose ones we feel are "more important" than others, we will highlight three  that we believe all teachers should pay particular attention to.

Do I teach all skills in a way that relates to the lives of my students?  To attempt to teach anything to anyone without first establishing a real-life connection is practically futile. And that is one of the keys to what sets the most effective teachers apart from the rest - they relate all lessons to the real lives of their students, today! We stress the word today because many teachers explain to their students that the skill they are learning will be important someday when they are grown. Students cannot relate to someday. Even high school seniors are capable of thinking only as far into the future as Friday night!

The fact is that if something seems relevant to us, we become interested. And once we are interested, we are more apt to want to learn more about it. Thus the importance of relating everything you teach to the real lives of your students.

Do I find the "good" in every student and help all to realize their strengths?  The old saying "People do better when they feel better" holds true in the classroom. Effective teachers know that students who feel good about themselves are much more likely to try harder and behave better than ones who do not. So how do you help students feel good about themselves?  You find something good about each and praise it. If, by some chance, you find it difficult to see something "good" in any particular student, open your eyes. There's good in EVERY student!  If you convince a student that she is capable and that you believe in her, she will be MUCH more likely to begin to believe in herself.

Do I display the same attitudes and behaviors I'd like my students to possess?  We look to a day when all teachers will honestly be able to answer this question with a resounding  "Yes!"  On that day, schools everywhere will be much better places for parents to send their children.  Oftentimes, however, we encounter teachers whose attitudes are not akin to the ones they expect from their students. In fact, there are teachers whose attitudes are far worse than those of the students they complain about. In defense of these teachers, there is much about teaching that can sour your attitude, IF you allow it to! Don't allow it to!  BE the person you hope your students will become. Doing this is one of the biggest secrets of highly effective teachers.

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LF: What do you think some might consider more controversial recommendations you offer in the book?

Annette Breaux and Todd Whitaker:

There is nothing in the book we consider to be controversial, though that answer, inevitably, will be left to the reader's discretion.  We feel as though the topics we have addressed - based on the seven secrets of highly effective teachers - are in no way controversial.  The secrets include knowing how to plan well, manage a classroom, instruct effectively, maintain a positive attitude, display professionalism, handle discipline issues effectively, and motivate/inspire students.  What teacher wouldn't want to improve in any of those areas? We do address what has become quite a controversial topic in education - social media. However, though the topic, itself, is one of controversy, we believe that any teacher who handles himself appropriately and professionally on social media sites and doesn't post anything he wouldn't post if both parents and the superintendent were standing next to him as he typed,  won't find himself engulfed in controversy!

We didn't write the book to open any of the many cans of worms in the pantry of education today. Instead, we simply wanted to share seven simple things that the most effective teachers do, regardless of their political beliefs, their professional affiliations, their feelings toward trends in education, the demographics of their schools, etc.

LF: Having more patience is one quality that I'm particularly trying to work on these days.  You don't speak to that directly in the book, though you certainly touch on it.  What would your advice be to educators like me who would like to develop more patience in the classroom? 

Annette Breaux and Todd Whitaker:

One of the questions we ask teachers to reflect on in the book is this:

Have I made a commitment to maintain my composure and act professionally no matter what a student does in my classroom and no matter how aggravated or frustrated I may become?

Now if doing that sounds easy, you've never been a teacher! Teaching can be frustrating. Students will be aggravating from time to time. They're children - it's their job!  But OUR job, as teachers and role models, is to guide them gently and professionally as we teach them a love a learning and a respect for self and others. One of the most important things we can ever hope to teach our students is that, in any given situation, though we cannot control the actions of others, we can always remain in control of ourselves.  And the best way to teach that is to MODEL that. Effective teachers, though they do not always FEEL composed, always ACT composed.  (Yes, they often fake it!  In order to be an effective  teacher, you have to be a good actor...)  You can attack the problem without attacking the person. You can be serious and firm while being soft-spoken and kind.  The more out-of-control a student becomes, the more in-control an effective teacher must be.  Will you always FEEL patient and composed? No. You just have to ACT that way in order to be effective.

LF: I have a special interest in parent engagement, and appreciated the list you shared of things parents love about effective teachers.  Would you mind giving a short summary of what you wrote and why you thought it was important to include in the book?

Annette Breaux and Todd Whitaker:

We've found that parents LOVE teachers who:

  • Keep them abreast of what's going on in the classroom
  • Make efforts to ensure positive communication - notes, phone calls, texts, e-mails, letting them know of positive things about their children. (Note that when a serious situation presents itself, parents are more willing to work cooperatively with a teacher they believe genuinely cares about their child.)
  • Listen to them - allowing for open and honest discussions even in times of disagreement
  • Refuse to give up on students, no matter what
  • Challenge students, while making learning attainable and fun
  • Do not overburden students with excessive homework assignments

Parents who think positively of their children's teachers will be more likely to act as partners in the education and success of their children.  So we simply cannot overstate the importance of making every effort to establish positive relationships with parents of students at ALL grade levels. 

LF: Is there anything I haven't asked you that you'd like to share? 

Annette Breaux and Todd Whitaker:

We'd like to end by stating that it is our sincere belief that teachers do the best they can with what they know.  Teaching is an ever-evolving profession, so no one ever "finishes" learning to teach.  Therefore we wrote the book with the sole purpose of sharing the seven simple secrets of highly-effective teachers  -- who will readily admit that they, too, are still learning!

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 LF: Thanks, Annette and Todd!

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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