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Why do teacher professional development programmes fail?

Updated: Feb 19, 2022

...and what we can do about it.

Hello again! Through Things in Education, we hope to share the latest in education research and developments in the form of accessible summaries and stories to help you in the classroom and at home.

Teacher Professional Development (TPD)—these are words that evoke some strong emotions and opinions from all educators. In India, barring the most expensive private schools, teacher professional development is seen as a waste of money or time, depending on who you ask. The school management is less keen on investing in teacher training programmes than other infrastructure in the school, as the effects of the teacher programmes are going to be less apparent to the stakeholders. For teachers, if the programmes are not done right, it becomes just another thing on their plate in their already packed schedules. So why do TPD programmes fail?

TPD programmes are annual events

When TPD programmes are done to check something on the school’s annual ‘To Do’ list, they are almost certain to fail. Having external experts come in and work with teachers for 8-10 hours once a year is not going to work. We have done such programmes, and we know how much the teachers have liked it and appreciated it. However, we know that the learning is either not going to last long or may never be applied in practice in the schools.

Teaching, like any other profession, also has its comfort zones. Inexperienced teachers take some time understanding what techniques work for them. Once they understand what works for them, the habits set in. And then these habits are difficult to break. Given the workload of teachers, this is understandable. TPD programmes are meant to test these habits and evaluate how effective they actually are. Are these habits effective or are they just comforting rituals?

TPD programmes cannot be episodic or annual events where teachers gather to listen to an expert conduct the course or workshop.

TPD programmes are top-down initiatives

There is no doubt that school leaders need to initiate the discussions for the need of TPD programmes in the school. However, because of the previous point, most decisions on TPD programmes are taken at the school leadership level, giving little autonomy to the actual beneficiaries of the programmes—the teachers. Such decisions often lead to teachers participating in programmes that have little to do with their subjects or in programmes that are not for their level of experience and expertise.

For example, having teachers who are struggling with classroom management participate in a course on multi-disciplinary teaching will not be relevant or an effective use of time. Multi-disciplinary strategies cannot be implemented if a teacher is struggling to manage behaviour and learning at a basic level.

TPD programmes focus on administrative processes

A major reason TPD programmes fail in schools has been that while time is set aside for TPD programmes, these meetings end up discussing administrative and logistic issues for teachers in the school. The administrative duties and responsibilities for teachers are important and need time for discussions. However, TPD programmes should focus on getting teachers to implement new teaching strategies in the classroom.

TPD programmes are theoretical

This is self explanatory. Only getting an external expert to come in and talk to the teachers about the latest pedagogical advances, hoping that this will positively affect the way teachers teach, does not work. In fact, sometimes it has the opposite effect. Learning something theoretically without being able to make connections with their existing expertise and their day-to-day interactions in the classroom creates a superficial understanding of the latest pedagogy. When these half-baked techniques are not used in classrooms, the TPD programmes have had no effect. But when these techniques are used in the classroom, they are more likely to cause harm to the students’ learning.

We had gone for a TPD programme to a school that wanted their teachers to dive deeper into project-based learning (PBL), and they had been doing project-based learning for 3-4 years and now needed an external expert to help them move forward. Given the mandate, we were prepared to dive deep into classroom culture, the changed psychology of students and teachers in a PBL classroom, etc. Once we started our introductory discussions, we realised that what the teachers were actually doing was getting students to make projects at the end of certain units or chapters. Student projects are helpful, but are in no way the same as project-based learning. Sadly, the teachers and the students were all under the impression that they were practising PBL in class. Deeper inquiry into how the school came about doing what they called PBL revealed that some of their experienced and interested teachers had taken the initiative to learn and then train other teachers in PBL. Somewhere in their self learning journey, they confused PBL with doing projects at the end of a unit.

How to create effective TPD programmes?

Given that TPD programmes which are episodic, didactic, and dictated by the school management are almost certain to fail, what can we do about it?

TPD programmes need careful planning

TPD programmes need careful planning and coordination between the school management, school leaders, academic heads and teachers. Having a consultative approach with as many stakeholders (here teachers) as possible is the best way forward. Getting feedback on where teachers can use help or which areas of upskilling the teachers will benefit from are good starting points. Planning the external expert who will do the course/workshop with the teachers and then force fitting a retrospective benefit is the least effective way.

Once you have an idea of what different areas the school is focusing on, it is important to list which teachers attend which programmes. Some of these decisions are taken by the subject or age group a teacher teaches. But there are some good needs analysis assessments for teachers which can give a clear idea of which teachers will benefit from what type of intervention.

Once these details are understood, it is important to ensure that the TPD programme is an ongoing thing and not only an annual festival. Create a 2-3 year road map for each of the programmes that are needed in the school. It is at this stage that you decide whether you need an external expert or not.

In case planning TPD for a long run is hitting a dead end at the end of a year or once the TPD programme has started and you realise that discussions have stagnated or are circling, these are clear signs that an external expert is needed. Other cases where external experts help is when you want to try something new. The school that mistook doing projects for PBL could have done with a PBL expert right at the beginning.

TPD programmes should be a part of the school culture

School leaders and academic heads should be on the lookout for the new developments in pedagogy and classroom management. Create a culture of discussing ideas around these at regular staff meetings. This creates a sense for teachers that novel approaches and upskilling oneself are desirable traits.

Create a long term plan to ensure that external experts are needed less frequently. Getting the experienced, interested teachers to start leading the TPD initiatives helps.

Finally, an important aspect of making TPD a part of the school culture is to plan for and save money for such initiatives. The skill level of teachers is as important (if not more) than the school infrastructure. And from what we have understood, the budgets for TPD in schools are pretty low. With the NEP 2020 mandating a minimum number of hours of TPD for teachers and also helping schools out financially, we hope to see a rise in the number of schools participating in in-depth TPD programmes.

Identifying external experts should be based on approach and skill set

When there is sufficient planning on the course of TPD in a school, there are certain specific skills one looks for in an external expert. A good rule of thumb is to check the approach that the experts use. An expert using a practice-based approach is going to be far more effective than an expert with great theoretical skills. For example in a course on inquiry-based learning, experiencing an inquiry classroom as a student is a crucial part of training teachers in conducting inquiry classrooms. Such a practice-based approach can leverage personal experience and empathy to make the training more effective. Our courses in TPD even go as far as helping teachers convert their existing lesson plans into inquiry lesson plans or PBL lesson plans.

In our experience, a long-term approach seems to be the most effective. We created a plan for 3 years with an organisation and have held regular sessions on specific topics for 2 years. The nature of challenges faced by the teachers and the preparation that they come with has changed over the 2 years. In the first few months of the first year, there was very little engagement, but they saw their teaching habits change. Now, we know that the teachers have read up a little about what we are going to discuss during the sessions, and have already thought of the things that are difficult for them to execute in class and are open to having a deep discussion on the approaches they can use.

To get to this stage, we start with schools or organisations by doing a needs analysis to help them understand professional development in what areas will help the teachers the most. If you are interested in having a needs analysis done, please fill in the form here and to know more about the courses that we offer for teacher professional development programmes, see our brochure here.


Useful Links:

  • This is a blog by Tom Sherrington in which he highlights 10 things that school leaders should talk about to teachers frequently. These conversations should build the plan for TPD in your school.

  • This is a blog by Kat Howard where she dissects what makes TPD effective.


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