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Promoting access to quality, safe, and relevant education for all persons affected by crisis

7 Recommendations to improve teacher professional development in fragile contexts

29 November 2016

By Mary Burns, Education Development Center
James Lawrie, Save the Children 
INEE Secretariat

Quality teaching and student learning are tightly interconnected. Together they form two sides of a triangle. The third side of this triangle is often overlooked, but is also integral to teaching quality and student learning—quality instruction and preparation for teachers.

Unfortunately, all too often, the children who could benefit most from quality teaching—children in low-income contexts, in crisis or conflict settings, in remote or remote geographical environments—have little exposure to quality teaching.

And unfortunately, all too often, in these same settings, the teachers who could benefit most from quality professional development (PD) that would equip them with the skills to help more children learn either receive no PD or take part in ineffective professional development.

Where It’s Needed Most: Quality Professional Development for All Teachers, published by the Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE) in 2015, draws on research about effective professional development in fragile contexts.

The guide, and now a just-published condensed executive summary, presents seven major recommendations from both research and experiential best practices to improve teacher professional development in fragile contexts. This post outlines these recommendations.

© Save the Children
An English class under the trees


Recommendation 1: Focus on teachers in low-income and crisis-affected contexts as professionals, learners and individuals

As with any vocation, teachers need to develop strong identities as professionals.  In addition to obvious factors such as recruitment, remuneration, and opportunities for advancement, teacher professionalism is also impacted by access to quality professional development.

It’s hard to feel like a professional when you don’t feel competent, when you get no training or support, when you teach children with severe academic and emotional needs and when you have no idea how to address these needs.

But not simply any PD will do. As the guide notes, teacher professional development must focus on helping teachers employ “high-yield” instructional practices—formative assessment, feedback, clarity in explanations—that have shown direct measurable impacts on student learning (Hattie, 2009). 


Recommendation 2: Develop, apply, measure and institutionalize standards for teacher professional development

We know from research what constitutes effective professional development. Despite this knowledge, within donor-funded humanitarian and development projects, there are no standards defining quality professional development and too few qualified providers.

Without a shared and codified understanding of “quality” professional development, teachers are often subjected to mediocre, and in some cases, malign professional development that doesn’t help them and that in fact wastes their time and donor money.

The INEE guide proposes that the international education community define and establish standards and metrics for “quality” professional development. 

We are aware that many in the education community have been averse to the development and implementation of standards—in part because the challenges and volatility of many fragile contexts may make attainment of standards challenging and in part because of what may be perceived as their excessive rigidity (think non-bendy bananas).

But standards define minimal competencies of providers and benchmark of quality that promise improved inputs and experiences. They need not result in excessive rigidity. Standards— or teacher professional development curriculum—can be customized or contextualized to adapt to local situations.


Recommendation 3: Create professional development opportunities that promote teacher collaboration

The research on teacher collaboration—everywhere—is unequivocal. Collaborating with colleagues—and the culture of trust and knowledge sharing that collaboration produces— has been linked to increased teacher effectiveness, improved student test-score gains (Kraft & Papay, 2014), and teacher willingness to adopt new innovations (Granovetter & Soong, 1983).

But collaboration does not happen ex nihilo—people must have a reason to collaborate, be oriented on how to be a productive team and collaborative groups must, at least at first, be facilitated by a “more knowledgeable other.”

To further promote teacher collaboration, the INEE guide proposes three actions:

1. Design for collaboration, for example by promoting peer-to-peer classroom visits with time for feedback
2. Strengthen peer-to-peer instruction,
3. Promote and nurture effective and active teacher learning communities.


Recommendation 4: Provide teachers with ongoing support

Teacher “support” is not monolithic, but rather a multilayered array of different types of assistance that help teachers successfully transfer learning from a professional development setting to a classroom setting. It can include administrative, instructional, resources, peer support, supervisory support and instructional support from a “more knowledgeable other.”

The research on ongoing teacher support notes that teachers who receive on-the-job support, guidance and feedback from a supervisors or a trained support person apply new skills and strategies more frequently and appropriately and adopt a more diverse range of instructional practices than teachers who do not receive such supports (Showers & Joyce, 1996).

Simple support strategies, such as teacher observation and feedback by a skilled educator, have been shown to positively influence teacher practice and motivation (OECD, 2009).

To address this situation the guide proposes four actions:

1. Develop systems for (real, “high touch”) instructional coaching—not just monitoring or data collection that we misbrand as “coaching”
2. Use appropriate and available technologies to provide ongoing support
3. Shift PD away from workshops to more support-based interventions—modelling, coaching, observations and feedback
4. Strengthen school leadership so that head teachers and directors can provide ongoing support.


