Enhancing educational equity with CPD

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Martin Cole delves into the imperative for school leaders to champion the development and professional learning of teachers. Cole’s insightful exploration revolves around bridging the skills gap, fostering consistency in expertise, and ultimately nurturing educational equity among students. Drawing from a comprehensive case study, he pinpoints five pivotal themes that school leaders must consider to pave the way for success

CREDIT: This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on Belmas

Over the past eleven years, my work with professionals from different schools has revealed a stark reality: some teachers are significantly more effective than others. This raises the question: how should school leaders positively reduce this expertise gap to promote educational equity for the children within their care?

Unfortunately, studies repeatedly show significant variation in children’s learning experiences both within and between schools, emphasising the critical role of professional learning in addressing the issue (Atwal, 2019) and here lies a problem: professional learning in education is inconsistent. For example, an early career teacher (ECT) that joins a struggling setting may inherit ineffective practice and become frustrated by it. On the other hand, successful leadership of professional learning can empower and shape teachers into passionate, expert professionals, acting as a positive change vehicle for consistency in teacher expertise supporting educational equity (Weston and Clay, 2018).

The variation in professional learning quality can be attributed to multifaceted factors like teacher motivation and school culture (Hargreaves and Rolls, 2020). Leaders must embrace the complexity, harnessing their opportunity to make a difference through professional learning. In recognition of this, I conducted case study research to explore the features of effective professional learning that can address this expertise gap.

Five key themes for success

Professional learning that enables teacher collaboration

This theme coincides with a wealth of research encouraging active, collaborative professional learning which takes place in real time during lessons as opposed to in isolated workshops (O’Leary, 2020; Weston and Clay, 2018; Garvey 2017). Whilst simple, deliberately transferring learning from formal workshops into lessons is often overlooked by leaders, resulting in professional learning garnering limited impact on classrooms. School leaders should structure formal workshops and teacher observation opportunities in a way that coincide, promoting classroom collaboration through activities such as peer observation and team teaching.

Sustaining professional learning cycles

Teachers also felt professional learning cycles often ended too quickly, limiting their impact. Many initiatives can resemble a firework: starting with a bang, captivating in the short term, before rapidly fading away with no impact on lasting memory. The rationale for this is rooted in the multiple priorities schools have, leading to a tendency for the focus of professional learning to change frequently, reducing the likelihood of tangible classroom impact (Hargreaves and Rolls 2020).

Balancing autonomy and expertise

At interview, teachers discussed professional learning experiences whereby excessive autonomy caused frustration whilst acknowledging that too little autonomy was likely to hinder engagement (Pink, 2018). The goldilocks analogy is relevant here: leaders need to find the ‘just right’ balance dependent on the expertise and self-efficacy of teachers, with the effective utilisation of autonomy able to ignite motivation to enhance professional learning impact.

Understand the needs and views of teachers

To achieve this, simply put, trusted and close working relationships between leaders and teachers are essential (O’Leary, 2020). Once formed, leaders can understand teachers’ needs, expertise and motivators and use this to make quality decisions about professional learning including the focus and time required for it.

Research-informed professional learning

Contrary to my personal expectations, the data analysis found teachers not to hold research in such high regard, showing it as the least impactful option of those provided. The findings showed time-poor teachers did not necessarily have capacity to engage with certain types of research. Resultantly, leaders should carefully select timely and accessible research to inform but not dictate actions within the professional learning process, with teachers given agency to tailor ideas to their classroom setting (Vare et al, 2021).

 Whilst no panacea for effective professional learning is apparent, the proposed five interdependent themes provide a starting point to improve professional learning in practice. School leaders should consider the way in which each theme can be applied in their setting. With empowering professional learning that makes teachers excited about their own growth, consistent expertise and educational equity for all students can be achieved.

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