Harry Fletcher-Wood, Associate Dean at the Institute for Teaching

Often, we hope for the best as we plan: we plan a holiday on the assumption that the sun will shine, or plan our day so there’s just enough time to do everything. We’re no different when we plan professional development programmes: we design them to work if everything goes well. However, our best-case assumptions don’t always come true: it rains, or the bus is late. When designing professional development, we need plan for reality, not just the ideal situation. We need to plan for a high turnover of staff, and teachers who face competing pressures and need more than just a good training session.

Teacher turnover and changing priorities

High teacher turnover makes it hard for even well-designed professional development to show an impact. If a two-year study starts with one hundred teachers, between those who leave teaching, move schools, or take on other roles, half the participants may drop out during the study. This is a problem for researchers, but it reflects reality in schools: In England, around one in five teachers leave their current school each year.

Even if turnover is low, priorities change. New leaders, new national policies or new local priorities can all undermine existing professional development programmes, even if they were going well.

In the longer-term, effective professional development should increase teachers’ capacity to cope, thrive and stay in their school.

In the shorter-term, teacher educators need to design professional development to achieve a significant impact as rapidly as possible. This may mean sequencing key ideas first, or adopting techniques which deliver rapid, clear results.

Teacher educators may also wish to highlight the relevance of their work to teachers, and emphasise they progress teachers have made.

The school as a system

Professional development is only one influence on teachers. Education systems are complex and resistant to change. Often, good ideas fail because they only affect one part of the system: a change in assessment may require new teacher knowledge, fresh professional development, and different approaches to accountability.

Teacher educators need to try to make professional development coherent. This means aligning what we ask teachers to do through professional development to their existing work and the school’s priorities. It also means ensuring teachers have the support they need to improve: their manager’s understanding, the appropriate resources and the necessary time, for example.


Previous blogs have advocated teacher educators being clear about their goals and how they meet teachers’ needs, and identifying ways to change teachers’ thinking and actions. Our efforts will be incomplete however, unless we prepare pragmatically: preparing for busy schools, teacher turnover, and the wide range of support teachers need to change. Doing so gives our professional development the best chance of success.

If you’re interested in reading about this subject in a bit more detail have a look at the fifth section of my paper, Designing Professional Development for Teachers, Prepare Pragmatically

Find out more…

If you’d like to find out more you can find Harry’s Paper – Designing Professional Development for Teachers – in full here. It’s the basis of these blogs and informs the design of our courses, including our Fellowship in Teacher Education (led by Harry). Find out more about how we’re putting research into action.