Teachers’ professional development

Thursday 23 July 2015, by Tina Vršnik Perše

The continuing professional development (CDP) of teachers is one of the most important approaches for preventing ESL. Improving educators’ competencies (e.g. communication, discipline management and cooperation competencies) implies improving students’ educational experience and reducing their risk for ESL. CPD should intertwine the different modes (e.g. study groups, self-reflection etc.) taking teachers’ motivation, interests and their stage of professional development into account.

Regardless of the quality of (future) teachers’ and other educators’ formal preservice education, it cannot be expected that it can prepare them for all situations that will occur during their education practice. Therefore, education systems are trying to provide opportunities for their continuing professional development so as to establish high education standards and well-qualified staff (OECD, 2009). In order to examine the related issues on the international level, the TALIS (Teaching and Learning International Survey; 2009) has adopted a definition of professional development among teachers as “activities that develop an individual’s skills, knowledge, expertise and other characteristics as a teacher”. In the last few decades, several professional development models have been developed accordingly (such as Day, 2007; Huberman, 1997) that recognise several stages of professional development. The understanding and supporting of teachers and other educators at various stages of their professional development is one of the key factors for improving the educational process and students’ experiences with their studies. Professional development can be ensured through different approaches such as seminar courses, supervision, self-reflection etc. and combinations of several approaches seem to be the most effective for gaining competencies for preventing ESL. The research has proven (Bradshaw et al., 2008a, 2008b; Burke, 2008; Koster et al., 2005; Pantic & Wubbels, 2010; Trent & Slade, 2001; Zhu, 2013) that mostly professional development in the field of improving the quality of students’ school experiences, students’ decision-making competencies and prosocial connections are the kinds of professional development programmes that effectively prevent ESL. To make such improvements, the development of teachers’ competencies for creating a supportive education environment, such as social and emotional competencies, communication competencies, discipline and cooperation are essential.


The profession of teachers and other educators is nowadays considered one of the most complex professions and its features and requirements are changing and developing year after year. There is thus no straightforward approach to achieving the competencies required for the optimal performance as an educator. The Council of the European Union issued Council conclusion on the professional development of teachers and school leaders (2009) with regard to several previous Council conclusions, objectives, decisions, resolutions and recommendations. This conclusion emphasises that teachers’ knowledge, skills and commitment along with the quality of school leadership are the most important factors for achieving high quality educational outcomes. Further, given the increasing demands placed on educators and the growing complexity of their roles, educators need access to effective personal and professional support throughout their careers, particularly when they first enter the profession. Based on a Eurydice report (European Commission, 2015), it was determined that both the European Commission and the Council of the European Union stress the need to improve teacher education, continuing professional development in education, and the teaching profession’s attractiveness. In relation to continuing professional development (CPD), relatively large proportions of teachers in all age groups, and irrespective of their experience and school subjects, expressed a moderate or high level of training needs in areas that would allow them to develop more appropriate, diversified and innovative teaching practices (European Commission, 2015).

Thus, the role of a continuum of educators’ professional development consisting of initial teacher training and CPD should be endorsed so as to keep up with the demands. One of these demands incudes tackling early school leaving (ESL). The Council of the European Union (2015) highlights the CPD of all educators as one of the most important approaches for reducing ESL.

The aim of this paper is therefore to investigate the definitions and models of educators’ professional development and to analyse the relationship between educators’ professional development and the possibilities for preventing and reducing ESL.


We conducted a review of the literature by searching in the ERIC, SpringerLink, Wiley, Sage, Proquest, and Science Direct search engines for information about educators’ professional development, professional development models, characteristics and their relationship to ESL. We included four types of documents: scientific papers, scientific monographs explaining the theoretical background, scientific research reports along with EU documents and reports on the subject matter.

Defining professional development

Definitions of teachers’ and educators’ professional development generally vary widely. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) (2015) defines professional development as the development of competencies or expertise in one’s profession; the process of acquiring the skills needed to improve performance in a job. The first mention of the term professional development according to the OED (ibid.) dates back to 1857, although the concept of educators’ professional development has only started to develop since the 20th century. The earliest mentions of the need for school staff’s professional development came to the forefront in the 1960s in the USA (Murphy-Latta, 2008). Until the early 1970s, learning opportunities for educators were mainly referred to as “in-service education” and university courses and seminars were largely being referred to (Joyce & Calhoun, 2010). TALIS (OECD, 2009; 2014) confirms these traditional methods are still predominant. Traditionally, educators have had a fairly narrow view of professional development and regarded (or still do) professional development as special events that are restricted to several isolated days. Contributing to this narrow view are policies that require educators to accumulate a certain number of professional development hours or credits each year (Guskey, 2000). Super (1984) was among the first researchers on professional development to define the term in a slightly broader way as developing a concept of professional self through several stages, albeit he focused on initial training during adolescence and early adulthood.

