No Experience Necessary?
Why is so much teacher professional development conducted by people who have never been teachers?
April 30, 2014 by Mary Burns, Education Development Center
12 minutes read
Credit: GPE/Stephan Bachenheimer

Why is so much teacher professional development conducted by people who have never been teachers?

We know that quality professional development is linked to increased student learning (Borko, 2004).  We know, too, that trained and effective teacher educators are linked to improved teacher instruction and positive student learning (Sawka et al. 2002; Mink & Fraser, 2002).  And we know that preparation and training of teacher educators—both at the pre-and in-service levels—has been so neglected in so many places that even when teachers receive extensive professional development, they often show no improvement in teaching quality (UNESCO, 2013).

Despite knowing all of this, within teacher education projects in developing countries, we seem to pay little or no attention to the quality of the professional development teachers receive or to the quality of professional development providers. As UNESCO (2013) notes:

 “The key role that teacher educators play in shaping teachers’ skills is often the most neglected aspect of teacher preparation systems, particularly in developing countries. Many teacher educators seldom set foot in local schools to learn about the challenges prospective teachers face. They do not have to pass an assessment showing mastery of basic skills or have any sort of clinical teaching experience or apprenticeship.”  (p. 27)

Experience: The teacher of all things

As the UNESCO report notes, this is obviously an issue at the pre-service level. Many teacher educators (exact percentages are hard to ascertain) have had no practical teaching experience or even formal training in teacher education.  Not surprisingly, so much of the instruction they provide pre-service teachers is overly theoretical, and of little utility when a teacher graduates and walks into her first classroom of 50, 100 or 300 children.

But, as the UNESCO report also suggests, and many of us know, the quality of professional development for practicing teachers is a less-discussed but equally problematic issue at the in-service level. And here, international consulting and educational development organizations may be most guilty of neglecting the capacities of their own teacher educators.

Often, those who work as international “trainers” have no (or minimal) teaching experience; no formal training or education themselves as teacher educators; no teaching experience in the environment from which the teachers they are instructing come; and often little to no familiarity with the culture, conditions, and language of the country in which they are now conducting professional development (The last two conditions have certainly applied to me in many cases) (1).

Further, in many organizations, those who do deliver professional development are often junior staff, who though less expensive than senior staff, also have less experience working with teachers and students. They also have less of a professional repertoire of knowledge from which to draw. 

In short, as my colleague Deborah Haines notes, “Some become pedagogues, with responsibility for the development of teachers for a nation and its people, yet may have limited pedagogical understanding, skill and experience”

Professional development is a process, not an event

This is not to suggest that young people, or people who have never taught, cannot run a great workshop or lead a worthwhile presentation. But “professional development” is not simply a workshop or training.  It is “a body of systematic activities … within school settings” (OECD, 2008: 19) designed to help teachers improve the core activities of teaching—pedagogical content knowledge, instruction, assessment, communication and classroom management.

It is far easier to do a great presentation or demonstration of some new innovation; it is much harder to coach, counsel, model, assess and support teachers on an ongoing basis to implement and refine that innovation—particularly if one has never had to implement the particular innovation with different groups of students.

Similarly, not every experienced teacher makes a great teacher educator. But I’d argue that teaching experience is necessary to be an effective teacher educator.  The first-hand, lived, empathic knowledge that comes from having been a teacher lends veracity and authenticity to professional development and is critical to understanding and addressing teacher needs and perspectives and the realities of schools and classrooms.

Without such lived experience, professional development often remains an abstract endeavor failing to truly understand the day-in, day-out practice of teaching. Without such lived experience, the empathic knowledge of what teachers do and experience and how to tailor professional development to address these realities is lost.  

Without such lived experience, teacher educators cannot successfully connect the cognition, reflection and empathy that together form what Shulman (2004) calls the “wisdom of practice.” And without such experience, many teacher educators and professional development providers will continue the unfortunately common practice of blaming teachers for failing to implement professional development that is neither useful nor relevant.

A common core of knowledge and skills for teacher educators

So, what knowledge and skills do effective teacher educators need?

