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The 3 Legs of the Stool

Updated: Oct 14, 2019

Originally posted 3.2.17

Happy Thursday!

Being a teacher is not easy.  If it were, we wouldn’t need rigorous certification qualifications, require master’s degrees, student teaching, professional development, mentoring, coaching, etc.  The things that we do well today may not be successful next year when the standards, students, assessments, etc. change.  However, I believe there are three core areas that teachers need to focus on to be as successful as possible.  I call these The 3 Legs of the Stool:

  1. Relationships—no one cares what you know until they know that you care

  2. Pedagogy—how you are able to get what’s in your head into the head of the learner

  3. Content Knowledge—what do you know about this

Think about it this way:

  • Option A: Strong Relationships + Strong Pedagogy + Weak Content Knowledge=A good substitute. You know how to teach (pedagogy) and everyone likes you (relationships) but you have no idea what you’re teaching (weak content knowledge) so you have to rely on someone else’s information.

  • Option B: Strong Relationships + Weak Pedagogy + Strong Content Knowledge=A good student teacher. You don’t know how to teach (pedagogy) but everyone likes you (relationships) and you know a lot about what the kids are learning about (content knowledge).

  • Option C: Weak Relationships + Strong Pedagogy + Strong Content Knowledge=A teacher no one likes. You know how to teach (pedagogy) and you know a lot about what the kids are learning about (content knowledge) but no one likes you (relationships).

  • Option D: Strong in only Relationships + pedagogical weakness + lack of content knowledge=A great volunteer or room mom. Everyone likes you, but you don’t know the first thing about teaching and learning.

  • Option E: Strong only in Pedagogy + weak in relationships + weak in content knowledge=A coach or supervisor of student teaching. You aren’t an expert in the content and you don’t have great rapport with students but you know the things that are necessary to achieve learning for students.

  • Option F: Strong only in Content Knowledge + weak in pedagogy + weak in relationships=A college professor or author of a book. You are the person that can literally write the book on this subject, but that doesn’t mean you have any idea how to get others to learn about what you know.  You are unconsciously competent—for most of us the best example of this would be to think about how you would teach a non-native speaker to speak English.  Though you know how to speak it, trying to teach someone else to do so (other than a baby) would be a real challenge despite the fact that you are able to read, write, listen, and speak in English.


Now, go back to the stool.  You need all three legs in solid working order to be successful.  Just because two of the legs are strong and working well does not mean that the stool is effective.  Indeed, all three are required if the stool is really going to work as it is supposed to.  The good news about these three legs is that if one is not as strong as the others, when working from a strengths-based paradigm, one can leverage the successes to build upon and grow the others.  

This—examining what needs improvement and using what is going well to do so—is at the heart of our profession!  In fact, I would argue, that what makes great teachers extraordinary is not the skills that they are born with, but their intentional desire to get better and their strategic methods of improvement.  What’s more, their desire to do so does not spring forth from their intrinsic desire to be the best, but from their intrinsic desire to have their students be the best.  In other words, great stools are made, not born, that way.


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