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Developing a professional development culture in your school

Posted by Ross Morrison McGill on Tuesday, 2 July 2019
Ross Morrison McGill
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Every school faces the same types of challenges, yet each one tackles them very differently. What do the most successful schools do and what can we learn from one another?

To develop any kind of culture, be it behaviour, a common vision or building a new teaching and learning culture takes a good period of time to evolve, no matter what school you work in. Over the last five years, John Hattie’s research (Visible Learning) has been cited all over the world as a possible solution for evaluating ‘what works’ and ‘what doesn’t’ in our schools.

Of course, Hattie would not advocate this and we all should take each of the findings carefully and understand the context and how this may translate into our own school setting. We should look beyond the headlines and understand what others are doing and how this may or may not work in our own school.

school sign

If you are familiar with Hattie’s research, you will know that ‘Collective teacher efficacy’ (CTE) sits at the very top of his 252 effect sizes on pupil performance (+1.58ve) - almost double the amount of progress made in one academic year when compared to any other effect size!

Yet, CTE is often misconstrued as ‘everyone doing the same thing’ in schools or has left many struggling to define what it actually is. Although ‘what teachers do makes a difference’ in keeping with a school’s vision and values are important, in its truest definition, CTE means ‘working together’ to have ‘appropriately high challenging expectations’.

For me, this is all about building a culture of regular professional conversations. The difficulty is how to put this into practice with time-poor teachers and funding challenges to ‘free up’ teachers to have time to reflect and share.

Hattie says in a series of visible learning videos: “That combined belief that it is [teachers] that causes learning”. It’s not the students or those from particular social backgrounds that impact on learning, when [teachers] believe they can make a difference and you “feed it with evidence” that you are, that is powerful.

In my view, read the research, tackle it together as a group of teachers, and then disseminate the evidence into your context and refine and revisit.

professional develop

If I can talk about some of my own work and experiences in school leadership, developing a culture for teaching and learning, building a greater degree of consistency from classroom to classroom across a large secondary school with over 100 teachers, developing a common format which also offers teachers a degree of autonomy is no easy feat.

In my recent work, working with schools all over the UK, I am frequently asked the same types of questions, particularly with schools who wish to get their teachers to ‘pull their socks up’ when it comes to delivering quality teaching and learning across all classrooms.

If we put safeguarding aside, I have always believed that teaching and learning trump everything else, including curriculum.

We can have the best curriculum mapped out on paper, but if we don’t have our teachers equipped to bring the curriculum to life, then a diet of content is of no use to anyone.

This starts with regular professional development and pedagogical conversations designed to develop a collective teacher efficacy from the ground up. When the logistics are put in place, and those at the very top place the greatest importance on this culture too - and take part - the transformation can happen. However, it is a long journey and it requires regular reminders and discipline from everyone.

workers arrow

On my travels, I do not think any school has been getting it wrong; with a dynamic workforce and pupil population, the challenge to improve a school culture with moving goalposts remains a never-ending objective. Good teaching and learning is always good teaching and learning and for me, that starts with regular professional development conversations where teachers hold themselves to account and have honest and transparent conversations with one another about their practice.

It’s not complicated, but the challenge is to make teaching and culture prominent in everything teachers do around the busy nature of school life.Nothing else should get in the way!

Ross explores this further in his summary of the paper Characteristics of effective teacher professional development‘, written by Sam Sims and Harry Fletcher-Wood.

To get some of the conversations going on in your school, below I have listed some of the questions I frequently pose to headteachers I work with:

Teaching and learning:

  1. What does day-to-day practice look like?
  2. Is there an agreed common set of teaching principles?
  3. What is the expectation for pupils from classroom to classroom?
  4. How does this change for performance? For example, school inspection
  5. How does the teaching change when another adult enters a classroom?
  6. If teacher performance is weak, what is being done to support the member of staff?
  7. If your school has moved away from grading lessons, what makes appraisal lessons different?
  8. Has your school embedded a coaching culture? Do all the teaching staff receive coaching?
  9. Is there a stigma associated with ‘being coached’?
  10. What has your school done to reduce teacher workload?
  1. Does the behaviour of pupils change when a school leader enters a classroom?
  2. When last did your school staff have a say in the behaviour/teaching and learning policy?
  3. Are teachers willing to have difficult conversations with one another?
  4. Is there a weak link in your leadership team?
  5. Is it being tackled?
  6. Is there a member of school leadership available every lesson of the day?
  7. Are all middle leaders aware that they are responsible for leadership across the school?
  8. What makes a teacher on an upper pay scale, different from someone on the main scale?
  9. Do you hear swearing on the corridor? Do you sometimes hear laughter?

man hands triangle

Professional Development:

  1. How does your school promote professional development?
  2. Is there a research lead who disseminates the latest information?
  3. Is this evidence/information also shared with parents?
  4. Does your school have a bespoke CPD programme for individuals?
  5. Can your school afford to protect 0.5% of its overall budget for professional development?
School culture:
  1. Why should I work at your school?
  2. How many teachers have left your school this academic year?
  3. What are you doing on social media to promote your school?
  4. What would Mr./Mrs ‘cynical teacher’ say about the latest school initiative?
  5. What does the school playground look like 30 minutes after the bell rings? Is there still litter on the floor?
  6. Is graffiti tackled immediately after it is found? Do your staff walk past litter?

From the many schools that I have been visiting, these are the common threads that are consistently requested by headteachers in all of the schools I work with. Of course, context matters and every school is unique, but there are some typical approaches that we can all learn from one another which I will be sharing in my new book, Just Great Teaching, published by Bloomsbury in September 2019. A summary of this can be read here

What I can tell you, is that regardless of context and location, every teacher is struggling under the burden of marking and what every school must do, is reduce this burden by stripping away all the unnecessary myths, habits, approaches and techniques that have no impact on learning.

GB map

If we can get this right in terms of teacher workload and instead replace this with forming a strong teaching and learning culture, then I do believe other ‘good’ behaviours and professional development habits will fall into place. However, all this comes with a huge disclaimer - everyone needs to do whatever is agreed, not just those school leaders within the school.

I have learnt that every school has a unique and individual journey and that these requests are common from school to school. What we need to do is strip away the compliance and replace this with commonsense conversations about teaching.


  • Standards for Teacher Professional Development.  (DfE, 2016; Menter, 2010)
  • Characteristics of effective teacher professional development (S. Sims , H. Fletcher-Wood, 2018)
  • Teacher workload and professional development in England’s secondary schools. (Education Policy Institute, P. Sellen, 2016)
  • Developing Great Teaching (Teacher Development Trust , 2015)
  • High Challenge, Low Threat (M. Myatt, 2016)


  • How To Create A Teaching and Learning Common-Sense Culture? (R. McGill, 2015)

  • Structures and Cultures (R. McGill, 2016)

  • Just Great Teaching (R. McGill, 2019)



About our Community Expert


Ross Morrison McGill
Community Expert ~ Founder of @TeacherToolkit

Ross Morrison McGill, also known as @TeacherToolkit, is the ‘most followed educator on social media in the UK’. Ross has been a teacher for 25 years and is the founder of one of the most popular education websites in the world. He is an award-winning blogger, author and today, has worked with over 100 schools in 8 countries. The Sunday Times listed Ross as one of the 500 Most Influential People in Britain’ and today, he remains the only classroom teacher to have featured.”

Topics: Teacher development


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