First, like the teachers they teach, teacher educators must understand the central concepts of a particular discipline, how such ideas are connected and learned (Borko, 2004) and how these concepts can be communicated, instructed and assessed.

Second, teacher educators need preparation in how to provide ongoing professional development—not simply workshops that demonstrate some new idea, but sustained, ongoing, school-based interventions—like lesson study, coaching, observation and assessment—that really can help change teacher practice and beliefs.

Third, teacher educators need actual classroom practice. By drawing from educators with a background in teaching and by preparing them well to be strong and supportive teacher educators, countries can build capacity in such a way that they shift from expatriate consultants to national expertise.

But because so many existing teacher educators lack classroom experience, it is important that these educators work with teachers to actually develop real classroom experience. One model is to have potential providers of professional development serve as an apprentice under the supervision of a skilled master teacher. Then, based on assessments of teaching practice, the apprentice can advance to the role of teacher educator. Donors and international educational organizations won’t implement this kind of quality control for teacher educators—so governments will have to.

Prior classroom teaching experience and better preparation and training are inextricably linked and connect strongly to the fourth skill so critical to teacher education—modeling, that is, actually demonstrating intended practices.

Because teaching is a craft-based profession, with actual classroom experience, teacher educators can ground practice in theory and model exemplary instruction, assessment, communication and behavioral practices. In short, they can effectively model what teaching is and what a teacher is.  

The wisdom of practice

Effective teacher professional development is a complex endeavor. It is experiential in that it involves immersion in the routines of teaching, assessing, planning, communicating, and managing learning in limited-resource environments. It is collaborative in that it entails a sustained and intensive partnership between teachers and teacher educators to deepen a teacher’s practice and skills. It builds confidence and capacity among practitioners and elicits these via modeling, coaching, problem-solving, and scaffolding (Burns & Haines, in press).

Effective professional development requires teacher educators who can successfully enact all of these components of professional development. It requires teacher educators and professional development providers who (like the teachers they instruct) have been carefully recruited, trained and supported. Above all, effective professional development demands teacher educators who possess the wisdom about teachers and teaching that can only come from actual classroom practice.


  1. Implicitly, the above deals with face-to-face instruction. I’d argue the situation is even more dire in online environments where we know little about the skills of online teacher instructors or the quality of online instruction for teachers. In addition, we have "little empirical information to guide the preparation and professional development of teachers in virtual settings" (Huerta et al. 2014: 17) and limited understanding of what constitutes quality in online teacher education or teacher quality in online/virtual schools.


Borko, H. (2004). Professional development and teacher learning: Mapping the terrain. Educational Researcher (33) 3: 3-15. DOI: 10.3102/0013189X033008003

Burns, M. & Haines, D. (In press). Improving the quality and skills of teacher educators. Teacher professional development in fragile contexts: A guide for policymakers and practitioners. New York, NY: Interagency Network for Education in Emergencies

Huerta, L., King Rice, J. & Rankin Shafer, S. (2014, March). Virtual schools in the US 2014: Politics, performance, and research evidence. Retrieved from

Mink D.V. & Fraser B.J. (2002). Evaluation of a K-5 mathematics program which integrates children’s literature: classroom environment, achievement and attitudes. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association. New Orleans, LA, USA: April 1–5.

OECD. (2008). TALIS 2008 technical report: Teaching and learning international survey from

Sawka, K.D., McCurdy, B.L. & Manella, M.C. (2002). Strengthening emotional support services:  An empirically based model for training teachers of students with behavior disorders. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 10, 223-232

Shulman, L.S. (2004). The wisdom of practice: Essays on teaching, learning, and learning to teach. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

UNESCO (2013). Teaching and learning: Achieving quality for all. Retrieved from

Post a comment or
Quality teaching

Latest blogs


I have always believed that your credibility with classroom teachers in a P.D. environment, depends on your experience. I now have a consultancy that engages in P.D. I was in the classroom for 30 years beforehand. You must be able to show that as a trainer or coach, you have done what your P.D. students have done.

