How can schools and education leaders recognize and measure effective teaching?

The 3 Pillars of Effective Teaching: Heart, Hands, and Head

Most of us can remember our most amazing teachers. As well as those we’d rather forget. But how do you define effective teaching? This one question has baffled educators and policy-makers for years.

You can usually tell an effective teacher just by watching them teach. But when it comes to understanding great teaching, “I know it when I see it” just isn’t good enough.

In order for schools and districts to ensure high-quality instruction, they need objective measures to identify the best teachers, and provide feedback that can help all educators grow. And the stakes of this process can’t be overstated. Research shows that great teachers have a profound impact on student academic performance, future earnings, and even health.

Sadly, the impact of ineffective teaching can be just as powerful. 

What is your teaching superpower? Complete the self-assessment in our free Reflective Teaching Guide to better understand your strengths and areas for growth.

With our students’ futures on the line, it’s critical that schools keep the best teachers in the classroom. Or develop them to positions of greater responsibility. And we need to identify and support those teachers who are not helping their students learn.

But more importantly, we need to help educators take ownership of their professional learning. For that to happen, teachers need to understand their own strengths and craft their own goals.

Can Effective Teaching Really Be Measured?

The most common way to measure effective teaching is through students’ test scores. But this approach is problematic. For one, test scores reflect many things besides a teacher’s ability. In fact, more than anything else, they are a reliable measure of how much money a student’s parents earn. And in most schools, our fixation with high-stakes testing has actually lowered the overall quality of education.

What educators need is a shared definition of effective teaching. A set of habits and practices that predict student outcomes. After all, we can’t just wait for state test scores to figure out what’s working.

We need a way to reflect on our own performance in real time. And we need to account for all the ways we help students. Even (read, especially) the impacts that aren’t measured by standardized tests.

Instructional coaches and school leaders need to provide feedback that is consistent and objective. We need to recognize effective instruction, and describe it in clear and simple terms. When we do, we help teachers to become the best version of themselves.

Charlotte Danielson developed the Danielson Rubric for just this purpose. And it does include many indicators of effective teaching. But in practice, this rubric has not fulfilled its promise. Its designers admit its limitations, but claim the problem is that schools aren’t using it correctly.”

And while that may be true, it’s also true that the rubric is unrealistic and overly complicated.

Resources for Planning and Organization

Find the Effective Teacher

I once coached a 7th grade math teacher named “Mr. Ross.” Mr. Ross knew his content well. He used a traditional approach, mostly lectures and exercises from the textbook. He was firm with students, but you could tell he cared about them.

Mr. Ross wasn’t an ‘innovator,’ but he was the most organized teacher I’d ever met. He got assignments back quickly, and always had his lesson plans prepared in advance. His students knew what was expected, and his most capable students did well on the state tests.

Is he an effective teacher?

Now consider “Ms. Lanigan.” She’s a high school history teacher who can make the most boring events from history sound exciting. She loves engaging her students with projects, debates, and presentations.

Ms. Lanigan is a real history buff. But she finds the nuts and bolts of teaching boring. She doesn’t push her students to use evidence in their writing, and her grades are always a few days. She seems surprised whenever the bell rang, and closes most lessons with “we’ll pick up from here tomorrow,” or “finish the rest for homework.”

Is she an effective teacher?

I’m not sure the Danielson Rubric would give us clear answers. The truth is that both are effective teachers. Do they have room for growth? Sure!

But wouldn’t it be more effective to identify and build on their strengths? To assume that there is more than one way to be an effective teacher?

A Simpler Definition of Effective Teaching

When a rubric is as complicated as Danielson, it creates a few problems.

It’s hard for teachers to keep track of all 22 components. And if teachers can’t intuitively relate to the competencies, they can’t use them to improve their practice.

Another issue is objectivity. The purpose of a rubric is to make the subjective, objective. This requires simplicity. 

Two people visiting the same classroom should generate the same score. But too often, this is not the case with Danielson. I’ve seen one observer mark a teacher as Exemplary, while another marked them Unsatisfactory. This was the same teacher, same lesson, same component. 

Our measure of teaching effectiveness should be simple. It should feel intuitive, aligning with how most educators think about effective teaching.

My experience has shown me that most teachers excel in one of three areas: Passion, Action, and Strategy (or Heart, Hands, and Head).

