Who should ‘own’ teacher professional development?

Katrina McChesney, Curtin University

On 1 July, the NZ Minister of Education announced that the responsibility for teacher professional development (PD) would move from the Ministry of Education to the Education Council of New Zealand.

This announcement may well receive mixed responses: while some may see it as a step in the right direction, others may see it as too little, too late, or as simply a shifting of responsibility from one bureaucracy to another. There are also questions around how the Education Council, which is much smaller than the Ministry and lacks regional offices and staff, will manage this new responsibility.

In this blog post, I consider who should ‘own’ teacher PD based on the findings of my doctoral research. I argue that, as much as possible, we should seek to return responsibility and autonomy over PD to teachers themselves.

What I researched

I started my research while living and working in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. My job at the time centred on teacher professional development, so I was interested in examining the factors that contributed to the effectiveness of teacher PD in the Abu Dhabi context – what made PD ‘work’ (or not) for improving teaching and learning?

Now, you might think, “What does PD in Abu Dhabi have to do with PD in New Zealand?” Well, one of the Abu Dhabi government’s education reform strategies has been to recruit large numbers of Western teachers to teach core subjects in Abu Dhabi public schools; therefore, my study involved almost 400 teachers from a range of Arab and Western countries. This meant that, despite being geographically located in Abu Dhabi, my research allowed me to examine what worked for teachers from a wide range of cultural backgrounds – including New Zealanders.

What I found

The existing research base led me to expect that the biggest influence on the effectiveness of teacher PD would be the design of PD opportunities. The literature recommended that teacher PD:

  • Be subject-specific
  • Involve teachers in active learning experiences
  • Be coherent with teachers’ personal beliefs and goals, with school-level aims and efforts, and with system-wide policies and strategies
  • Be of substantial duration and sustained over time (rather than ‘one shot workshops’)
  • Involve teachers participating alongside the colleagues they worked with on a daily basis

However, my results indicated that, while these factors did make a positive difference to the outcomes of teacher PD, they weren’t as important as expected. Other factors emerged as being at least as important as design – if not more important.

Of these factors, I think three are relevant for considering who should ‘own’ teacher PD in Aotearoa NZ:

  • Teachers access to professional development – Despite the best policy intentions for comprehensive professional development provision, the teachers in my study reported that, in reality, their access to professional development was affected by school-based factors such as timetabling, school demographics, and the year levels or subjects that they taught.
  • The contextual fit of professional development – As in any context, the teachers in my study reported that their schools, and the students within them, varied greatly. Professional development that was planned and led by ‘outsiders’ tended to be irrelevant or inapplicable for the unique contexts in which teachers worked.
  • Teacher agency – Across all the cultural groups involved in my study, teachers consistently indicated that they wanted to be respected as professionals and ‘have a say’ in their professional learning. Teachers also exercised their professional agency and autonomy by filtering and critiquing the PD that they did receive, deciding whether to take on board any new ideas and approaches. In this way, while the education system could mandate professional development participation, teachers remained the gatekeepers or moderators of their own professional practices and beliefs.

What it means for teacher PD in Aotearoa NZ

I believe that these themes are equally important for PD in Aotearoa NZ.

  • In terms of access, we all know that there is often a difference between what policies specify and what actually happens ‘on the ground’ (and this is not only the case for teacher PD!).
  • In terms of fit, I’m sure that we can all think of PD that we have experienced ourselves that was irrelevant or unsuitable for our particular teaching context.
  • And in terms of agency, as teachers in Aotearoa NZ we are part of both a nation and a profession who believe in ourselves and want our mana and rangatiratanga to be respected. Whether it is on the rugby field, on the sailing course, in the lecture theatre or in the classroom, we all believe we have inherent knowledge and abilities that make us special and skilled at what we do. We can always learn and improve further, and we do expect this of ourselves – but we want to be in the driver’s seat on this journey.

This article by Petrie and McGee (2012) also contains examples (from a critique of a PD initiative in Aotearoa NZ) that illustrate issues of access, fit, and agency in the New Zealand context.

Who, then, should ‘own’ teacher professional development in Aotearoa NZ? My results suggest that, as far as possible, it should be teachers.

  • At a school level, this means individual teachers reflecting honestly on their practice (as reflected in the ‘Professional Learning’ standard of the new ‘Standards for the Teaching Profession‘) and seeing their professional inquiries as an integral part of their work – not just a ‘project’ to tick off at some point during the year.
  • At a Community of Learning | Kāhui Ako level, this means involving teachers as essential stakeholders in planning and decision making – not just the leaders of the various schools coming together to make decisions on behalf of their staff.
  • And at a national level, we need ways for teachers to be more involved in the policy and funding decisions that provide the framework for teacher professional development. Teachers’ unions (the NZEI and PPTA) are obviously an important mechanism for this input, but we should also consider other ways that teachers’ voices can be acknowledged and integrated into decision-making.

Overall, these teacher-centred approaches require a high trust accountability model that has been missing in Aotearoa NZ for some time.

The shift in ownership of PD from the Ministry of Education to the Education Council, then, is an interesting move. The Education Council’s nine-member governing council must include at least five members who are registered teachers with current full practicing certificates, and at least five of the members must have been publicly nominated. Currently, the group comprises four current or past principals, a deputy principal, an early childhood leader, two academics, and a businessman. However, the governing council are appointed by the Minister of Education – not by teachers themselves.

It remains to be seen how the Education Council will tackle their new role in administering teacher PD, but, given my results, it seems essential for the Council to actively engage in consultation with teachers and to consider ways to return increasing agency and autonomy over professional development to teachers themselves.

Katrina_colour_square.jpgKatrina McChesney was a secondary school teacher in NZ before working in the Abu Dhabi government’s education reform project from 2009 – 2015. Her PhD research has been conducted through Curtin University (Western Australia) under an Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship and supervised by Associate Professor Jill Aldridge. Katrina is currently the Student and Emerging Researcher representative on the NZARE National Council.

One comment

  1. Those interested in this blog may also be interested in the following article from the latest issue of the New Zealand Journal of Educational Studies:

    “Raising the Bar for Teacher Professional Learning and Development? Or Just Cruel Optimism?” by Dianne Smardon and Jennifer Charteris. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s40841-017-0075-2

    The journal editors comment that:
    “Given that PLD is widely accepted as a ‘‘key policy lever for shifting practice in schools and driving philosophical change’’, they [Smardon and Charteris] raise concerns about the introduction of a contestable funding model for PLD in schools, with facilitators needing to become accredited through the Ministry of Education. At the heart of the commentary is the concern that teacher inquiry might be materially affected by increased control of what PLD is available, and from whom.”


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