Monkey Shifting in Progress?

After much Twitter chatter about Todd Whitaker’s new book, Shifting the Monkey, I had to find out what all the buzz was about. Many educators who read the book created the hashtag #shiftingthemonkey to share their reactions and experiences after reading it.

For those who are not familiar with Shifting the Monkey, it’s about the many burdens we may have on our backs, affectionately called monkeys. Sometimes these monkeys are on our backs by our own doing; however, there are times where others dump their monkeys on our backs. Whether this happens intentionally or unintentionally is not that important. What is important is that we are able to answer the following three questions to help improve our schools, classrooms, homes, and organizations:

o Where is the monkey?
o Where should it be?
o How do I get it there?

I recently finished the book and had the opportunity to attend his presentation about Shifting the Monkey at the Jostens Renaissance Conference in July. Needless to say, the presentation was incredible and rich with great advice! Following are my takeaways from the book and the presentation:

• “We cannot continue to dump on the best people in our organization.” We notoriously lean on the best people to get things done. This can lead to fatigue, frustration, and burnout. Hold everyone in the organization accountable for what they are supposed to do.

• “We have to treat everyone as if they are good.” When confronting negative behaviors, he encouraged us to maintain a level of respect because it’s not personal. The goal should be to teach what is expected in order to help the individual be better. This really resonated with me because we all want to be respected, appreciated, and encouraged.

• “There is nothing wrong with being afraid. The problem is acting afraid.” We are, at times, afraid to confront negative behaviors, which only allow “bad people” to shift their monkeys to the backs of the people bothered by their behavior. This destroys morale and creates a negative climate. Who out there has had a monkey on your back because of fear?

• “When giving expectations, be nice and firm. That way, you can easily identify if someone is being insubordinate.” Clearly communicated expectations eliminate confusion and make it easier for everyone to follow. I learned from Todd to repeat expectations at the beginning of each school year so that everyone is on the same page. Classroom teachers spend a great deal of time communicating expectations, which positively impacts classroom climate.

• “Nobody repeats a behavior without a reward.” What is recognized and rewarded is repeated. This goes for both negative and positive behaviors. Pouting, complaining, gossiping, and bulldozing continue because we often respond to these behaviors. His remedy is to ignore them. Think about that person in your life who pouts whenever they don’t get what they want. If you have given in to this reaction, you only reinforce the fact that pouting gets them what they want. To ignore simply means you see it happen, but you don’t back down from what you expect of them. It’s easier said than done, but again, this can greatly improve the climate and culture.

• “Avoidance is not a strategy.” When faced with negative behaviors that are counter to your expectations, avoidance does not make them go away. Avoidance places the monkey on all the people that are bothered by the negative behaviors. This can destroy risk taking during staff meetings, classroom discussions, family meetings, planning sessions, or other collaborative learning experiences. Respectfully confront the behavior by asking the person to meet with you immediately after the class, meeting, etc and move on. I’ve done this and it works. I’ve also been the recipient of this when I lashed out at one of my colleagues last fall. I was quickly called to the carpet and man, did I have a gorilla on my back for the rest of the meeting!

• “Ignoring is not avoidance. You know it’s there but you choose to respond or not to respond.” Sometimes no response is a response that sends a clear message. For example, if someone has a tendency to try to interject a joke while someone else is speaking, simply ignoring that person will show him/her and others that the behavior is not acceptable at that time. This keeps the monkey on the back of the jokester, not you or the others in the room.

• When we see students in the hallway during class, treat them all with respect by asking, “Hi, may I help you?” This prevents favoritism. School is supposed to be a safe and welcoming environment. However, we sometimes prevent this from occurring when we choose a negative way to address students. Asking “may I help you?” is a respectful way to get the information we need and a way of treating everyone with respect.

• “Stop throwing the blanket monkey.” Ouch! I’ve been guilty of this a couple of times. The blanket monkey occurs when there are a few people doing something negative and instead of addressing those few people, you address the entire staff. Two things happen. The great teachers feel guilty because they think you are talking about them. The guilty ones believe you are talking about someone else. In the end, the behavior doesn’t change.

I plan to keep my eye out for the monkeys and make sure they are where they are supposed to be. I encourage you to read the book!

Be Great,


7 thoughts on “Monkey Shifting in Progress?

  1. Excellent – thank you for sharing. The worst monkey is the one placed and maintained by oneself.

  2. Michael,

    I couldn’t agree with you more. The more we are able to identify the monkeys we are responsible for, the better off we will be in the short term and long term.

    Be Great,


  3. Hey Curt,

    Todd is an amazing educator, writer, and speaker. He has been such an inspiration to me via his books and phone conversations.

    Be Great,


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *