Mosaic of Effectiveness

This post is a part of the ASCD Forum conversation on “how do we define and measure teacher and principal effectiveness?” To learn more about the ASCD Forum, go to or join the ASCD Forum group.


What is an effective teacher?


It is the question we have paradoxically circled around and yet, improbably, ignored. Rather than define, describe and debate what effective teachers are or are not, we default to discourse on holding teachers accountable with test scores—crude metrics at best, destructive red herrings at worst.  In essence, we put the cart before the horse: measuring “effective” teaching before we know what it is or looks like.


So what is an effective teacher?


The effective teacher is a mosaic of professional behaviors, skills, and habits of mind that collectively amount to students’ vigorous well-being in body, mind, and emotion, or, in education reform parlance, “achievement” (another term crudely defined as a test score by default). The foundation of these behaviors, skills, and habits is learning: curiosity, inquiry, and a testing of theories. As a starting point, effectiveness in the business of learning is effectiveness as a learner.


However, “master learner” is not synonymous with “effective teacher.” Educators must possess and apply a host of other qualities consistently in the service of students to attain the coveted “effectiveness” status. Dr. Leo Sandy, Professor of Counselor Education and School Psychology at Plymouth State University, penned a short essay, The Effective Teacher, that might serve as a good starting point for creating a common definition. Below is a distillation of his main points.


He wrote:

The effective teacher . . .

  • Must be a leader who can inspire and influence students through expert and referent power but never coercive power.
  • Is a provocateur who probes, prods, asks incessant why questions
  • Exemplifies what Maxine Green calls teacher as stranger.
  • Models enthusiasm not only for his subject but also for teaching and learning.
  • Is an innovator who changes strategies, techniques, texts, and materials when better ones are found and/or when existing ones no longer provide a substantive learning experience for her students.
  • Is a comedian/entertainer who uses humor in the service of learning.
  • Is a coach or guide who helps students to improve.
  • Is a genuine human being or humanist who is able to laugh at herself and the absurdity in the world without being cynical and hopeless.
  • Is a sentinel who provides an environment of intellectual safety.
  • Is an optimist or idealist.
  • Is one with others. He is a collaborator who places a high value on collegiality.
  • Is a revolutionary because she knows that, with the exception of parenthood, her role is the most vital one on earth in the preservation of the sanctity of life and its natural outcome – the elevation of humanity.

It is here where I believe we should take up the question of what constitutes an effective teacher. Not because I agree with all of Dr. Sandy’s suggestions, but because I think they best approximate the kaleidoscope of responsibilities necessary to understand and meet the needs of all students.


Hopefully for now we can set aside the brainstorm inhibitors—“How will these be measured?” and “How can we possibly go to scale with such subjective qualities?” Instead, let’s first understand what we want of our teachers (perhaps by considering the kind of transformational experiences we want for our students) and then determine the best ways to observe, cultivate, and measure those actions, behaviors, and “achievements.”  


Image: eHow


  • Fantastic question, Sandra, and wonderful observation. I wonder how an "effective teacher" would describe themselves in terms of action points or behavioral habits vs. what is observable by others. You speak to the larger question about cultivating effective teachers through the development and meaningful empowerment of "effective" leaders. It is an important consideration that too often is left out of the "accountability" and "achievement" discourse, but factors in not as simply proxy or even ancillary, but of primary consequence. As to your direct question about "select(ing) individuals who have the best observation skills as teacher evaluators" . . . I don't know. The jokester in me wants to reply, "which came first the teacher observer or the observer of teacher observers?" I suppose at this poing I would turn to the wisdom of Vogt in his "Art and Architecture of Powerful Questions" and wonder what questions we might ask to help reveal the best course of collaborative/innovative action. Thanks for the thought-provoking comment.
    Jason_Flom, 1 year ago | Flag
  • It is interesting to note that all the terms used to describe the effective teacher are measured by observation. It is certainly true that the qualities of the assessor are the most important criteria for valid and reliable teacher evaluations. How can schools select individuals who have the best observation skills as teacher evaluators?

    Sandra_Toth, 1 year ago | Flag
  • Thanks, Richard. Have fun at LILA. I'm bummed to miss it this year. Wishing I could be there. Cheers.
    Jason_Flom, 1 year ago | Flag
  • Thanks for posting, Jason.  Pretty good stuff.  I'll pass it along to my graduate students.  Richard

    Richard_Lange, 1 year ago | Flag

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