Three signs of effective teaching are passion, action, and strategy. Also known as heart, hands, and head.

Few teachers are highly effective in all three areas. But we don’t have to be. An excellent teacher can be exceptional in one area and moderate in the other two. Even effective teachers can be weak in one area.

This model of teaching effectiveness is simple enough that any teacher can use it to reflect on their strengths and areas for growth. And the domains are clear enough that two observers should come up with the same rating.

Passion: The Heart of Effective Teaching

Passionate educators lead with their hearts. They love teaching, have positive outlooks, and have excellent relationships with their students. 

It’s easy to tell who the passionate educators are. They consider teaching their calling, and most couldn’t imagine a career outside of education. Our “Ms. Lanigan” is an example of a teacher who is strong in the Heart domain.

Most of us are somewhere in the middle of the passion spectrum. We love to teach, but we get frustrated sometimes. We love our students, but there are a few that test our patience.

If this is an area you’d like to grow, it may be helpful to reflect on why you went into education. Self-care, like getting enough sleep or down time, can also support your passion.

Passion for Students

Ok, we’re all passionate about our students. But some teachers take it to another level. They radiate warmth. Students are drawn to them. They want to know everything about their students’ siblings, their favorite sports team, and so on.

They even manage to get along well with all the parents. How do they do it? Call it a certain “I don’t know what.” But whatever it is, some teachers have more than enough.

Passion for Teaching

If you weren’t a teacher, what job would you have? For some of us, there is no second choice.

If you always wanted to be a teacher, would be a teacher even if you had to work for free, and don’t mind staying up late to grade papers, you have a deep passion for teaching. 

This passion allows you to be resilient when things aren’t going your way. You can work a little harder when you need to. And you can show up with a smile even when you’re tired or stressed.

Growth Mindset

Passionate teachers are receptive to feedback. They are committed to being the best they can be, so they seek out constructive criticism. These teachers keep their doors open while they teach. They ask students, colleagues, and supervisors for feedback.

Teachers who have growth mindsets don’t do things because they’ve “always been done that way.” Even after many years of teaching, they look at each lesson and ask “what could I do better?”

Action: The Hands of Effective Teaching

Action-Oriented educators lead with their hands. They get things done. These teachers submit their grades ahead of schedule. Their rooms are spotless. And they have routines and systems for everything.

“Mr. Ross” is an Action-oriented teacher. He excels in organization and time management. And while he doesn’t excel in the other areas, he is competent enough to create a positive learning environment for his students.

As with Passion, most of us aren’t like Mr. Ross. The paperwork piles up from time to time, but we get through it. We don’t always plan our lessons two weeks out, but we do them… eventually.

For some educators, this area is a real challenge. If you are constantly overwhelmed, it can feel like you don’t have time to think about what you are doing. You just keep going, getting farther behind and more stressed. If that’s you, the Hands domain should be a priority.

Managing Paperwork

Most teachers don’t go into teaching for the paperwork. But, like it or not, there is plenty to be had.

We have to create lesson plans and curriculum plans. And most of us supplement our curriculum by creating our own resources.

Besides, everything we assign to each of our students eventually makes its way back to our desk. We have to assess student work, provide feedback, and record their progress.

The amount of paperwork teachers handle seems to increase every year. If you think you can handle it all through hard work, you will always be overwhelmed. You need systems and habit to help you keep everything organized.

Managing Time

Effective time managers live by the motto, “Eliminate, Automate, Delegate.”

Eliminate: The 80/20 rule states that we spend 20% of our time on tasks that produce 80% of our results. Figure out which tasks are not producing results and eliminate them.

Automate: We also spend time doing things that could better be done by machines. Grading multiple choice quizzes by hand is an example. Invest a few hours to automate such a task and save hours a week for the rest of your life.

Delegate: Teachers are notorious for “helping” our students. Why put ‘helping’ in quotes? Because certain types of helping aren’t really helping. When we ‘give a child a fish,’ we are teaching them not to fish for themselves. Students reverse delegate to us in hundreds of little ways. Do your students ever ask “What’s tonight’s homework,” when you just announced it, it’s written on the board, and posted online? 

Instead, delegate classroom responsibilities to your students. They should help organize your classroom, post homework and notes online, and even teach some lessons. This saves us time and increases students’ ownership of their learning.

