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 changea 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’. 

Figure 1. Guskey’s model of teacher change

This process, and the two criteria highlighted by Guskey et al., (2002)are reiterated by Timperley, (2008)who argues there are four ‘important understandings that arise from the literature’: 

  1. That the focus of PD should relate to what we know about student learning: that it is ‘strongly influenced by what and how teachers teach’

  2. That because teaching is such a complex activity, PD must take into account the various ways behaviour might be influenced: teachers’ knowledge and their beliefs about what is important to teach, how students learn, and how to manage student behaviour and meet external demands

  3. That PD needs to be ‘responsive to the ways in which teachers learn’. This includes things like engaging their ‘prior conceptions about how the world works; developing deep factual and conceptual knowledge, organised into frameworks that facilitate retrieval and application; and promoting metacognitive and self-regulatory processes that help learners define goals and then monitor their progress towards them’

  4. That context is critical, and it will influence teachers’ learning. This might include the classroom, school, wider school culture and ‘the community and society in which the school is situated

Based on our analysis of the literature, Teach First has developed a set of Programme Principles; elements we think are important to consider when designing developmental experiences for our teachers and leaders.  The principles are not designed to form any sort of consensus on what constitutes effective PD or act as a tick list when designing teacher development but, based on what we know about the development of novice teachers, they act as a lens through which we can shape participant experience.  Fundamentally, they are our current view of what is likely to lead to change in the practice of delegates on our programmes.  Writing this blog has already generated a couple of ideas about the way they can be developed! They can be found here. 

Moving forward

In order to support our pupils to learn, we ask ourselves what change do we want to see, what does the evidence suggest might enable me (as a teacher) to make that change, what do my pupils need in order to make it and how can I remove any of the obstacles that might affect their ability to get there as quickly as possible.  The same questions can be asked by anyone who is responsible for teacher development, including teachers themselves. The difference an effective teacher can make to the lives of the pupils they teach is significant, and so there exists a moral imperative to ensure that teachers are able to effect this positive and enduring change.  PD is one way of doing this, as teacher educators, it is our responsibility to ensure it is as likely as possible to lead to the desired change. 


Join Jennifer at Achievement for All’s annual conference!

Jennifer is one of the many experts participating in Achievement for All’s Every Child Included in Education conference on 17th October 2018 at Newbury Racecourse. Together with other industry experts, Jennifer will be looking at how to improve teacher retention and CPD, providing delegates with top tips and strategies to take back to their setting.

Keynote speakers will include Anne Longfield OBE, Children’s Commissioner for England, Emma Lewell-Buck MP, Shadow Minister for Education (children and families), June O’Sullivan MBE, Chief Executive of London Early Years Foundation (LEYF) and Thelma Walker MP, member of the Education Select Committee, amongst many others.

There will be 11 other expert panel-led sessions discussing and debating a range of topics such as Terrific Twos, excellent provision in early years, understanding children looked after, engaging children in reading, behavioural policies and vulnerable children.

A full list of speakers and breakout sessions can be found here.

Tickets cost £90 and can be booked here. Achievement for All schools and settings are eligible for a 50% discount.

Parents and carers join free and group discounts are available. Email for more information.


Blog references:

Clifton, J. et al.(2013) ‘Excellence and equity: Tackling educational disadvantage in England’, (June), pp. 1–106

Desimone, L. M. (2009) ‘Improving Impact Studies of Teachers’ Professional Development: Toward Better Conceptualizations and Measures’, Educational Researcher, 38(3), pp. 181–199. doi: 10.3102/0013189X08331140

Fletcher-Wood, H. (2018) ‘Designing Professional Development for Teacher Change’, (March), p. 21. Available at:

Guskey, T. et al.(2002) ‘Professional Development and Teacher Change’, Teachers and Teaching, 8(3), pp. 381–391. doi: 10.1080/135406002100000512

Kennedy, M. M. (2016) ‘How Does Professional Development Improve Teaching?’, Review of Educational Research. American Educational Research Association, 86(4), pp. 945–980. doi: 10.3102/0034654315626800

Lemov, D. (2013) ‘From “Professional Development" to "Practice”: Getting Better at Getting Better’, pp. 50–65

Papay, J. P. and Kraft, M. A. (2016) ‘The Myth of the Performance Plateau’

Timperley, H. (2008) ‘Teacher professional learning and development’, The International Academy of Education, 1(18), pp. 1–30. doi: 10.1002/hrm

TNTP (2015) ‘The mirage: confronting the hard truth about our quest for teacher development’, The New Teacher Project, p. 68. Available at:

Wiliam, D. (2010) ‘Teacher quality: why it matters, and how to get more of it’. Available at: