Getting professional development right

"Who dares to teach must never cease to learn". (John Cotton Dana)

All schools are learning organisations n which students and adults continually learn. Research informs us that the most significant contributing factor to the success of students in school is the quality of teaching. Professional development is the means by which teachers continue to strengthen their practice throughout their career. The most effective professional development focuses on the actual needs of their learners. It has a forensic nature about it since it is attempting to address and meet their individual learning challenges. Professional development is a form of collaborative learning. Schools use a whole variety of models to develop their teachers, including: conferences, workshops, seminars, collaborative on-line learning, peer teaching, independent reading, action research and many ways on informally sharing practice.

When effective professional development takes place it is based on addressing the actual learning challenges of the students. It is therefore important that a school leadership team analyses student achievement data to identify learning problems of particular students, grades, classes – i.e. identify gaps in student learning - and investigate what the school needs to know and do to address these particular challenges. In this way professional development t is a form of professional inquiry – it is inquiring into how to meet specific student needs.

In addition to the article on this page you may like to check out the material on professional development elsewhere on this site by clicking Professional Development.

What is effective professional development?

Powerful professional development is the keystone that helps teachers thrive, helps students succeed, and also helps whole school improvement. Getting professional development right is one of the most important things you can do as a school leader. So what are the key ingredients that enable this to happen?


Culture is one of the most elusive, but also the most important aspects that underpins a professional learning process or programme within a school. It can be hard to pin down what makes an effective culture, yet nearly everyone can easily compare a more positive or negative one. Kraft and Papay explored this area and found[1] that where teachers reported low levels of support, development and trust then these teachers seemed to improve over the first few years of their career but then seemed to plateau. However, where teachers reported much higher levels of support then these teachers not only improved faster in their early career, they kept on improving year-after-year. Where the culture is right, teachers will be developed to better meet their students’ needs and perform better.

So what are the possible areas that impact on culture?

  • Vision for professional learning – The importance of professional learning should be widely understood and discussed. It is not there to meet a requirement but to help students succeed, so is therefore a key priority within a school. Where leaders are able to model their own professional learning and take part in professional learning processes, this helps to reinforce this.
  • Time and resources available – time and money are almost always in short supply. Yet if professional learning is not something that is prioritised with time and money, it probably won’t be seen as a priority by anyone else.
  • Observations – developmental observations can be a very effective part of a professional learning process and culture. However, if observations are graded or come with high stakes consequences, they stop supporting practice and encourage jumping through hoops or using atypical lessons.
  • Performance management – clunky appraisal systems that rely just on annual conversations risk not developing day to day practice. If they are also combined with high stakes assessments of teachers they can bring stress and pressure, rather than challenge or support. Many schools are moving towards more frequent and more formative appraisal systems.
  • Relationships and trust – For someone to change their practice, they must learn and be prepared to try something new, which may or may not work. Schools that recognise, encourage and celebrate this are much more likely to build a developmental culture.

Focus of effective professional development

For professional development to benefit pupils, it needs to maintain a clear focus on student learning. It is easy to slip into a list of what teachers should be doing rather than which students will benefit and how. It is important for teachers to be involved in identifying the student needs in their classroom, and then engaging both with the theory of what might help and the practice of experimenting and evaluating the impact on those students in the classroom. Enabling a professional development programme driven by student needs will ensure that any process is relevant and supporting both teachers and students in your school.

There should also be an opportunity to consider subject knowledge and how pupils learn within a particular subject.

Leadership, planning and needs analysis

To enable professional learning to be closely focussed on pupil needs, it is important that staff are enabled to identify and feed into this. Central to this is working with staff at all levels to identify what they need to develop in order to respond to changing student and school priorities. This requires a strong flow of information from the bottom up, constantly gathering feedback, while working strenuously to avoid unnecessary bureaucracy.

Effective appraisal discussions can provide a source of information for planning and adapting the CPD offer. Subject and department meetings can also be a strong driver of CPD needs analysis by conducting ongoing analysis of how students are responding to the demands of the curriculum, and anticipating staff members’ needs in both teaching and assessing it knowledgeably, effectively and efficiently.

Time and structure of professional learning

It takes a long time to change a habit. Similarly, it takes a long time to change anything you do day in and day out. Teachers are unlikely to translate learning into improved outcomes for students unless they are given sufficient time and resource, alongside high quality expertise and facilitation, in an atmosphere of trust and respect. Only very specific bits of new information can really be effectively learned in a one-off session. To change regular practice, research suggests professional learning needs to be sustained over time. In addition, there should be a rhythmic, iterative structure, so that there are multiple opportunities for teachers to engage in new learning, experiment with their practice and evaluate its impact on pupils.

Many schools now offer weekly or fortnightly professional learning time which is focused on ongoing collaboration, planning and assessment. In effective schools whole-staff briefings are minimised, subject and team meetings are kept as free of briefing and administrative work as possible, and the focus is on improving and sharing teaching knowledge and practice in direct response to student needs.

Engaging with external expertise

When engaging in a professional learning process, you want to be sure that what you are trying is what is most likely to work. This means ensuring that professional learning is underpinned by a strong evidence base. This might be through engaging directly with research journals or a research lead within school. Alternatively, engaging with external experts helps enable evidence-informed practice, as well as the support and challenge to enable powerful professional learning. Effective professional learning includes all staff being connected to the latest practice through subject and specialist association membership, research bulletins, conferences and social media. However, it is also recognised that to embed this knowledge it is necessary to work with external experts and facilitators who can support, challenge, model practice and inspire colleagues internally.

Great teaching is at the heart of schools and benefits students the most. Great professional learning helps support teachers to best meet the needs of those students, whilst also helping teacher morale, self-efficacy and the environment of your school. With powerful professional learning for all colleagues in school, we can bring a real transformation to students’ learning in school.

Posted with kind permission of Bridget Clay is the Director of School Programmes for the Teacher Development Trust, the charity for professional development in schools in the UK. She is a former Maths teacher.


Dig deeper

Click here for a really useful article describing the NSDC standards and tools to help strengthen professional development.

Click here to access the website of Learning Forward, devoted to the professional development.

  • Link professional development to addressing the real learning needs of THEIR students.
  • Analyse student achievement data to identify learning gaps.

  • Identify which learning gaps and challenges teachers are not currently addressing effectively.

  • Identify the knowledge and skills educators need to address these learning challenges.

  • Identify lines of professional inquiry to address these gaps.

  • Choose a form of professional development most appropriate to carry out the inquiry (e.g. action research, sharing practice, seminars, workshops, collaborative on-line sharing etc.)

  • Do not assume a one size fits all approach to professional development will be effective in meeting the learning challenges of your students.

  • Evaluate impact of professional development in relation to meeting challenges of professional inquiry.

  • Resource professional development adequately – e.g. Learning Forward advocate allocation at least 10% of budgets and 25% of an educator’s work time to learning and collaboration with colleagues. Whilst I consider this to be a highly ambitious proposal it does recognise the central link between the quality of teaching to students outcomes.

  • Ensure school board members also engage in their own professional development to understand the role and functions of high performing boards.

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