Long-Term Planning

Most teachers think in terms of planning for each lesson. Some schools even require that teachers submit their plans for each class. But the most effective planners start with their goals for the year. Then, they use backwards design to break their yearly objectives into goals for each unit.

Unit plans recognize that most learning objectives are not met in a day. By designing units, we can better help our students understand the big ideas. This approach also gives us the flexibility to make adjustments, and it saves time compared to writing daily lesson plans.

Strategy: The Head of Effective Teaching

Strategic educators look at every challenge as an opportunity. We know our content and our standards. We know how students learn best in our subject area. And when they struggle, we can identify the underlying misconception(s) holding them back.

I was a Head-first teacher. No matter how much I knew about standards or the psychology of learning, I wanted to know more. When I finished my graduate degree, I wanted to read more about education. I started a blog because writing helped me process all the reading I was doing.

In retrospect, I could have focused more on the other domains. I was passionate about teaching and about my students. But I should have called home more when a student had a great week.  And as organized as I was, I always took a bit longer than necessary to return tests and papers.

But my affinity for strategy proved very useful. I felt confident that I could overcome any challenge that presented itself. When I saw systemic issues holding my students back, I crafted solutions, like the Three Bridges Design for Learning. My strategic approach helped me to be successful in the classroom and to take on school-wide roles developing curriculum plans and coaching teachers.

The three qualities of Head-first educators are expertise in Content, Pedagogy, and Pedagogical Content.

Content Expertise

Content expertise is your knowledge of the subject area you teach. In high school, this usually involves a deep knowledge of one subject area. At the lower grades, teachers need to be well-versed in each subject they teach.

Content expertise doesn’t mean using the text to stay one day ahead of your students. At the least, you should be able to correctly answer every question on the final exam or state test, without studying.

True expertise goes even farther. It means a deep knowledge of your content area that allows you to see connections, answer difficult questions, and to explain how your subject is relevant to life outside of school.


Pedagogy is the art and science of learning. While there’s still much we don’t know about the brain, there is a lot of great information out there. Researchers like Vygotsky and Piaget laid the groundwork for much of what we now know about learning. 

My friend, Malana Willis, co-authored a great book on the science of learning, called Ignite. If reading research papers isn’t your cup of tea, this book offers practical strategies that are informed by the latest research.

Differentiation and inquiry-based learning are pedagogical concepts that support effective teaching. The Three-Bridges of Learning is a pedagogical model that blends a number of research-based strategies to support efficiency and student success.

Pedagogical Content

Pedagogical Content is a cross between the other two elements of strategy. It’s a specific understanding of how students learn the content in your subject area.

This includes knowing standards across grade levels. Being able to identify a student’s strengths and gaps by looking at artifacts and data. And tailoring instruction to match each student’s needs.

Language arts teachers need to understand how children learn to read, and know the specific areas where they might struggle. In math, it’s recognizing that a student is struggling with slope because of an underlying difficulty with fractions.

Our online workshops can help math and language arts teachers build their skills in pedagogical content. And you can find interactive tools for understanding math and literacy standards on sites like Achieve the Core.

Questions about implementing a high-impact teacher coaching program in your school or district? Schedule your free consultation today to ensure your program achieves its goals.

What’s Your Teaching Superpower?

Every educator has their own teaching superpower. And to improve your teaching practice, you need to know what it is.

Educators are typically evaluated according to a deficit mindset. And while it’s natural to address areas for improvement, becoming too fixated on our flaws can actually impede growth.

Simplicity, coherence, relevance. All are important for measuring effective teaching. But what’s most important is that a rubric is supportive.

The Heart, Hands, Head approach is all about knowing your superpower. 

For a detailed profile of your own teaching style, complete the self-assessment in our Reflective Teaching Guide. This free Ebook includes tips and organizers for setting goals, and practical advice for taking ownership of your professional learning.


Once you’ve completed your reflection, choose your plan, so we can match you with an experienced instructional coach who’s uniquely suited to help you achieve your goals.


About the Author

Jeff Lisciandrello is the founder of Room to Discover and an educational consultant specializing in student-centered learning practicesJeff Lisciandrello is the founder of Room to Discover and an education consultant specializing in student-centered learning. His 3-Bridges Design for Learning helps schools explore innovative practices within traditional settings. He enjoys helping educators embrace inquiry-based and personalized approaches to instruction. You can connect with him via Twitter @EdTechJeff