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A culture for improvement

Written by: David Weston
6 min read

This is the story of two teachers. Angela and Amber have been teaching for 10 years each. Angela is a 32-year-old primary teacher whose particular specialism has been teaching reading in Years 3 and 4. Amber is a secondary drama teacher, now in her early 50s, who came into teaching after a first career as a lawyer and has taught everything from Year 7 to Year 13, with plenty of stints in other subjects thrown in.

In many ways Angela and Amber have had similar careers. They are both, unusually, still working in the same schools where they trained. They’ve both spent countless hours planning lessons and marking books. They’ve both been on various courses and have sat through lots of twilight INSET sessions. They’ve both been offered middle leadership roles – Angela is head of lower Key Stage 2 while Amber is now second in English.

But the similarity stops there. Since day one of their careers, Angela and Amber have had very different trajectories. The stark difference is this. Angela had a flying start to her career and has been getting better every year; she’s received great support and has felt that she’s been able to get children to progress more every year. While teaching is never easy, she relishes each term for the new challenges and opportunities it brings.

Amber represents a wholly different story. With a tougher start to her career, Amber has struggled to notice any real difference in her teaching since shortly after her NQT year. While she loves her subject and relishes making a difference, she can’t help but reflect sadly on how different things are in her school compared to the supportive workplace practices that she had been accustomed to in her law firm.

Exploring the research

When it comes down to it, Angela and Amber are fictional, but they are examples of the trajectories of two types of teacher featuring in an important study carried out by Matthew Kraft and John Papay (2014), who found that the working environment of teachers has a huge impact on the rates of development. The authors used a decade of teacher survey data from 174 schools in Charlotte-Mecklenburg district in North Carolina, matched against those teachers’ students’ test scores in reading and mathematics. They found six factors that appeared to explain the difference between schools where teachers plateau and schools where teachers keep getting better:

  • Behaviour: the extent to which the school is a safe environment where rules are consistently enforced and school leaders assist teachers in their efforts to maintain an orderly classroom
  • Peer Collaboration: the extent to which teachers are able to collaborate to refine their teaching practices and work together to solve problems in the school
  • Leadership: the extent to which school leaders support teachers and address their concerns about school issues
  • Professional development: the extent to which the school provides sufficient time and resources for professional development and uses them in ways that enhance teaching
  • Culture: the extent to which the school environment is characterised by mutual trust, respect, openness and commitment to student achievement
  • Appraisal: the extent to which teacher evaluation provides meaningful feedback that helps teachers improve their instruction, and is conducted in an objective and consistent manner.

These six factors are supported in other studies from the USA. Johnson et al.’s (2011, p. 2) paper suggested that ‘supportive work environments are ones where teachers collaborate regularly and learn from one another. They are organizations that seem to have replaced the isolation of the traditional egg-crate school with more complex and interdependent working relationships among teachers.’ Previously, Bryk and Schneider (2002, p. 116) found that relational trust between staff was positively correlated with pupil outcomes, noting that ‘Relational trust does not directly affect student learning. Rather, trust fosters a set of organizational conditions, some structural and others social-psychological, that make it more conducive for individuals to initiate and sustain the kinds of activities necessary to affect productivity improvements.’

Elsewhere, in a research review carried out in the UK, Cordingley et al. (2015, p. 4) found that ‘carefully designed/aligned CPDL with a strong focus on pupil outcomes, has a significant impact on student achievement’, while the UK’s Chartered Institute of Professional Development review by Gifford (2016) found that ‘[e]mployees’ reactions to appraisals are especially influential, in particular whether they feel that appraisal judgements are fair and useful’.

Angela’s school has a warm, collaborative culture and a steady supply of relevant professional development opportunities, which seem relevant to her and which are focused on the pupils that she teaches. She has enjoyed supportive, consistent feedback through performance development discussions, which has been delivered with a coaching approach that has empowered her to set and achieve challenging goals for herself. This has all allowed Angela to learn from colleagues and has given her plenty of opportunity to get support, as well as chances to try out ideas in a supportive environment.

Amber, on the other hand, works in an environment where meetings are mainly about administrative issues and where INSET seems to be more about senior leadership delivering one-off sessions on their own priorities, with little relevance to teachers. Teaching and learning policies are all about generic practices and Amber rarely has opportunities to work out how to adapt and apply them to the content and skills that she’s teaching. Performance management is an annual process that is forgotten for most of the year, with a relentless focus on headline data and demonstrating progress.

Another factor that emerges from more recent studies such as Blazar (2015) is that a supportive environment for teachers minimises the year-on-year changes to the types of subject and year group to which teachers are allocated, ensuring a stability that allows teachers to accumulate experience that helps them to improve. Angela’s relative consistency in her career in Key Stage 2 has ensured that she can gradually improve her practice year on year, reusing and refining previous lesson plans and deepening her knowledge of the curriculum each time. On the other hand, Amber’s constant change in classes and role has left her hampered in her ability to draw lessons from one year to the next.


The overarching finding is that the right environment for staff should be a priority, led with as much care and attention as creating the right classroom environment for pupils. Collaboration, trust and stability, with a rich supply of relevant, timely continuing professional development and supportive feedback, should be the norm for every school. With pressures on recruitment and retention reaching dangerous levels, this is surely an area that deserves much greater focus from school leaders, system leaders and governors alike.

Key actions for school leaders:

  • Prioritise the learning environment and curriculum for teachers just as much as you would the environment and curriculum for pupils, investing in the resourcing and leadership of teaching and learning and professional development as a key school improvement tactic
  • Involve teachers in setting their own performance management goals and focus the process on improvement and development more than judgement and monitoring
  • Increase the relevance and impact of professional development sessions by helping participants to identify specific topics in which they want to improve teaching, specific groups of pupils that will be targeted for this impact, and approaches to formative assessment that they can use in order to monitor and respond to the impact of these efforts.


Blazar D (2015) Grade assignments and the teacher pipeline: A low-cost lever to improve student achievement? Educational Researcher 44(1): 213–227.

Bryk AS and Schneider BL (2002) Trust in Schools: A Core Resource for Improvement. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Cordingley P, Higgins S, Greany T et al. (2015) Developing Great Teaching: Lessons from the international reviews into effective professional development. Teacher Development Trust. Available at: (accessed 10 January 2019).

Gifford J (2016) Could do better? Assessing what works in performance management. London: Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. Available at: (accessed 1 August 2017).

Kraft MA and Papay JP (2014) Can professional environments in schools promote teacher development? Explaining heterogeneity in returns to teaching experience. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 36(4): 476–500. DOI: 10.3102/0162373713519496.

Moore Johnson S, Kraft MA and Papay JP (2012) How context matters in high-need schools: The effects of teachers’ working conditions on their professional satisfaction and their students’ achievement. Teachers College Record 114(10): 1–39.

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      Author(s): Bill Lucas