However, by the end of the 20th century the concept of educators’ professional development has developed considerably. Day’s (1999) definition of CPD encompasses all behaviours intended to bring about changes in the classroom:

Professional development consists of all natural learning experiences and those conscious and planned activities which are intended to be of direct or indirect benefit to the individual, group or school, which contribute, through these, to the quality of education in the classroom. It is the process by which, alone and with others, teachers review, renew and extend their commitment as change agents to the moral purpose of teaching; and by which they acquire and develop critically the knowledge, skills and emotional intelligence essential to good professional thinking, planning and practice with children, young people and colleagues throughout each phase of their teaching lives (Day, 1999, p. 4).

Day and Sachs (2004) unified the definition of CPD as a term used to describe all activities in which teachers/educators engage during the course of a career that are designed to enhance their work. Guskey (2000) also defined professional development as those processes and activities designed to enhance the professional knowledge, skills and attitudes of educators so that they might, in turn, improve the learning and well-being of students. He also defined the characteristics of professional development as an intentional, ongoing and systematic process.

In the international TALIS survey, the OECD (2009, 2010) defined professional development as a system of activities for developing an individual’s skills, knowledge, expertise and other characteristics as a teacher, including initial training, induction courses, in-service training, and continuous professional development within school settings. TALIS (OECD, 2009; 2014) also determined that participation in professional development is a common feature and that, on average, between countries in lower secondary schools teachers have 16 years of teaching experiences and more than 80% are permanently employed. Since the career of an educator is clearly a stable path and the majority stays on it one way or another throughout their entire working life, it is extremely important to emphasise that being/becoming a (good) educator requires an intentional, systematic ongoing process of development to maintain the motivation throughout the entire career and to develop the competencies needed to meet students’ changing needs, although this sometimes also occurs unintentionally. Not only does the process need to be continuous, it must also meet the different needs of educators at various stages of their career and in different education systems.

Models and stages of professional development

Several professional development models have been designed to support efforts to provide opportunities to maintain a high standard of education practice, with these models being based on different concepts and therefore applying dissimilar approaches. The models typically take the stages of professional development into account. The most noteworthy models will be introduced in this paper in order to indicate the specifics of the different stages of educators’ professional development and link them with possibilities for reducing ESL. The model of the professional development of teachers and other educators that is most often cited was developed by Fuller (Fuller et al., 1969; Fuller & Brown, 1975) who identified the stages as: concern for self (primary survival as a teacher); concern for the task (which focuses on actual performance) and concern for impact (relating to a positive influence on students).

Huberman (1989, 1997) produced a more detailed model of teacher career development that describes several interrelated phases linked to the years of teaching, and can also be attributed to other educators. This model has influenced most of the later work on this subject matter. Day (2007) recently established a six-phase professional development model with similar characteristics but with slightly different focuses of the phases. Hargreaves (2005) also produced a model of the professional development of teachers (and other educators), but only three phases were established there. In the table below, we present the stages of these three models in a comparative perspective.

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Table 1: Comparative presentation of the stages of professional development

Huberman’s model (1989, 1997) introduces five stages. During the initial phase (Survival and discovery), teachers face high demands concerning how and what to teach and how to manage the classroom. He also highlighted the sense of survival as a key characteristic of this phase. In the secondary phase (Stabilisation), teachers gain confidence in their competencies. They make a commitment to the profession and shift the focus from themselves to meeting the students’ needs and developing their own education style. During the phase he named Experimentation/Activism or Reassessment/Self-doubts, teachers follow separate scenarios but can also transfer from one scenario to another. After stabilisation, teachers either start experimenting with various segments of their work (such as different materials, methods, strategies, institutional changes etc.) or exhibit more negative attitudes to teaching, they experience monotony and self-doubts about continuing their career as a teacher. During the quaternary stage (Serenity/Conservatism), teachers also follow separate scenarios but can transfer from one to another. When experiencing serenity, teachers are more relaxed, feel self-acceptance and are also less emotionally engaged or have more relational distance. Under the other scenario, teachers express greater conservatism, rigidity, a reluctance to accept innovations and complain about different circumstances regarding the education. Near the end of their teaching career, Huberman (1989, 1997) postulates a gradual withdrawal and disengagement from work commitments (Disengagement – serene or bitter).

