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A strong culture of professionalism: the key ingredient of high-performing systems

The most important lesson from high-performing systems: foster a strong culture of professionalism.

by Michael Pain.  October 2013.

Much emphasis is placed on how international systems such as Finland recruit trainee teachers from amongst their very best graduates. The bar for teaching training is set high, entry salaries are higher than average, and therefore, we are told, professional status is enhanced and secured. Important as this is, it is not a silver bullet – as many of our best school leaders recognise.

Recruiting high quality graduates (and in that I include not only those with strong academic credentials, but also a commitment to improving children’s lives and a passion for teaching) is, in my view, only the beginning of the road to sustained improvement and success. Another essential ingredient for both short and long term improvement in any system is the development of a strong culture of professionalism at all stage of a teacher’s and school leader’s career – namely through a culture of continuous improvement and professional development. Teaching and school leadership is complex and technical, and therefore, the engagement of high performing teachers and leaders in fostering and sustaining such a culture is key. The best schools and systems take this seriously. In Finland, as in some other countries, it is freedom and professional autonomy, linked to a strong and shared sense of purpose, that underpins success here.

So what does freedom and professional autonomy in this context actually mean? In short, it is the freedom for teachers and leaders to act as professionals, to be empowered to seek opportunities for both self and collective development and improvement through the refinement of practice, innovation, and the undertaking of research and development, whilst at the same time – of course – being accountable for meeting clear and agreed standards. It is by putting development and improvement at the heart of day to day practice that we create the mutually reinforcing senses of personal growth and motivation in individuals, and as a result, achieve a strong sense of professionalism – including a self-affirmed commitment to the processes that bring these senses about in the first place. The notion of this journey is captured so eloquently and superbly by William Ayers in his book, To Teach:

“Teaching is not something one learns to do, once and for all, and then practises, problem free, for a lifetime, anymore than one knows how to have friends, and follows a static set of directions called ‘friendships’, through each encounter. Teaching depends on growth and development and is practised in dynamic situations that are never twice the same. Wonderful teachers young and old, will tell of fascinating insights, new understandings, unique encounters with youngsters, the intellectual puzzle and the ethical dilemmas that provide a daily challenge. Teachers, above all, must stay alive to this.”

Tapping into the power of professional learning and growth as a motivator has the potential to not only raise the bar, but to reduce the variability in the standards of teaching and leadership we experience in our system today. This is a core challenge for many of our schools and school leaders. As Dylan William stated recently, the most advocated strategy for addressing variability – removing poor performing teachers – is hard and often expensive to do. He advocates a ‘love the one you’re with’ strategy in which leaders focus on enhancing professionalism through professional development for these teachers, stating that for most teachers, the rate of improvement drops off after two to three years of  practice. Many would benefit greatly from enhanced opportunities to continuously develop those improvement practices that are supported by strong evidence.

The truth is that the best systems and best schools are already very clear about this. A culture of continuous professional development – led by teachers and leaders themselves – is universally endorsed and encouraged. The issues for many arise not in understanding what is needed here but how it is achieved. So much lip service is given to terms such as ‘collaboration’ and ‘autonomy’ that it is difficult for practitioners to be clear on how these elements can be channelled to foster and sustain a culture of high quality professional development and improvement.

The schools and systems that succeed in developing a high performing, highly motivated, profession, invest time and resource in promoting understanding of, and embedding, a culture of impactful professional development. Much has been written on this, with the clear conclusions that professional development should become the lifeblood of the system/school, connecting development to practice through frequent mentoring, observation, joint practice development and school-based research. Doing this well and with impact requires whole scale commitment and excellent co-ordination both within and across schools. Therefore leaders must ensure that the vision, policies, processes and the cultures of organisations are all aligned to supporting the delivery of, and engagement with, impactful continuous professional development. This will ensure CPD avoids the pitfall of simply becoming a superficial aspect of a system’s or school’s work. Teachers will welcome this.

For example, in Hong Kong, the vision for school improvement is wholly centred on improving teaching and learning. As a result it is well understood that all policies and practices should be devised in terms of the impact they will have on classroom practice. A clear vision provides professionals with clarity and confidence to channel their efforts and resources – including their CPD priorities – on the pursuit of a particular objective, namely the core purpose of the school. It enables professionals to analyse evidence, direct resources, innovate and measure impact in a focused way, whilst providing the necessary space and confidence for professional creativity. Crucially, the vision is not developed in isolation but with the profession. In Hong Kong, a meaningful and ongoing consultation was, and still is, being had between the senior civil servants, school leaders and teachers at all levels on the direction of travel, ensuring system-wide ownership of and engagement with the vision. The Hong Kong implementation plan is still going strong 13 years after its inception.

In Shanghai, a commitment to profession-led research and development is underpinned by a culture that prizes academic endeavour alongside the day to day work, with schools setting aside time for research activity within staff timetables, and a strong expectation that practitioners should publish their research. A teacher must have published articles endorsed by senior academics in order to attain ‘advanced teacher’ status. The benefits this provides, not only in terms of generating knowledge and wider understanding around best practice, but also in securing the status of the profession, cannot be underestimated.

Here in England, many schools are creating advanced approaches to delivery of CPD – refining established and engrained processes in order to reinforce the positive role of professional development. For example, some are using highly intelligent systems to align CPD closely with the performance objectives and development needs of teachers, ensuring staff see its value not only for meeting their objectives (essential), but in linking their objectives to the process of professional growth (highly desirable). The alignment of data capture and peer-review with CPD delivery is another closely related opportunity to engage teachers and leaders in meaningful and productive conversation about their strengths and weaknesses either as individuals or as institutions.

Increasingly, the choices teachers make about which school they teach at will be in large part driven by whether or not a culture of professional development exists within those institutions. They will seek the institution that provides them with the greatest opportunities and credence as a professional. Generation Y (those born in the 1980’s and early 90’s) in particular, are a group, by virtue of their education and high levels of technological interaction, that are active seekers of feedback. They will continue to expect it from the institutions they work for as they progress through their careers.

Michael Fullan states that teachers are positive and motivated when their purposes are clear, focused and achievable and belong to them. He also states that they work best when empowered and where they benefit from strong professional relationships. A culture of professionalism depends on all these things. A working culture defined by opportunities for continuous development and improvement, delivered by teachers and leaders collectively in a systematic, intelligent and accountable way, will not only enable us to achieve higher professional motivation and fulfilment, but most importantly, even higher professional standards to the benefit of children and young people.

Michael Pain is a consultant, researcher, and communications expert in the education sector.

October 11, 2013