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Rethinking CPD: How coaching as a means of professional development can support staff wellbeing

Written by: Claire Pass
10 min read
Claire Pass, Co-Founder And Director, Dragonfly: Impact Education, UK

The focus in recent years on improving student wellbeing has subsequently led to increasing attention being given to teacher wellbeing, particularly regarding its significance to pupil wellbeing, pupil attainment, teacher effectiveness and teacher retention. The consideration of the practical implications of teacher wellbeing, while important, carries the danger of reducing teachers to the status of ‘technical practitioners’ (Thoilliez, 2019) – which I will argue constructs them as somewhat two-dimensional beings merely serving a function within the educational machine – and arguably neglects what I will term the ‘human factors’ outlined by Cherkowski and Walker (2018) that provide the foundation for the interpersonal relationships that are so important to learning and professional development (Cherkowski, 2018). Literature from the field of positive leadership and positive education cites professional growth as a protective factor in teacher wellbeing, and there is an evidence base illustrating the positive impact that continued learning has on mental health and wellbeing. Eudaimonic wellbeing, also referred to as flourishing, is linked to purpose and meaning rather than simply pleasure and happiness. It is from the standpoint of the significance of eudaimonic wellbeing for staff that this article will offer a perspective on coaching as a model of CPD that could support staff wellbeing.

Wellbeing and learning

The evidence base connecting learning and wellbeing (Foresight, 2008) has been accepted by the NHS, who, along with leading mental health charities, cite continued learning as recommended guidance for maintaining good mental health. It could therefore be argued that continued professional learning and development (CPD) has a potentially significant role in supporting teacher wellbeing, and these things are explicitly linked in the DfE’s implementation guidance for the standard for teachers’ professional development (2016): ‘Effective professional development should be seen as a key driver not only of staff development, but also of recruitment, retention, wellbeing, and school improvement.’ (pp. 3–4) Not only does this connect CPD and wellbeing, but it also makes clear the links to school improvement: quality teaching, a stable staff, student achievement and wellbeing are inextricably linked. The notion of flourishing – or eudaimonic wellbeing – can be experienced as a continuum and is impacted by many factors, but according to Cherkowski (2018), relationships are central to all work and learning in flourishing schools.

Purpose vs production

According to Thoilliez (2019), education faces a threat of becoming a system of production, with students’ results the commodity being produced. The consequence of this is, according to Thoilliez, ‘naïve and optimistic discourses on “efficient teaching”’ (p. 559), with the teacher being reduced to no more than a ‘technical practitioner’ following a sequence of required actions to achieve the desired product; her view is that teachers are becoming increasingly alienated from the meaning, or purpose, of their work, and their practices become merely a variable within the ‘great production function of the education system’ (p. 559).

In their 2019 wellbeing survey, Ofsted utilised a framework that included health, security, relationships with others at work, the working environment and purpose in their definition of workplace wellbeing. The sense of purpose that comes with teaching was identified as one of the protective factors for staff wellbeing, with ‘a belief that teaching is worthwhile and that it positively impacts on pupils’/students’ learning, development and chances in life’ (Ofsted, 2019, p. 13), offsetting some of the challenges faced. This is what Thoilliez (2019) discusses as a moral commitment – a sense of purpose that moves staff beyond the role of ‘technical practitioners’ and allows them to achieve eudaimonic happiness – which incorporates elements such as autonomy, relatedness, competence, mastery of environment and personal growth (Proctor and Tweed, 2016).

Technical practice and eudaimonic wellbeing

For CPD to be successful, it needs to take into account not only the technical practices but also the process of learning and the needs of individual teachers (Cordingley et al., 2007) or, in terms of eudaimonic wellbeing, allow for autonomy, relatedness, competence, mastery of environment and personal growth. This poses a challenge for the model of CPD that sees staff gathered for blanket input (or, as Cordingley et al. put it, the ‘one size fits no-one’ approach), which is why coaching has emerged as an alternative model of professional development (Kraft et al., 2018). The professional development standards introduced by the DfE (2016) have also prompted schools to adopt coaching models of CPD, as coaching should be ‘individualised, time intensive, sustained over the course of a semester or year, context specific, and focused on discrete skills’ (Kraft et al., 2018, p. 4). The individualised nature of coaching not only allows for autonomy, but also allows for the fact that novices and experts learn in different ways (Fletcher-Wood, 2018), and the emphasis on the individual is important in supporting wellbeing as it is more likely that CPD will be motivating and energising ‘if individuals feel their needs (and wants) are being catered for’ (Bubb and Earley, 2013).

Coaching as an umbrella term covers a range of different disciplines with varying approaches. Instructional coaching, as developed by Jim Knight, is a model popular in education (Knight and van Nieuwerburgh, 2012) and differs from personal development coaching; it is more akin to the performance coaching seen in sport and, in this sense, sits between coaching and mentoring on the spectrum of coaching models. This type of coaching has been recognised as both effective and good value for money in terms of CPD (Bubb and Earley, 2013); it is also flexible in that it can be applied both on inset days (for example, watching video footage of lessons narrated by a coach, followed by professional discussion and collaboration) and when school is in session, through the use of cover supervisors and PPE time (Bubb and Earley, 2013). In addition to operating as a whole-school model for CPD, it also allows staff to potentially focus on their own areas of passion or interest as areas for professional growth, and to identify a staff member to approach as a coach – requesting to observe them, collaborate with them for planning and receive feedback from them to hone practice in their chosen area.