Dear colleagues,
After many years of research in Project Based Learning as defined by UNESCO chair of Aalborg, the question remains as you said, still not fully and properly tackled, the very notions you are talking about here, such as ' being a reflexive teacher' require deep thinking.
I feel that the more education is remote in essence from family life, the less successful it is. The bridge home/school has not been fully thought about, no more than the question of 'copying-and-pasting' a methodological model from one country and imposing it on another. In the case of PBL largely advocated by UNESCO even if not always labelled as such, it could even be perceived as the antisynthesis of what education ought to be, aligned with the culture values and traditions in which it is implemented. The universality in methodology might be a mistake.*

The principles behind PBL are complex, yet it is the only model I know that can be easily adapted to different cultures because it is constructed on a philosophy more 'humane' and close to children/students and deals with real life problems. But to teach teachers how to use PBL is a long road.
If you are interested in the research I did on what PBL brings in terms of critical thinking, cognitive competencies and my opinion on the competences teachers must have to deliver it, please feel free to ask me.
Thank you for your post,

Thanks, Sheila and Catherine, for your comments.

Mary, congratulations and thanks. You hit the nail squarely on the head one more time.

I would argue further that one of the most important things you miss in interacting with teachers when you have not taught before is just how darned hard teaching really is. So, as you suggest, it is not just a matter ot conveying "proven" instructional techniques but in getting each individual teacher to understand AND ADAPT these techniques to the unique circumstances of her or his individual classroom. These circumstances are unique due to a variety of parameters, defined broadly by the many assets (and deficits) that characterize each teacher, the school, the classroom, the community and the students.

And bravo also for reminding us that pd is not a simple matter of events (what I have referred to as a "check-list" approach to training) but of a long, I'd evensay unending, process that each teacher must undertake to improve her or his (or ideally, their) practice, capitalizing on a combination of formal pd inputs, informal guidance, independent research, experimentation and reflection. I've been working a lot on this under the guise of education communities of practice, bringing teachers together to combine their experience and expertise with outside inputs to turn good ideas into good practice.

Related, and finally, it is really only when you yourself have been in a classroom as a teacher that you appreciate fully (your reference to "empathy") the many assets that teachers bring to education and understand the influence, whether positive or negative, of other factors on their ability to convert these into successful teaching and student learning. Summoning the title of a keynote address I once made, we need to see teachers as the solution, not the problem in quality education. Thanks for bringing this important issue to the discussion.

Hi Joshua,

Sorry to not have responded earlier. Thanks so much for another great observation. I think your comment that we know only appreciate how hard teaching is if we've done it is particularly resonant.

On a related (but somewhat tangential) note, I've been spending the last two months working in a school district in Massachusetts designing their technology plan. It affords me wonderful opportunities to interact with teachers and students and be in classes on a regular basis. I'm in awe of these teachers' skills. They are like conductors of an orchestra-- every student plays a different "instrument" but the teacher ensures they play in harmony. As experts often do with their craft, these teachers make it look so easy. So we are often misled in thinking it looks easy because it is easy versus the reality which is that it looks easy because they have worked so hard, and have so much support, to make it so.

Part of the tech plan is a professional development piece and these teachers are very firm about what they want and need. They want PD from other teachers because of issues dealing with empathy, veracity and credibility. They don't want workshops (as one said, "Everyone knows they don't work") but long-term sustained, classroom based support. I’m struck again, as I have been, not just in the US, but in India and Indonesia and Pakistan, that teachers know what they need and know who they need it from. It is so important to ask.


Hi Mary,

Just wondering if it''s possible to get hold of this: Burns, M. & Haines, D. (In press). Improving the quality and skills of teacher educators. Teacher professional development in fragile contexts: A guide for policymakers and practitioners. New York, NY: Interagency Network for Education in Emergencies and if so, how? I've checked the INEE website but can't seem to find it. What kind of publication is it and will it be available for the public any time soon?! Because it sounds excellent and JUST what I need right now!


In reply to by Aoife

Hi Aoife,

The guide is forthcoming--my reference was incorrect ( I write these posts quickly and sometimes the sloppiness shows, alas :( ) Co-edited by me and James Lawrie of Save the Children. Feel free to contact me at and we can chat.


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. All fields are required.

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Plain text

  • Global and entity tokens are replaced with their values. Browse available tokens.
  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.