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Professional development without professional teachers: Why maintaining and protecting teaching professionalism is integral to effective teacher development

Written by: Hannah Fox
7 min read

Continuing professional development (CPD) is a crucial part of any educator’s life in the UK. Understood as practices to develop a teacher’s expertise and professional standards beyond their initial education, with a focus on improving the quality of teaching and learning (DfE, 2016), it is imperative to consider how to action these practices sustainably and effectively. In order to develop, teachers must be permitted to try out new techniques. Affording teachers the trust and autonomy to make educated judgements is innately what makes them professionals (Carr, 2003; Fox, 2020). As a profession is defined as a job requiring ethical considerations, a professional must have the agency to make educated, values-based judgements (Carr, 2003; Fox, 2020). Teachers must be able see themselves as professionals with the autonomy to innovate and make educated judgements, in order for effective CPD to be possible.

The complexities of effective CPD

In order to see long-term, effective teacher development, the DfE (2016) advises that there should be a symbiotic relationship between teachers, school leaders and external providers. When reviewing this guidance, the Teacher Development Trust (TDF, 2016) concluded: ‘Only when all three stakeholders act in concert will the CPD have long-term, positive impacts on students’ learning.’ Furthermore, teacher development and learning are not predictable, and school context must be taken into consideration rather than adopting an approach solely because it is evidence-based (Opfer and Pedder, 2011; Johannesson, 2020).

Teaching teachers is as complex a process as teaching students and should be treated as such; adapting to teacher working conditions and contexts rather than simply providing a range of activities based on external evidence and expecting them to work universally (Opfer and Pedder, 2011; Johannesson, 2020). Worth and Van Den Brande 2020 suggest that teachers having some autonomy in choosing CPD has been shown to be key to developing, motivating and retaining them. Legitimising teacher autonomy and choice, thus moving ‘beyond benchmarked performativity’ (Hayes and Cheng, 2020, p. 493), must be encouraged if an education system wishes to move beyond mediocrity into innovation and true professional development (Hennessy and McNamara, 2013).

The ‘new’ performative teacher and professional development

Under an increasingly performative education system, teacher autonomy and trust are undermined as aims become outcomes-focused, leaving little room for individual professional judgement (Ball, 2012; Fox, 2020). Instead of the innovation that might occur through trying out new methods learned through CPD sessions, performativity is driven to regulate. In turn, this creates a level of standardisation that can only lead to mediocrity at best (Hennessy and McNamara, 2013). Standardisation can lead to a culture of perpetually meeting, and not exceeding, the mark.

Holloway and Brass’s (2018) study of early career teachers established that the neoliberal ‘turn’ over the last three decades towards performative marketisation meant that new teachers saw themselves as producers of data rather than professionals with expertise. This shift in teacher identity is one that replaces the value of process, such as how we teach or learn, with an identity that values output or ‘knowledge production’ (Ball, 2012; Holloway and Brass, 2018); it turns us from professionals into performers. If one’s focus is only on output, then the teacher’s judgement must shift and rely only on a given ‘what works’ rather than developing their understanding of their students, of pedagogy or of their subject in any new or innovative way – clearly these conditions will not move education forward (Ball, 2003; Fox, 2020; Hayes and Cheng, 2020).

The professional teacher and enacting change

Conversely, a professional’s judgements are values-based and ethically considered (Carr, 2003; Sachs, 2016). In practice, this means replacing performative outcomes with holistic aims such as the wellbeing of individual students, and making judgements accordingly (Carr, 2003). Sachs (2003, p. 154) argues that a teacher should be ‘educated and politically astute’, and advocates for an activist teacher identity – a teacher who fights to teach what they believe is right for their students (Sachs, 2016). Teachers adopting this approach, alongside school leaders, could well be one way to create the space for teachers to make some educated professional judgements.

Studies have shown that if external demands, such as the demands of a school, education system and/or government, are performative, then this can affect the identities of those working within those systems (Sachs, 2016; Frostenson and Englund, 2020; Holloway and Brass, 2018). Short of an overhaul of the current UK education system, there are some steps we can take to make the best of our existing system.

Working around the performativity barrier to effective CPD

Performative and professional harmony

Frostenson and Englund (2020, p. 13) argue that it is possible to ‘embrace both performativity as an ideal and professional values of a humanistic kind’ and that these are, in fact, ‘inseparable entities’. This relationship is possible because performative practices are mouldable and can be adapted to allow students a voice in their education. For example, performative practices such as course surveys and evaluations can be moulded to allow students to become effective judges of their education and to participate in their learning; results from such surveys as run by the individual teacher could create an ongoing dialogue with students and help to adapt education to their needs (Frostenson and Englund, 2020). However, the balance between the performative and the professional must be upheld – surveys should be self-imposed by the teacher and the results used for self-development rather than to rank teachers.

If the survey activity were applied to delivered CPD sessions, we would see staff being taught new practices, being trusted to enact them and then feeding back in a survey the perceived level of efficacy without fear of repercussions. Their voice would be listened to and the CPD session or activity in question would be adapted according to the teachers’ collective professional judgements. Thus, CPD would be continually developed along with the teachers’ practices: the performative and professional could work together (Frostenson and Englund, 2020).

Sculpting CPD for individual teachers

Despite studies demonstrating that, in order to be effective, CPD must be adapted to the needs of students and teaching staff (Zuccollo and Fletcher-Wood, 2020), schools ‘rarely assess the type of CPD’ to consider what would be most suitable (Bubb and Earley, 2007, p. 53). Teachers need to be helped to improve in a way that suits them, and CPD should be used to empower rather than be limited to ‘what works’ (Opfer and Pedder, 2011; Johannesson, 2020). It has been argued that studies showing crucial traits of effective CPD, such as teacher buy-in, subject-specific applicability and collaboration, are largely founded on flawed data (Sims and Fletcher-Wood, 2018). We would be better placed to examine the individual circumstances of a given school and teaching cohort, to consider how they learn and what needs developing, and then guide CPD around those findings (Bubb and Earley, 2007; Sims and Fletcher-Wood, 2018).

Research Learning Communities (RLCs)

Lastly, this leads to the symbiotic relationship suggested by the TDF (2016) as being paramount to the creation of effective CPD. School leaders and teachers can form working parties and come together to decide on the education aims that they wish to enact and deliberate on means of achieving these agreed goals. This relationship would encourage trust between teachers and school leaders, thus working towards re-professionalising them in valuing their opinions and providing some level of autonomy over their classroom practices. The EEF (Rose et al., 2018) found that, although outcomes were not substantially increased, RLCs did increase teacher engagement with research, and that this research engagement could fuel improved student outcomes.

In conclusion, we must move beyond focusing solely on ‘benchmarked performativity’ such as student outcomes when it comes to CPD, as this limits us to mediocrity and stifles innovation (Hennessy and McNamara, 2013; Hayes and Cheng, 2020). It can be argued that encouraging teachers to carve out their own professionalism within a performative system is a plausible, effective way to develop their practices.


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