Recommendation 5: Invest in high-quality teacher educators

Teacher educators or teacher trainers, in- or pre-service, are often the weakest link in the teacher education ecosystem. Implementing agencies eagerly inventory the shortcomings associated with many teacher training colleges and ministry of Education-run in-service providers.

But implementing agencies deserve their share of blame when it comes to unqualified teacher trainers. As noted in other posts, many implementing agencies entrust professional development in critical areas such as literacy or numeracy to people who have never been teachers —or whose sole experience teaching may be confined to a year in the Peace Corps.

Imagine for a moment a person who has never performed surgery “training” a group of surgeons or someone who’s never flown a plane telling commercial pilots how to do their job. Therein summarizes one of the great weakness in donor-funded teacher professional development (See again Recommendation 2).

Teacher educators need the same skills as teachers—among these are deep content knowledge; different models of instructional strategies and assessment practices; learning and development of children and adults; clinical and supervision skills; the ability to model effective instructional and assessment practices; the ability and disposition to coach and support teachers and hold planned or informal meetings with teachers; and the ability to support teachers through observations, feedback, modeling, workshops, coaching, and/or planned/informal meetings (Cordingley et al., 2007).  

To ensure those who are employed to advance teaching are effective in their work, the guide proposes the following:

1. Recruit professional development providers with extensive teaching experience
2. Strengthen teacher-professional development provider capacity
3. For areas with no teacher educators offer audio/radio instruction, or didactic materials, and draw on skilled community members and other teachers to provide instruction in key areas.


Recommendation 6: Build instructional leadership at all levels of the educational system

School directors are second only to teachers as the most important school-level determinant of student achievement (Leithwood et al. 2004).  They are responsible for the quality of teaching and learning in their schools. Yet too often we see poor instructional school leadership holding back teaching and learning.

Schools in disadvantaged areas benefit tremendously when their lead learners, the head teacher and the school director, ensure that teachers are in their classrooms every day, covering the syllabus at an appropriate pace, instructing students in developmentally appropriate and engaging ways, and attempting to apply to their classes the knowledge and skills gained through professional development activities.  

For this to happen, as the INEE guide notes, the following must happen:

1. Help Ministries of Education establish and implement instructional competencies for head teachers and school directors
2. Promote collaboration among head teachers and among school directors
3. Ensure practical professional development opportunities for head teachers and school directors. 


Recommendation 7: Use Information and Communication technology (ICT) to provide access to content, professional development and professional learning communities

Technology—radio, mobile phones, TV and the Internet—can offer teachers, even in low-resource environments, access to content, to curriculum, colleagues and a variety of learning experiences.

Technology, if part of an overall system focused on instructional improvement, can help reduce costs, increase impact, and offer information/skill development in previously unavailable forms.  

To support the wise application of ICT the guide proposes three priority actions:

1. Offer audio-learning to support teacher development in and with particularly difficult-to reach areas and populations
2. Promote the use of video for teacher self-study and to share models of intended practice
3. Provide teachers with access to teaching and learning resources through open content and help them integrate this content into their instruction.



Poor and ineffective professional development hurts teachers. It hurts their students. It hurts their community and, since quality education is so highly correlated with economic growth, it hurts their nation.

While the above broad recommendations do not address all the intricacies of teacher professional development in fragile contexts, we hope that the INEE guide can jumpstart serious conversations about promoting the quality of  professional development where it’s needed most—in the poorest and most fragile contexts of the globe.

Please consult the INEE guide for all references used in this post.


Mary Burns is the senior learning technologist specialist at Education Development Center. She has worked in five continents as a teacher, instructional coach, evaluator, professional development provider, program designer, curriculum designer, and advisor to schools and national ministries of education in the areas of technology and teacher professional development. Mary has authored over 100 publications, most recently Distance Education for Teacher Training: Modes, Models and Methods and Where It’s Needed Most: Quality Professional Development for All Teachers.  The views expressed in this blog are her own.


James Lawrie, Senior Education Adviser with Save the Children, has 15 years’ experience as a teacher, researcher, policy adviser and programme manager working in numerous conflict, post-conflict and low-income locations. He plays a leading role on Teacher Professional Development in Save the Children, is on the Steering Committee of the International Taskforce on Teachers for Education 2030, and is the co-editor of the INEE guide Where It’s Needed Most: Quality Professional Development for All Teachers.