by Sarah Plews, Senior Leader for Professional Development and Learning  CLIP – Oporto International School and member of the Faria PD Team

The most important activity that leaders can undertake to make the biggest impact on student outcomes is supporting teacher development (Dr. Viviane Robinson. Student-Centered Leadership, 2011). However, to quote ASCD author Fred Ende, ‘there is a sad truth in the field about what “good PD” is.’ He comments that PD can be viewed by educators, ‘as a distraction from the real work of the classroom, as something to get through instead of an opportunity to engage, learn, and grow as professionals’ (2016).

What guides impactful continuing professional development?

Continuing professional development is about having a vision to inspire grassroots improvement in teaching. It’s about building a sustainable, effective and equitable professional development for learning ecosystem for building educator capacity. It’s about developing structures and approaches that motivate and empower educators to want to build their expertise and refine their pedagogical practice and competencies.

It’s about supporting and trusting educator expertise. It’s about valuing and celebrating people and their commitment to learn. Ultimately, it’s about designing a meaningful and manageable continuing professional development system that has a strong impact on improving student learning outcomes and raising student achievement.

What approaches are effective?

Leaders need to create the conditions and support educators to be able to use their expertise to make evidence-based and goal-focused choices about their professional learning pathway; to align their individual professional aspirations with professional practice standards, student learning outcomes and a school’s vision and mission.

The summary research paper on Effective Teacher Professional Development (Learning Policy Institute, 2017), which I’ve outlined in brief in the table below, highlights effective professional learning approaches that support and give ownership for meaningful teacher professional learning.

What school structures can support the implementation of these approaches?

There is no magic recipe. However, being a research-informed and evidence-based leader with careful application to context is everything. Taking advantage of technology platforms, such as Blue Sky Education, can assist schools give educators ownership of their training and professional development pathways. It is our thinking, actions and reflections that enable us to tailor opportunities and create the conditions to build quality learning experiences that meet the needs of educators and students.

The summary research paper, Developing Great Teaching: Lessons from the international reviews into effective professional development (Teacher Development Trust 2015) highlights the need for a dynamic interacting mix of activities for educators to access. We know a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work. Outlined below are, I believe, some core elements of an effective continuing professional development school ecosystem that can add-value to improving student learning outcomes and transfer research into meaningful professional learning practice.

Longer term measures

Observation Frameworks: Frameworks can provide a platform to support quality assurance and foster professional conversations that highlight strengths of educator practice and areas for development. These can provide a formative springboard for an educator’s individual professional development and goal setting. What makes great teaching? Review of underpinning research by the Sutton Trust, examines different frameworks.

Built-in Time: School cultures can support or hinder the impact of professional learning. Built-in high frequency opportunities are key for supporting impactful professional learning. Many schools disaggregate in-service beginning/end of year training weeks in favour of dedicated training and development days interspersed throughout an academic year.

Structures for Peer Learning:  Formative non-judging learning opportunities, such as coaching, co-teaching and/or mentoring, where practice and performance is shared with focused formative and constructive feedback, reflection time and follow up, can positively impact teacher development and instruction. Training, time and expertise are core elements at play.

External Quality PD Access: Educator access to external curriculum-focused workshop facilitators can support professional learning tailored to meet identified needs. Evidence and educator expertise can determine the most appropriate PD provider and most effective approach for applying to practice.

Partnerships for learning: Aligned to school priorities, building curriculum content and pedagogy focused partnerships for learning, as part of local and global professional learning networks, can add valuable expert input to school systems.

Distributed PD Leads: Developing leadership capacity at all levels is likely to result in a greater impact on student learning (Harris, 2013). Subject-specific leadership developed across a school can support the delivery of tailored and responsive professional learning to colleagues based on expertise.

Professional Learning Communities: PLCs, with trained facilitators, can provide a powerful route for practitioner inquiry.  Educators can meet regularly over the course of an academic year, dig into student learning data, inquire into their own practice, and collaborate with colleagues who share common learning needs about improving student learning. PLCs are a platform for challenging, discussing, experimenting, and testing strategies which can be directly implemented in practice in classrooms.

Shorter term wins

In addition to the longer term (and harder) wins, there are simpler structures that can add value to an educator’s professional learning experience.

PD Library: To facilitate educator access to up-to-date research and literature, a visible professional learning library is a value-added must. It can be enriched when educators have routes to contribute suggestions and share learning opportunities, inclusive of digital platforms recommendations, such as twitter handles and blog writers.

PD Actions: Simpler structures can add tailored professional learning opportunities and quick wins, such as PD speed dating, mini teachmeets, pupil shadowing, appreciative inquiry, lesson study, collaborative action research, learning not judging observations, videos to live lessons to name but a few. PD Festivals and events such as, Gallery Walks, can elevate and celebrate professional learning.

Co-construction is essential for school improvement and sustainability. We have to understand what works and doesn’t work in order to make our contextualized professional leaning system and pathways responsive, flexible and tailored enough to be truly meaningful and impactful.

A continuing professional development system becomes meaningful when a grassroots and multi-layered dynamic mix is implemented and impacts direct practice. It is invigorated when leaders take actions to promote and value teacher development. It requires investment, commitment and dedication by school leaders and teachers to continually think, act and reflect.

Key readings:

Coe, R., Aloisi, C., Higgins, S., Major, L. E., What makes great teaching? Review of the underpinning research (2014) Sutton Trust

Cordingley, P., Higgins, S., Greany, T., Buckler, N., Coles-Jordan, D., Crisp, B., Saunders, L., Coe, R. Developing Great Teaching: Lessons from the international reviews into effective professional development. Teacher Development Trust. (2015)

Darling-Hammond, L., Hyler, M. E., Gardner, M. Effective Teacher Professional Development. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute. (2017)

Ende, F., Professional Development that Sticks (2016) How do I create meaningful learning experiences for educators. (2016) ASCD.

Harris, A., Distributed Leadership Matters (2013) Contributing Author:


FariaPD supports teachers and leaders around the world with hands-on, active and creative professional development experiences. Join one of our online or in-person professional development events, each designed to support the unique goals of your school or district. FariaPD is part of Faria Education Group, an international education company that provides services and systems for schools around the world including ManageBac, a curriculum-first learning platform, OpenApply, an online admissions service, and Atlas, a tailored curriculum management solution for schools.


Sarah Plews has over two decades of experience in the UK, Europe and Asia, in both business and education sectors. An experienced instructional coach, senior leader and teacher, she currently heads up the PK-12 Professional Development for Learning at The Oporto International School, Portugal. She is also a member of the Faria PD Team.

Driving cultures for coaching and collaborative professionalism, she has worked with schools, universities and adult educational institutions to lead and support change for strategic improvement. She is a speaker at international conferences, CIS, ECIS, AIE amongst others, and regularly facilitates training on leadership, curriculum, pedagogy and professional development.

Graduated with an MA from The University of Edinburgh and Post Graduate Certificate in Education from The University of Newcastle, she is certified in International Educational Senior Leadership and Management and as a Council of International Schools Accreditation Evaluator.