Investing in teachers as we do in athletes
As the world turns its attention to this month’s Winter Olympics and this summer’s World Cup, imagine for a moment that a nation’s internationally competitive athletes were provided with a five-day workshop and then sent on their way. Were we to professionally develop our athletes as we do our teachers, there would be outrage among many. Yet, there is no commensurate level of consternation for the way in which we prepare and instruct teachers, who should be every bit as much of a national asset—or more— as an Olympic or World Cup athlete.
February 19, 2014 by Mary Burns, Education Development Center
13 minutes read

This post begins with a quick quiz.

Above are two photos of two professionals—one a professional teacher and one a professional athlete.

Now read the descriptions of professional development provided below and answer the following question: Does this pertain to the teacher or to the athlete?  

  • One of these professionals receives continuous research-based instruction in best practices associated with his profession.
  • He receives ongoing coaching and support from a trained expert so he can perfect the techniques central to his craft.
  • He and his colleagues observe one another’s practice, offer feedback to one another and discuss how they can all work together better as individuals and as a team
  • Through the use of technology, such as video, he studies models of the type of performance he is supposed to embody and compares those models against video of his own performance (2)

To whom am I referring? We know that the person who receives this ongoing professional development and coaching is not the teacher—it’s the athlete. We know instinctively that professional athletes on a per person basis often receive much more investment in their professional formation than do teachers on a per person basis.  This is true even in nations where governments and donors are promoting educational innovations— such as improved literacy techniques or technology use or interactive instruction.

Successful innovations need “good” teachers who can implement these innovations with quality and fidelity. But many places will never have the good teachers they need unless teachers receive the same investments, instruction and support as do professional athletes.

As the world turns its attention to this month’s Winter Olympics and this summer’s World Cup, imagine for a moment that a nation’s internationally competitive athletes were provided with a five-day workshop and then sent on their way. Were we to professionally develop our athletes as we do our teachers, there would be outrage among many. Yet, there is no commensurate level of consternation for the way in which we prepare and instruct teachers, who should be every bit as much of a national asset—or more— as an Olympic or World Cup athlete.

The teachers we need

There are numerous qualities that characterize good teaching (or a “good” teacher) as I’ve discussed in previous posts (here and here) but five qualities often recur throughout the literature. Essentially, good teachers:

  • really understand their content
  • know how to teach it
  • use a variety of instructional and assessment strategies to target learning for students
  • understand how children learn
  • believe that every child can learn and that they have the skills to help every child learn (Burns, 2011)(3)

Therefore, any professional development in any field—technology, literacy, inclusive learning—should incorporate or address these five areas.

The professional development teachers get…

The content of professional development is important, but so is the type or form. Globally, many teachers receive a good deal of professional development—for example, in some Indian states teachers receive 20 training days per year—quite high by developing-country standards.

But not all of this professional development is equally valued by teachers, as Figure 2 demonstrates. Some of the most common forms of professional development that teachers experience have the weakest impact according to these same teachers (4).

Figure 2: Participation in vs. Impact of Professional Development (OECD: 2009 Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS). N=23,000)

The above chart is largely self-reported data, which has a number of potential validity issues. However, these data are noteworthy in that more research-based “impactful” types of professional development—professional networks, mentoring and peer support and observation and feedback—the same kinds of professional development our athlete receives, are far less common even for OECD-nation teachers (at least as of six years ago). My hunch, based on my own work with teachers, is that if more teachers experienced these types of professional development, their perceived impact would also climb. Workshops break even more or less along the “participation-impact” axis, but while workshops are good for exposing teachers to new ideas or practices, their impact diminishes without ongoing support and coaching. And for many of the world’s teachers, workshops or trainings are professional development, thus they may have no other model of professional development against which to compare the impact of workshops.

The data in Figure 2 come from wealthier OECD countries, but teachers in poorer countries are also well aware of the type  of professional development that are most (and least)optimal in their own professional formation. In 2007, I interviewed 300 teachers in four Indian states about the types of professional development they felt were most beneficial in helping them become good teachers (5). As Figure 3 shows, only 35 % viewed the professional development that they currently received as having an impact on their classroom practice.

Figure 3: Utility of PD Received (Author, 2007. N=300)

…and the professional development they want

In this same study in India, we asked teachers to identify the characteristics of professional development that would most help them improve their teaching.  As Figure 4 shows, the instruction teachers said they wanted matches closely with the professional development our athlete receives. It matches closely with research-proven high-quality professional development (Joyce & Showers, 2002; Fixsen et al. 2005).  And it matches closely with most of the professional development OECD teachers say has the greatest impact—such as seeing the innovations or practices teachers are supposed to implement, study and collaboration with colleagues, and in-class support and coaching. Yet, the Indian teachers whom I interviewed, like so many of their global counterparts, do not participate in these types of professional development. Rather, the professional development that these teachers experience most—workshops and trainings—is the professional development they value least.

Figure 4: Preferred Types of Professional Development (Author: 2007. N=300)

Preparing our teachers as we do our professional athletes

The above data are dated, it may be argued, and professional development is improving for many teachers. Both arguments are true. We see greater efforts at giving teachers ongoing coaching and promoting collaboration with colleagues, especially in wealthy nations. Yet, despite the fact that teaching and sports are craft- and skills-based domains, even wealthy nations have a long way to go before teachers receive the same kind of high-quality instruction and coaching as athletes do. The dominant paradigm of one-off workshops with no follow-up is still common in many of the world’s wealthiest countries— and it is endemic in the world’s poorest countries.

Underlying every innovation is the hope that this innovation will help to create high-achieving students. Indeed, I often hear policymakers and education ministers say they want their students to be the best in the world. But no country can have the world’s best students unless it also has the world’s best teachers. And in this year of the Olympics and World Cup (6) I’d go further: No country can have the world’s best teachers unless those teachers receive the same investment of time, effort, resources and care as do professional athletes.

This post is adapted from the author’s 2012 presentation at the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) in Doha, Qatar.


Burns, M. (2007). Assessing teachers’ professional development needs: Data from four Indian states. Study conducted for the United States Agency for International Development. Bangalore, India: Education Development Center, Inc.

Burns, M. (2011). Distance education for teacher training: Modes, models and methods. Retrieved from

Fixsen, D. L., Naoom, S. F., Blase, K. A. & Friedman, R. F. (2005). Implementation research: A synthesis of the literature. Retrieved from

Joyce, B. & Showers, B. (2002). Student achievement through staff development (3rd ed.)

Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (2008). TALIS 2008 technical report: Teaching and learning international survey. Retrieved from


(1)  The teacher photo is from EDC. The athlete photo is from Wikimedia Commons and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0  license.

(2)  For several years I was on a competitive rowing team in Austin, TX and Boston, MA. I chose these four practices because they were part of the ongoing “development” I received. They are also, not coincidentally, characteristics of effective teacher professional development.

(3)  Pages 129-133 in this guide discuss in greater detail research on good teaching.

(4)  In the original TALIS study, the OECD counts “informal conversations” with teacher colleagues as professional development. I dispute that categorization, although I recognize that informal conversations are partof formal professional development and an important part of informal professional development. Thus, I have removed this category from this chart but it can be found in the OECD’s original dataset.

(5)   Data were gathered via surveys and focus groups conducted by the author. This was a convenience sample and thus the relatively small sample size and sampling method do not allow for generalizability of results.  Nonetheless, teacher responses were highly consistent with similar teacher responses I’ve encountered over the years in a variety of countries. EDC used this information to design professional development that incorporated the design elements teachers said they most wanted. You can read a summary of case study results on the outcomes of that professional development here.

(6)  Go Brazil!

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