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, Escola Superior de Educação de Paula Frassinetti, and Christabel Pinto, Room to Read
4 minutes read
Credit: 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. 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? 

In reply to by Daniel H Lavan

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!

In reply to by Daniel H Lavan

Hi Daniel,

Thank you for reading our blog post and taking the time to comment.

To answer your question: Since I started intensively in this field, in 2006, I have seen greater awareness about poor teacher professional and the recognition that we as a community need to improve teacher professional development. In 2007, our coaching program in Indonesia was such an anomaly that I had to explain to USAID what coaching was exactly. In 2013, when I started blogging for GPE there were few coaching programs; now they are sprouting like mushrooms after rain in TPD programs across the globe and USAID and MCC push for them in their RFAs. I will also say that people often write me and talk to me at CIES to say thanks for pointing out what most of us know deep in our hearts—that we need to do better. So, yes, I have seen a lot of change in this regard. 

Practice-wise, no, generally I still see, and often end up doing myself, poor professional development and coaching, probably for several reasons:

1. These are genuinely complex and difficult environments in which we work and change takes decades and generations (not 2 years or 5 years), especially in areas of deep poverty and conflict, post- and peri-conflict.  

2. To another of Fullan’s points: A system is only as good as the people in it. US  donors generally do not do system reform. They do projects. And we often try or are pushed into trying to create quality outputs with mediocre inputs (as this blog post notes)

3. The international education community has lots of economists and people with degrees in international education but (perhaps I am wrong) few real educators who deeply understand how human beings learn; the nexus between professional development, teacher learning and student learning; and the change process itself. The result is the faulty economic production-function model that drives Results Frameworks and indeed all our work—that one input equals one output. Teachers as widgets. (If we’re going to follow an economic model, at least we could turn to the behavioral economists who show the fallacy of these classical economic models!)

4. We have a business and political model that drives international education development, as I note here (https://tinyurl.com/yy5up52y), and I believe the result is often that we do harm. 

5. We will only get better if donors make us get better (I now work with one). I see no evidence of this happening. And most folks won’t criticize something that affects their paycheck.

I think the larger international climate shows how crucial it is to always speak out when we see something wrong. Thank you for doing that. 


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