Improving professional development: 5 changes teachers want to see

Teachers view professional development as providing opportunities to address problems and create solutions directly related to their classrooms. This blog presents 5 ideas from teachers on how to improve continuous professional development.

April 22, 2024 by Mary Burns, Escola Superior de Educação de Paula Frassinetti, and Bianca Buse, Universidade Federal do Paraná, Brazil
6 minutes read
Teacher reading a book to students in Mojokerto, Indonesia. Credit: Akhmad Dody/World Bank
Teacher reading a book to students in Mojokerto, Indonesia.
Credit: Akhmad Dody/World Bank

All quotes in this post are from teacher interviews with Mary Burns (90 teachers from 21 countries). They are purposely not attributed to protect teacher privacy.

Do teachers value professional development? Or do they see it as a waste of their time? Do they believe it helps them become more competent professionals? Do they perceive its value as negligible? Does it have positive impacts on student learning or is it often irrelevant and too highly theoretical to have any perceived utility?

The answer to all of these questions is yes.

Teacher views about professional development are complex and nuanced. Many are frustrated by a lack of professional development opportunities. Many others regard the teacher professional development (TPD) in which they participate as too sporadic or superficial to be effective.

Even teachers who experience a good deal of professional development often regard its quality and utility as marginal at best.

Yet despite the variation in frequency and perceptions of uneven quality, teachers generally recognize the value of TPD, know what effective TPD is and want more—not less—of it.

When it’s done well, teachers view professional development as providing opportunities to address problems and create solutions directly related to their classrooms. And they have ideas on how to improve continuous professional development that should not be ignored.

This blog shares 5 teacher insights on improving professional development. It draws on Mary’s interviews with 90 teachers in 21 countries, initially as part of the Global Education Monitoring Report, and Bianca’s research on teacher communities of practice in Brazil.

1. Teacher professional development must be collaborative

"We learn best from each other."
"What I appreciate about our school is the collective efficacy. We figure things out and teach each other instead of waiting for our district office to help us. When they come it’s more theoretical."

For the teachers interviewed, TPD succeeds when it’s rooted in their professional reality, at their place of practice, and capitalizes on their knowledge and experiences. Critical to this is collaboration, as highlighted by the teacher quotes above.

Collaboration not only fosters innovation and reciprocal learning, it also boosts teacher self-efficacy and collective efficacy, and iteratively drives improvement in teaching practice.

Collaborative TPD focused on the daily issues teachers face at their schools has been lauded as the “most effective professional learning [because] it empow(ers) teachers” to plan, assess, evaluate, reflect, innovate and reflect (p. 7).

Teacher explaining astronomy at Kirambo Teacher Training Center in Burera district, in rural Rwanda. Credit: GPE/Alexandra Humme
Teacher explaining astronomy at Kirambo Teacher Training Center in Burera district, in rural Rwanda.
GPE/Alexandra Humme

2. Do professional development with teachers—not to them

"People make decisions for us without ever visiting our classrooms."
"They think we don’t know what we need."

In most aspects of life, customers or clients choose a service or product based on how well that product fits their needs and expectations. But in government and donor-funded teacher professional development, the customers (here, teachers) have no say in choosing their service or product provider. It’s all decided for them.

Teachers possess singular insights into their professional development needs. They want to be involved in decision-making processes concerning the planning, execution and evaluation of professional development initiatives that impact them. Doing so can serve as a corrective measure to many of the omissions in current large-scale professional development practices.

Including teacher voices in the process can ensure alignment of professional development offerings with teachers' actual needs, prioritize practical, relevant activities over theoretical learning and focus on tangible improvements in teaching and learning.

3. Provide variety in professional development

"[Teacher professional development] was always in-person until [the COVID-19 pandemic]. In-person was good. What you learn from other teachers is often more beneficial than from the presenter. I’ve gone on a few online in-services and there’s one or two interesting things, but because you don’t have people there and no one wants to speak online, there isn’t [the] engagement you have from face-to-face in-service."

Teachers crave diverse professional development opportunities ranging from short workshops to long-term courses, formal recognition for self-directed learning, open lessons and peer observations to watch their colleagues in action, and access to online learning as part of a blended learning approach.

The professional development teachers want most—and that they receive least—is integrated seamlessly into their daily routines ‘in [their] place of practice’ and includes observing their colleagues implementing similar innovations in the same context, with the same resources and students as theirs.

What teachers want least—and what they often receive most—is a monotonous cycle of professional development: workshops of short duration focused on skills development or knowledge acquisition. This is especially the case within donor-funded education programs.

This uniform approach toward professional learning, often propelled by the cascade approach or ‘training of trainers, is a poor vehicle to help teachers apply, adapt and refine new knowledge.

Research underscores the detrimental cycle of the cascade’s diminishing returns—its prioritization of quantity over quality, lack of sustained support and its propagation of subpar instruction throughout the successive tiers of the cascade.

4. Ensure professional development providers are qualified

"There’s no point in having (someone who knows nothing) instructing (someone who knows nothing). [TPD providers] need expertise in subject and how to teach it. They need to know how children learn."
"They send people whom they call “experts.” But they are not experts in what we need. We need real experts who understand how to address the problems we face."

Teachers highly value learning from subject matter experts but report frustration with what they perceive as a lack of expertise among many professional development providers, including school inspectors and education office staff.

This discontent particularly arises from the prevalence of providers who lack direct teaching experience, a concern amplified by the common practice in donor-funded education projects of deploying implementing agency staff with limited teaching backgrounds for professional development delivery.

Teachers recognize that being deemed an "expert" often originates not from profound professional knowledge but from an implementing agency's success in securing a project bid. This dissatisfaction is not without merit.

Research corroborates these concerns about professional development providers, shedding light on the unclear processes involved in selecting and preparing providers for teacher professional development.

For the majority of teachers interviewed, the most credible source of professional development is another teacher.

5. Provide ongoing support

"Get rid of standard [teacher professional development] and keep the coaches."
"Coaching has been online, text-based and face-to-face. Which do I prefer? Well... a computer or phone never is going to substitute for a live human being."

Continuous supportive follow-up is a critical element of teacher professional development. Support may take various forms, such as external or peer coaching, supervisory support or mentoring.

Most critical for teachers is that it genuinely focus on improvement versus accountability and evaluation, and that it’s organizational in nature to significantly enhance transfer of learning to teachers’ classrooms.

Research corroborates these wishes, noting that follow-up support significantly enhances the impact of TPD on learning. Indeed, without logistical, conceptual, technical and instructional support, teachers tend to revert to traditional teaching methods, abandoning new innovations.


Teacher professional development is often the defining element of government-funded education programs. Research shows that students benefit academically when they have teachers who participate in sustained, high-quality TPD.

But as interviews and research synthesized here underscore, teacher professional development must be ”teacher-centered” to be high-quality. It must involve teachers in its design and implementation, tailor content to teacher needs, offer diverse approaches such as modeling, experimentation and support, and be rooted in collaborative learning with peers facing similar challenges.

Aligning teacher professional development with such an approach can meaningfully enhance teacher effectiveness in the classroom, foster greater satisfaction with professional learning and play a pivotal role in retaining educators within the profession.


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