As Kraft et al. note, no one set of features defines all coaching models, and it ‘has a frustratingly wide range of definitions’ (Fletcher-Wood, 2018, p. 13), but there are commonalities that run through the different models: it must be an ongoing, cyclical process of observation and feedback – essentially, a sustained professional dialogue to enhance teaching and most effective when combined with other training to improve content knowledge and pedagogical knowledge. It is the ongoing professional dialogue that places the coaching relationship at the heart of professional development.

The human factors

Professional learning can be a key way to build the supportive and trusting relationships so vital to wellbeing and collaborative school cultures (Boeskens et al., 2020). Flourishing and eudaimonic wellbeing are often terms used synonymously; in flourishing schools, educators make the time and the space to collaborate in meaningful ways and, through this collaboration, teachers develop their sense of confidence and self-efficacy (Cherkowski, 2018; Boeskens et al., 2020). The process of learning, seeking feedback and reflecting, which is at the heart of the coaching process, contributes to eudaimonic wellbeing, as teachers feel ‘safe enough with each other to talk about their teaching, to teach together, and to try out new practices and strategies’ (Cherkowski, 2018, p. 68), thereby placing relationships at the centre of professional development.

However, in many schools, the structures need to be developed to enable this collaborative learning, and ‘teachers are still working in relative isolation from each other with limited opportunities for collaboration’ (Boeskens et al., 2020, p. 7). In addition to this, when professional learning is tied to accountability measures, such as appraisal targets, it can stifle the very learning that the school may wish to promote because having the same person as both coach and evaluator undermines the trust necessary for genuine openness, reflection and giving and receiving meaningful feedback (Kraft et al., 2018). Essentially, teachers need to have the psychological safety to be able to adopt a growth mindset if they are to fully and productively engage with CPD; these conditions will be created by policies, on both a national and school level, that shape the school culture (Boeskens et al., 2020) and therefore shape the relationships within a school context. It is through these trusting, collaborative relationships that teachers become willing to be vulnerable and open themselves to critique (Cordingley, 2007), and it is through this, in turn, that the elements of eudaimonic wellbeing – autonomy, relatedness, competence, mastery of environment and personal growth – are fostered.

Improving instructional practice improves achievement, and coaching improves instructional practice (Kraft et al., 2018) – so it is easy to see the appeal of this model to schools. However, does the isolated focus on discrete elements of practice reduce teachers to Thoilliez’s ‘technical practitioners’ (2019)? Biesta (2015) describes how the technological view of the education machine relies on the notion of there being ‘inputs, mediating variables and outcomes’ (p. 16), which means closing down possibilities for interpretation and regulating thinking, interactions and meaning into predictable patterns. While this could arguably have benefits for making educational practices and processes work in consistent ways (with the aim of reducing in-school variation in attainment and achievement), it does remove elements of relatedness and autonomy important to eudaimonic wellbeing. Relatedness to other staff, the students and the environment provides the context that shapes the meaning of the practice of teaching; therefore ‘practising education can never be done without judgement’ (Biesta, 2015, p. 19). Ultimately, interactions (the building blocks of relationships) are the mechanisms through which practices and processes work in the classroom; therefore there will always be a nuanced unpredictability that requires more than a ‘technical practitioner’.

The answer to the previous question of whether the focus on isolated elements of instructional practice reduces staff to ‘technical practitioners’ therefore lies in the implementation of the coaching model by the school. If school leadership imposes elements of practice to focus on in coaching, it undermines these foundational principles of the coaching process, reduces teacher autonomy and will likely prove counterproductive, as ‘the teacher also needs to be invested in the coaching process for it to make a difference to instructional practice’ (Kraft et al., 2018). As discussed earlier, experts and novices learn differently and staff respond best when their individual needs are being met, so a blanket prescription of criteria for development is unlikely to support genuine engagement and professional learning. When tied to accountability measures such as appraisal processes linked to pay, this can also undermine the relationships central to the process.

At its heart, coaching places responsibility for improvement with the individual: the individual member of staff must therefore agree with the change that needs to be made and must be reflective about their own practice. The process for achieving this will look different in each context, but elements such as presenting information and reading on ‘what works’, allowing staff themselves to identify areas on which to focus their deliberate practice, and using inset days and directed time through the year to observe video footage of lessons, discuss with colleagues and collaborate are all potential means of fully engaging staff in the process. Remembering that eudaimonic wellbeing incorporates elements of autonomy, relatedness, competence, mastery of environment and personal growth, coaching – when its fundamental principles are maintained – appears to be a model that will not only meet the DfE standard for professional development but will also support staff wellbeing.


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