Day et al. (2007) formulated an even more detailed model with six phases of teachers’ professional development. It differs from Huberman’s model (1989, 1997) by its different emphasis during the first stage of professional development where Day et al. (2007) stressed two sub-groups of teachers are categorised: a) those developing a sense of efficacy; and b) those with a reduced sense of efficacy. Both should be motivated to join in professional development activities to stimulate their active participation. Other stages have similar emphasises as Huberman’s (1989, 1997) with two groups of teachers developing: those with a positive attitude to change and teaching, and those focusing more on tensions and disappointment although Day et al. (2007) concentrated more on the motivation of teachers and other educators.

Hargreaves provides a denser model (2005). The model focuses more on the characteristics of teachers in different stages of CPD, such as enthusiastic, optimistic and adaptive during the early career, open to changes and confident during mid-career, and tired, resistant and resilient to change during their later career.

Regardless of the model applied, it is evident that the professional development stages when teachers have already developed their identity as educators are the most important phases for developing the competencies required for preventing and reducing ESL. Further, regardless of the model during the last stages of CPD the approaches with the greatest influence on changing teachers’ perspectives and practice should be more emphasised, such as active research and guided self-reflection. These are equally effective in all stages of CPD but during earlier stages other approaches are also welcomed by the teachers and other educators that are not well accepted by educators in later CPD stages.

We also argue that another phase of professional development during the initial teacher training is important and may be referred to as Gaining basic knowledge, developing identity and experience. During this phase, future educators are gradually beginning to identify with their future profession and to transfer their point of view from the students’ perspective to that of educators.

It is interesting (but not encouraging) that TALIS (2009, 2013) identified that, on average, the amount of professional development attended by teachers decreases with the age of the teachers. Richter (2011) reported that the uptake of in-service training had a curvilinear pattern, with the highest uptake in mid-career (around age 42), confirming the hypothesis that teachers primarily pursue formal learning opportunities during the mid-career phase of experimentation, activism and managing changes. The results also showed (Richter, 2011) that teacher collaboration follows a linear pattern, with older teachers collaborating less frequently than younger teachers although older teachers used professional literature more frequently than younger teachers. Richter (2011) claims that the finding that teachers collaborate more at the start of their career than in the middle or at the end may be attributable to younger teachers still being more eager to learn from and draw on the professional expertise of more experienced teachers. It also holds important implications for professional development concerning ESL since the collaboration of teachers and other educators has been shown to be one of the most important factors for reducing the possibilities of ESL.

Clearly the priorities of teachers change over the years of their career and professional development. Considering these findings, no group of educators should be omitted from efforts to be actively involved in professional development, but the focuses and approaches should also take the professional development phase of each educator into account. Besides involvement in professional development activities, it is also crucial how these professional development activities are implemented. It is essential that such activities are carried out that enable educators at different stages of their professional development to improve their knowledge and competencies in order to prevent the ESL of students at risk.

How to implement professional development?

Educators are committed to focussing on both content knowledge (what to teach) and pedagogical knowledge (how to teach). In recent decades, there has been strong support (e.g. Krauss et al., 2008, Loughran et al., 2012; OECD, 2014) for the belief that teachers should acquire in-depth pedagogical knowledge, including notions about teaching and learning, alongside their knowledge of the subject matter taught. Therefore, educators’ professional development needs to incorporate all those aspects and should be put into effect through different strategies. It should include less traditional approaches so as to develop not only the knowledge but also the beliefs, attitudes, values and commitment, thus making the programme more attractive for educators.

Guskey (2000) introduced seven major modes of professional development that are still prominent in today’s professional development programmes: training, observation/assessment, involvement in a development/improvement process, study groups, inquiry/action research, individually guided activities, and mentoring. These could all be implemented in more flexible programmes, e.g. as face-to-face-based activities, ICT-based activities or as a combination of both, while all of the above modes can also be combined with each other. Given the complexity of the possible combinations, seeking the best modes to fit all educators in their different professional development phases and different education systems is not the most productive approach. Professional development should incorporate the intertwining of modes considering the motivation and interests of each educator and their stage of professional development.

