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Moving professional development forward

Written by: David Greenshields
3 min read
David Greenshields FCCT, Grace College, UK

Grace College joined the Emmanuel Schools Foundation in April 2019. At adoption in our small multi-academy trust, we inherited a staff team who were keen to improve their practice and to do all that they could to serve the diverse range of students who form our student population. Yet the school did not have a secure, evidence-driven approach to professional development. As leaders, we were confronted with a significant challenge: how do we build a professional development culture that supports our teachers to be the best that they can be so that the school can rapidly improve? 

As the senior leader with responsibility for overseeing this key element of the life of the school, I was committed to ensuring that evidence-based practice drove both the pedagogy of our classrooms and the development culture of our staff team. I had been fortunate that, in my own career, I had already had the opportunity to engage with evidence-based practice through Evidence Based Education’s Assessment Lead Programme, and this had inspired in me a desire to explore and understand how educational research could inform the classrooms of our school. However, this did create a pitfall, where, in my enthusiasm to communicate a vision for what our classrooms could be like, I didn’t carefully consider how I could create a ‘rhythm of follow-up, consolidation and support activities’ (Cordingley et al., 2015, p. 13). As a leader, I had to learn and recognise that ‘teachers engage in professional development activities whilst balancing multiple and, at times, competing commitments and time pressures’ (Collin and Smith, 2021, p. 4).

The periods of lockdown allowed the space for me and my team to step back and reflect on the successes that we had achieved together in the first year working with our teaching team, and to consider how we could move forward. Our first Teaching and Learning Handbook, grounded in the principles explored in the ‘Great teaching toolkit evidence review’ (Coe et al., 2020), Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion 2.0 (2014) and Rosenshine’s ‘Principles of instruction’ (2012), presented our teaching staff body with eight strands within their practice and the highly effective habits for each of these strands. The Handbook provided a common language of teaching and learning and a shared sense of purpose as we moved into our classrooms. However, it did not bring about a consistent and rapid transformation in the progress that our students made through the curriculum. 

Why not? Firstly, while we had invested considerable time and energy in a language of pedagogy, we had not afforded our subject specialists the same time and space to discuss, debate and explore their curriculum. We had a great conversation about our classrooms but needed to exercise ‘leadership wisdom’ (Tomsett and Uttley, 2020, p. 22) and to give our teachers space to participate in the ‘great conversations of humankind’ (Ashbee, 2021, p. 20) that their subjects afford.

Secondly, we tried to do too much. Teaching staff were being asked to think about too many elements of their practice in too many formats, and so did not have the ‘crystal clarity’ (Myatt, 2020, p. 19) required to focus either on the fundamental mission and vision of our school or on their own professional development. 

To address these two challenges, we have prioritised collaborative curriculum planning within subject teams across our working week, ensuring that all teachers, including part-time staff, can attend their department’s meeting each week. Alongside this, we have revised our approach to professional development, heeding the advice of the Education Endowment Foundation’s guidance report (Collin and Smith, 2021) to carefully consider the mechanisms that we are using to support teachers to be even better. Our Teaching and Learning Handbook has been refined from eight strands to three core strands, each with four principles. All teaching staff continue to participate in collaborative curriculum planning each week and receive instructional coaching in two six-week blocks across the academic year, as well as participating in weekly 15-minute deliberate practice clinics while their tutor groups attend assembly. In making these structural changes, we hope that we will provide our teaching staff with a ‘safety net’ (Myatt, 2022, p. 31) that will catch them when they make mistakes and with opportunities for professional dialogue about how to continually improve.

Ruth Ashbee describes how ‘curriculum work is never finished’ (2021, p. 20). I would argue that what is true of the curriculum that we intend to deliver to our students is also true of our approach to teacher development. The past three years have demonstrated to me the truth that applying evidence to our practice context is critical, and that what may be thriving elsewhere might not work in my context. Nevertheless, I remain committed to the view that if we ‘put teacher learning first… students will make even better progress’ (Tomsett and Uttley, 2020, p. 52).

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