Getting great teachers in front of children entails getting them in to teaching in the first place and helping them be better in the classroom.
Lemov (2013) said supporting teachers to be better can, broadly, be done in two ways, incentivisation, including the use of accountability measures (to reward good practice and ‘punish’ bad), or, through development.
Lemov goes on to argue that developing teachers is difficult for three main reasons:
- Teachers themselves – they are extremely busy, often content with their practice and don’t always see a rationale (or time) for making the effort to change
- We (as teacher educators, in all our guises) don’t really know exactly what works, there isn’t a mathematical formula for effective Professional Development (PD). Moreover, we aren’t always clear on what the outcome of the PD should be. Is a change in teacher behaviour sufficient? Or is it always about the difference the PD makes to pupil attainment and outcomes?
- PD costs a lot of time and money.
A Google search for teacher professional development brings up nearly 10 million hits: papers, blogs, courses, articles, presentations, think pieces – it appears everyone has something to say on the topic. And yet, the current PD situation is far from perfect: teachers can be difficult to convince and influence, the evidence about what is likely to work isn’t very clear and to spend time and money on PD in light of this isn’t very palatable. And this is before we consider the challenge of connecting PD to pupil attainment and outcomes, something which it is extremely difficult to do.
As leaders of PD, in whatever guise that takes, we need to be clear what it is we want PD to achieve and how it will do so, so we can justify the time and money we spend on it.
What do we know about how teachers develop?
In 2015, The New Teacher Project (TNTP) produced The Mirage, a paper detailing the ‘teacher plateau’ which argued, based on an analysis of more than 20,000 teachers across three U.S. school districts, that teachers’ impact on pupils started to wane around their fifth year of teaching. Thankfully, this finding has been challenged; subsequent research suggests that teachers continue to refine and develop their practice all the time. Papay and Kraft (2016)in ‘The Myth of the Performance Plateau’ suggest that:
– Some teachers continue to grow and others plateau (in their ability to effect pupil progress)
– Development is affected by a host of different factors
– Most importantly: that “teacher quality” is a not ‘fixed characteristic of an individual teacher’
Moreover, they argue there’s more to teacher quality than pupil grades. This blog is about what we might do to affect the development of teachers.
There is a clear rationale for supporting teachers to improve – the impact of which (on the performance of serving teachers) has been shown to be ‘two or three times as great as the combined effect of all the attempts to improve teaching by teacher replacement’ (Clifton et al., 2013, p56). Where teacher development is concerned, the most effective strategy is to ‘love the one you’re with’ (Wiliam, 2010).
What do we know about professional development?
In order to be able to test the correlation between PD and pupil outcomes, research requires careful experimental designs. Desimone (2009) for example, has argued that based on a review of this empirical evidence that a ‘consensus’ on a core set of feature of effective PD programs can be identified. This consensus can be a helpful guide, but, as Fletcher-Wood, (2018)summarises, it is problematic for two reasons:
- From a theoretical perspective, the consensus is not always helpful in designing professional development
- From a practical perspective, the consensus does not lead to successful professional development.
In light of this then, if we can’t generate a tick list of ‘features of effective PD’ what should we focus our efforts on?
How can we help teachers?
Fundamentally, we’re talking about what is going to change a teacher’s practice. Teachers are always doing something (whether this might be considered poor, satisfactory or excellent practice) so whilst PD might offer something new and different, it must inevitably replace something that the teacher is already doing. ‘For teachers, enacting a new idea is not a matter of simple adoption but rather a matter of figuring out whether, when, and how to incorporate that new idea into an ongoing system of practice which is already satisfactory, and may also be largely habitual’ (Kennedy, 2016).
PD then, needs to take into account ‘the process by which change in teachers typically occurs’. Guskey et al.(2002), cites failure to do this as one of two reasons why the majority of PD programs fail. The other is a failure to take into account ‘what motivates teachers to engage in professional development’.