Improving individuals’ knowledge and competencies must be complemented by the use of different strategies, models, changing the beliefs and, more specifically, with effective collaboration among teaching staff to produce better learning for both staff and students (OECD, 2009). This would enable better education experiences which are also essential for improving the prevention of ESL.

Since teaching is much more than the task of transmitting knowledge to students, and involves values or assumptions concerning education, learning and society, the concept of teacher competencies is likely to resonate differently in various national contexts (European Commission, 2012). Therefore, implementation of CPD should also be designed so that it can be adapted to local (national) specifics such as understanding, traditions and characteristics related to ESL.

Professional development of educators and ESL

ESL is not a new phenomenon (Attianese, et al., 2015) and several focuses concerning ESL were applied in the past. Lately, an inclusive paradigm and shift of focus from the individual (who is leaving education) to the signs prior to the leaving have produced a need for educators to be able to react accordingly. The complexity of the phenomenon is illustrated by Burke (2008) who reported the main reasons for students withdrawing from school included uninteresting classes, truancy, too much freedom and not enough rules in their life (i.e. family-related reasons). Other reasons include the relationship with teachers and poor academic achievements. Trent and Slade (2001) emphasised that students’ dissatisfaction and lack of motivation in school is partly due to the impact of teachers and their teaching, and argued there were too many unsuitable teachers who either created or exacerbated the problems. Research also indicates that schoolwide models of professional development (Positive Behavioural Interventions and Supports – PBIS) improve schools’ organisational environment and reduce students’ behavioural problems considerably (Bradshaw et al., 2008b) through improved cooperation between educators and the improved cooperation of teachers with the student and their parents. This is likely to translate into better motivation for education, increased academic performance and a reduction of ESL rates.

The challenge for teachers and other educators is thus to implement strategies and methods that will reduce the influence of those reasons, thereby helping students to meet their potential and stay focused on their education. Since most educators were not qualified to do so during their initial training, the need for CPD that enables an understanding of the ESL phenomena and the development of the competencies to effectively confront these issues has emerged.

Trent and Slade’s (2001) research thus highlighted that teachers play an important role in the quality of students’ school experiences, academic achievement and attitudes to school authority. Therefore, a straightforward relationship is implied whereby improving educators’ competencies on a schoolwide level that imply improving students’ educational experience would reduce these ESL risk factors. These competencies relate to the individualisation of teaching, working with mixed classes and the efficient use of ICT (Peklaj, 2010).

A review of the literature confirms that teachers’ and other educators’ social and emotional competencies (such as relational competence, communication competence, cooperation competence and competence of self-reflection ) are vital for their performance and were significant predictors of overall innovative teaching performance as reported by the teachers themselves together with their educational and technological competencies (Durlak et al., 2011; Koster et al., 2005; Pantic & Wubbels, 2010; Zhu, 2013) and in that sense also vital for preventing ESL. As indicated, an innovative teaching performance, social, emotional and communication competencies along with an understanding of ESL phenomena are some of the most important factors that can reduce the proportion of students who consider the classes uninteresting, of those without good relationships with teachers and those with poor academic achievements, which are among the key reasons for ESL according to Burke (2008). The CPD programmes should focus on tackling these.


Teachers’ professional development is a concept that, even though it is today an important issue, only began to develop in the late 20th century. This issue is being addressed by research, policy and practice and is therefore one of the fastest developing concepts regarding teachers and other educators and their work. According to research (Day, 2007; Hargreaves, 2005; Huberman, 1997), educators are shaping their professional identity and work performance during their professional careers and several stages are reported. Whatever model of CPD is taken into consideration, when developing programmes for the professional development of educators different needs reflecting their professional development phase should be considered as a major concern for the developers. The combination of different modes of CPD (such as training courses, action research, self-reflection etc.) seems to be the most appropriate way to address the specifics of each teacher or educator and each education system.

It has been proven that professional development is a process influenced by different characteristics and that it is also a factor of influence for several types of outcomes (Durlak et al., 2011; Loucks-Horsley et al., 1998). An important implication is that the professional development of educators relates to developing their competencies that are crucial for improving the educational experience for both them and their students. Bradshaw et al. (2008a, 2008b) showed that schoolwide models of educators’ professional development concerning the promotion of effective decision-making, self-control skills and prosocial connections are effective approaches that may hold implications for reducing ESL. Therefore, building up such educator competencies through professional development is vital for influencing the high-risk factors for ESL.

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