We demand a lot from our teachers.
We want them to have strong subject and pedagogic content knowledge, possess effective classroom management skills, readily adopt new technologies, and be inclusive and sensitive to the diverse needs of their students.
No longer simply transferring information to learners, teachers are expected to create an environment that is conducive to learning, and to prepare their students for a rapidly changing world. Our demands are high and so are the stakes: the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers and the quality of teaching.
But are our demands reflected in the support teachers receive?
How to make teaching an attractive profession
In their joint World Teachers’ Day message last year, the heads of UNESCO, ILO, UNICEF, UNDP and Education International said:
“Teaching could be an attractive, first-choice profession – if teachers were valued commensurate with the immense value they provide to our children, and if their professional status as educators reflected the enormous impact their profession has on our shared future.”
For this shift to happen, they highlighted the importance of providing teachers with continuous training, appropriate compensation and policies to safeguard and reinforce their status, and ensuring that teachers have a say in decisions that affect their work.
Teachers’ effectiveness, unfortunately, is often linked to their student’s performance, and not to the support in place. High stakes assessments, such as PISA, put great pressure on education policy-makers to learn from top performing countries like Singapore, Finland and China (Shanghai and Hong Kong).
The critical role of continuous professional development for teachers
However, context is important – teachers are highly valued in these countries: in Finland, for example, the profession is so esteemed that those who cannot get a place in teacher education can still become lawyers and doctors.
These countries know that great teachers are not developed overnight. They recognize that “talent can and must be nurtured through high-quality training and continuous learning”.
This is why professional development is critical. Indeed, in a 2016 OECD study, teachers themselves reported that professional development makes a difference in their learning, particularly when they are engaged in school-based learning communities and collaboration.
Professional development: Are teachers satisfied?
A UNESCO Bangkok study on the status and rights of teachers in selected Asian countries found that while sending teachers for short courses was standard practice, most were not practical and did not enhance classroom skills.
Similarly, a study on teachers’ career progression and professional development pointed out that although there are a plethora of models for delivering professional development, the most common types are courses, workshops, conferences and seminars.
Indeed, professional development is more than attending courses, workshops and seminars, important though they may be.
A case study in “Beyond PD: Teacher Professional Learning in High Performing Systems” details a different type of professional development.
At the start of the year, a new teacher in Shanghai is nervous as she prepares to face her class of 45 students for the first time. Her learning curve over her first weeks, months and years will be steep. She is both challenged and supported by two mentors: one provides subject-specific guidance, the other more general pedagogical development. Her classroom teaching is observed on a regular basis and she observes her mentors’ classes so she can learn and work on those aspects of her teaching that are most critical for her students. In between classes, she regularly attends research groups with other teachers to analyse specific research questions to improve teaching and learning in their classrooms. The new teacher quickly learns she must continually develop her teaching expertise. She will be supported through this process but she knows her career will only progress if she develops high-level expertise in her subject area.
Clearly, the scope for teachers’ professional development is broad. It must include all levels of education, from early childhood to higher education, and can take place in formal and non-formal settings.
While school-based learning is optimal, professional learning can also occur outside classrooms and within communities. All stakeholders – government officials, education authorities, school leaders, teachers, parents, students and local communities – can contribute to improve the quality of teaching and learning outcomes.
In search of innovative professional development for teachers
Empowered, professionally qualified and motivated teachers are central to achieving the Sustainable Development Goal 4-Education 2030 Agenda – “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.” To meet society’s high expectations, teachers need and deserve appropriate, relevant and practical training throughout their careers.
Innovative approaches to teachers’ professional development are necessary to make this happen.
The UNESCO Asia-Pacific Regional Bureau for Education in Bangkok and the National Commission of the People’s Republic of China for UNESCO in Beijing established the Wenhui Award to celebrate and encourage innovative educational practices.
The award’s theme changes every year, reflecting education’s extensive scope, with this year’s focus on professional development practices for teachers (more information about this year’s Wenhui Award is available here).
What these winning practices entail will be limited only by the ingenuity of entrants; however, key criteria for innovations include uniqueness and originality, relevance and impact of the innovation, use of resources, potential for replication and sustainability of the innovation.
For example, the Parvarish-Museum School, one of two 2016 award winners, scored high points for mapping museum exhibits to match school curriculum, and enabling teacher trainees to use the museums as training grounds for their practicum.
By spotlighting exemplary teachers’ professional development practices and through continued sharing in our region and globally, we hope to close the gap between the demands we place on teachers and the support we offer them.
Only then can we fully harness teachers’ potential to transform their classrooms and our world.