Let’s commit to teachers and give them the professional development they deserve
Teaching is a multifaceted and highly complex profession that deserves both our respect and quality learning opportunities.
October 03, 2019 by Mary Burns, Education Development Center and Christabel Pinto, Room to Read|
CREDIT: Room to Read

October 5 is World Teachers Day.

On World Teachers Day, the international education community pauses to take stock of the importance of teachers, their needs and challenges, and their role in a productive and tolerant world. Governments, donors, and teacher educators collectively highlight the importance of recruiting, preparing, supporting, rewarding and retaining teachers.

Teaching is one of the most complex professions on earth. We mean “complexity” in its most literal sense—a profession that is difficult to do well, composed of multiple tasks and responsibilities. Consider for a moment the roles teachers assume, both sequentially and simultaneously:

  • A teacher is a manager. He/she simultaneously manages a group of children, time, and materials while catering to the needs of multiple stakeholders. 
  • A teacher is a designer—planning and organizing content around learning targets, assessing the extent to which those targets are met and flexibly adjusting instruction as needed. 
  • A teacher needs to be a compelling communicator with both children and adults, orally and in writing. 
  • Oftentimes, a teacher is a therapist as he/she supports the healthy development of children’s social and emotional learning alongside their academic growth.
  • A teacher is a facilitator of learning—helping students uncover an unknown fact, a new idea, a sense of wonder about the world.
  • And obviously a teacher is an educator. Teachers are content experts in a particular domain (or set of domains). They understand a body of knowledge and they know how to enact certain content-related instructional approaches—pedagogy—to help students acquire the most important concepts of a domain.

We can argue about how well teachers do the above or how well they are prepared, supported and remunerated to carry out the above tasks, particularly in the world’s poorest countries. But we cannot disagree with the multi-faceted and highly complex endeavor that is teaching.


Improving the quality of teacher professional development

The fact that teaching is a serious profession is not given much weight—even by those of us who work with teachers. Within the international education community, there is often a tacit belief that anyone can help teachers teach. This perception hurts the teaching profession; it damages the work we are trying to do as a community; and it is insulting to teachers.

On World Teachers Day, those of us in the international education community might do teachers no better service than to reflect on our own work with them—do we consistently give teachers the professional respect and quality learning opportunities they deserve?  We could then focus on the professional development we do and think about how we might do it better.

  1. Develop standards for high-quality teacher professional development

    Standards—for professional development and professional development providers—are the foundation of any professional learning system. As a community, we need to establish a set of quality professional development standards to which donors and those receiving donor funding adhere.

    Standards commit us to quality practice; they hold us accountable for professional learning based on excellence, not expedience; and they signal to teachers the kind of professional development they can expect to receive.

  2. Ensure the professional qualifications of teacher educators

    If the most important school-related factor in a child’s learning is the quality of his or her teacher, it stands to reason that an important factor in successful teacher learning is the quality of the professional development provider.

    At the very least, those “teaching” or “coaching” teachers must have substantial experience as teachers and coaches themselves. Like the teachers they teach, teacher educators need deep understanding of content, the skills to use reform-oriented strategies, actual experience teaching children or adolescents, and knowledge of how children and adolescents learn. Additionally, they should understand principles of adult learning and have the sensibilities to nurture and celebrate the iterative process of learning that all teachers go through.

    Organizations that provide professional development to teachers must above all draw on educators with a strong background in teaching. Where this is not possible, organizations have a professional duty to prepare staff to be effective and supportive teacher educators. For example, aspiring teacher educators could work under the supervision of a master teacher who assesses their teaching practice and decides on their fitness as a teacher educator.

  3. 3. Focus on “reform-based” types of professional development
    Donor-funded teacher professional development often embodies the most sub-optimal practices in professional learning. It “cascades” learning. It is based on “seat-time”—completion of a certain number of workshop days; it is focused on program implementation requirements versus competency-based learning; it is episodic, and it typically involves one professional learning format—the workshop. 
    This must change.  Professional development should model for teachers the kinds of learning experiences they are expected to facilitate in their own classrooms. It should help teachers demonstrate a set of evidence-based competencies. 
    And it should provide teachers with the time, support, and professional learning formats (coaching, professional learning communities, mentoring, clinical supervision) so they can integrate professional learning with applied practice and develop a wide repertoire of teaching strategies to meet the needs of diverse groups of learners (Darling-Hammond, et al., 2019).

    True respect lies in actions, not just words 

    Teaching is not simply a technocratic profession. Teaching has a profoundly civic and moral dimension; teachers change the world by leading the complex charge of nurturing and educating the world’s citizens. 

    As Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan note, “Good teachers love, care, serve and empower.” As an international education community, in our own work with teachers, we should strive to do the same.

    Darling-Hammond, L., Oakes, J., Wojcikiewicz, S., Hyler, M., Guha, R., Podolsky, A., Kini, T., Cook-Harvey, C., Jackson Mercer, C., Harrell, A. (2019).  Preparing teachers for deeper learning. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute
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I'm pleased to discover that you've been beating this particular drum since at least 2013 on this GPE blog. Can you provide hopeful evidence that it has begun to influence practice? From my vantage point within the orbit of a particular bilateral donor, programs continue as complicit as ever in the sub-optimal forms of teacher training that you describe here, including reliance on system actors who are manifestly unprepared (and often unmotivated) to play the crucial role of ongoing teacher mentoring. Then as a community we simply resign ourselves to "temper expectations" for the impact of scale-up on learner level outcomes. For over 25 years scholars such as Fullan have helped clarify what is required of teacher professional development systems in order for them to bring reform-based improvement and change in well resourced (northern) contexts. Why would one expect to get away with less in contexts where the challenges and inertia are even greater?

Thank you, Daniel, for your agreement with our core message. In the years that I have been in the international education sector, I have not noticed significant shifts in people’s attitudes toward teaching and teacher professional development. In early grade literacy programming, with which I’m quite familiar, expediency and limiting definitions of “success” consistently influence practice and result in sub-optimal education programs for teachers and children. I have, however, found others in the sector who beat the same drum--which now includes you--and that makes me hopeful. The more voices there are on this topic, the better. Change happens when more and more people drive that change forward and advocate for it with a collective voice. You joining the drum circle by adding your voice on the issue makes a difference, and we hope that you will continue to beat this particular drum wherever you go. Mary and I certainly do!

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