Teachers can only improve themselves. But how?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the process of teacher improvement – naturally enough, given that this is my full-time job these days.  Increasingly I think that we need to be very clear to understand the process as a very individual one and less of a general one.  Essentially teachers are only going to improve if they themselves are seeking to do so, on terms they understand, accept and commit to, with a sense of purpose that they largely drive themselves.  (Not so long ago I’d have written that as ‘we are only going to improve if we ourselves are seeking to do so… but I no longer have a class!)

More and more, I think we need to understand the factors that influence teachers’ capacity to answer these questions and then attend to various motivational factors that underpin the improvement process:


How effective am I right now?

How does a teacher know this?  It seems pretty obvious that it is teachers themselves that need to know and understand this about themselves.  Self-evaluation is critical.  However, teachers  – some more than others – need external feedback at times.  This might come from an analysis of student outcomes.  It might be from a source of feedback they trust – a colleague, a peer, a manager whose opinions are listened to.  It might be from harder-edged Quality Assurance feedback, but my contention is that this can’t be relied on as it is not always likely to be accepted.  A teacher’s beliefs about their own effectiveness are critical; influencing someone to change those beliefs is a subtle process if they don’t see it for themselves.  A long list of feedback is unlikely to be the way to go.

What might it look like to be more effective? 

Implicit in the dialogue about improvement is that there is a set of ideas that define what will constitute being ‘more effective’. Where do these ideas come from?  Teachers can generate them themselves looking at assessment information – diagnosing and devising ways of securing better outcomes.  They can observe and learn from each other.  However, it’s likely that the wealth of research evidence will (or should) play a role, entering a teacher’s consciousness, forming part of their ‘evidence-informed wisdom’.  This is where well-designed CPD and well-written teaching frameworks (like Rosenshine’s principles or the Making Every Lesson Count diagram) play a role.

What possible ways could I improve personally? 

Here’s where I feel this process often falls down.  Teachers are individuals where as research findings, teaching books and CPD inputs are usually about other people – often miles and decades away in other contexts.  The core of this process is for a teacher to work out – with any help they need – to identify how they themselves can improve.  Some teachers need more help with this than others, related to the issues around self awareness.  We can all be deluded about our capabilities! Or excessively filled with doubt.  Comparing Me Now with Me Future ought to lead to a set of contender  areas for improvement.  Curriculum knowledge?  Questioning?  Classroom management?  Subtle pedagogical flow around specific knowledge elements?  Feedback and formative assessment strategies?   There’s a long list… from which teachers have to select a narrow range of the best bets in order to have any hope of succeeding.

What do I intend to do to improve? 

Finally, the realities of life need to be factored in.  Teachers won’t and don’t improve unless they sustain some level of focus on their areas of improvement for a decent length of time, changing their habits and routines and gaining some fluency.  How, in all reality is this going to happen.  What’s the motivation?  Of course this motivation could be from an aggressive accountability process: Change or Else!!  But, more healthily for all concerned, it will come from within; a sense of professional purpose and drive that is supported by a range of motivational factors.  School cultures will play a huge role here  – that sense of common purpose, alignment with an ethos, some collaborative professionalism.  But they won’t be the only things at play, person to person. Triads, teacher learning communities, disciplined enquiry processes can all support this process,   allowing individuals to offer mutual support and gain strength from being part of wider process.

And then we go around again.  We try things, we see how we’re doing, we look for other ways to improve, work out what is realistic and keep going.   School leaders and CPD folk  like me need to have this firmly in mind as we run our sessions, write out check lists, pump out our generic guidance, celebrate yet more research… etc etc etc.   Maybe there’s already enough to work on.

I’m thinking aloud here… more to come.

Related Posts:

How self-aware are you? (Be the fly on your classroom wall…)


Be A Better B!

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  1. This is such an important area. I have tried running a project for teachers to use “deliberate practice” on just one area for a year…it had some effect on some teachers, certainly. We also use weekly staff-led tips, like many schools do, and these have also led to some teachers changing their practice (not the same as improving, I know, but it can be!). I’ve also tried “Class Visits”, which are not observations, but are “friendly”, and include questionnaires for teachers as well as students. The teacher questionnaires have elicited quality feedback from staff, and I think nearly every time I have been able to address a concern, which has helped that teacher “move on” a little. I’ve also been able to offer a “tip” to the teacher in a friendly, non-evaluative, non-appraisal way, and teachers seem to accept that in the spirit in which it has been meant. But such an important area, and I’d be interested to read more of your thinking on this – perhaps the most important area of school development! Best wishes, Michael

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