Ambition Institute Associate Director Steve Farndon discusses some of the knowledge and skills that make an effective teacher educator.
There are lots of things we can do to try and improve the outcomes and life chances of children in schools. But what's becoming clearer over time is that one factor is likely to make the biggest change.
Evidence suggests that teachers have a huge impact on students’ success in school (Slater et al. 2011). Research also indicates that professional development has a significant impact on the quality of teaching (Zuccollo and Fletcher-Wood, 2020).
My colleague Elen Jones previously touched on what teacher education is, why it’s important, and the impact it can have on schools and trusts. To develop teachers effectively, we need effective teacher educators. That is, people who can teach teachers well.
With this in mind, what is it that makes an effective teacher educator? What do they need to help them do their best work?
1. Knowledge about teaching
To be successful as a teacher educator, an important starting point is being knowledgeable about teaching.
The most effective teacher educators are skilled and experienced teachers. They know about classroom practice, what strategies will be effective in their context, and how to support pupils to learn.
This kind of knowledge, sometimes called ‘informal knowledge’, comes from experience. Over time, teachers develop practical and helpful approaches that work well with the pupils in their setting. They also come to understand the demands and challenges of the role. Having this context to draw from is crucial for training and developing other teachers.
However, focusing too much on this kind of knowledge has its limitations. It can give the impression that a strategy that works in one situation will work in every situation, but teaching is too complex for that. A teacher educator simply telling another to copy their approach to questioning often meets resistance and, more importantly, may not work in the other teacher’s classroom.
This means that teacher educators need something in addition to informal knowledge to bridge the gap between teaching well and being able to teach teachers.
2. Linking theory and practice
A key part of building expertise in teacher education is being able to connect practical experience with insights from research.
An example of this would be using insights from cognitive science, such as ideas around social norms (McDonald and Crandall, 2015), to understand classroom dynamics. This knowledge can help teacher educators to understand why certain strategies work, such as positive framing (Lemov, 2021), what underpins them and when they might be useful in a teacher’s repertoire.
This is powerful for teacher educators because rather than presenting any new strategy as the solution to a teacher’s classroom challenges, it becomes one possible solution of many (Kennedy, 2016) – giving the teacher choice and agency.
For this reason, teacher educators need to be aware of the persistent problems that their colleagues face in their role and be able to explain the links between theory and practice. Jennifer Barker previously defined persistent problems as universal, controllable factors that will have a positive impact on pupil outcomes when tackled effectively.
Teacher educators may, therefore, need to reorganise their own practical knowledge of teaching to be able to explain the value and purpose of classroom practices in relation to key theoretical principles.
3. Understanding how adults learn
In many ways, teacher learning is just learning (Fletcher-Wood, 2017). Which means that many of the same principles and insights from the science of learning are relevant to planning teacher development. My Ambition colleagues Ryan Yung and John Jackson have written about this aspect of teacher education.
However, it is important to understand how learning can be different for adult professionals than for children. Teachers often have existing ways of working, which can become entrenched habits through repetition (Feldon, 2007).
An important role of teacher educators is helping teachers to evaluate, refine and amend or replace their existing practices. This means having familiarity with approaches that can support teachers to reflect on how they teach and make well-focused changes to support their pupils, such as instructional coaching.
4. Embracing modelling and rehearsal
To help support teachers to change their habits, teacher educators can also benefit from knowledge of key mechanisms (EEF, 2021) such as modelling and rehearsal.
Recent research showed that modelling - demonstrating how to use a particular strategy or concept - has a positive impact on teachers’ learning. Teacher educators should be prepared to effectively model new techniques. This relies on the kind of deep knowledge outlined above and a willingness to break down or ‘decompose’ (Grossman et al. 2009) teaching into small parts.
Rehearsal will be more familiar to some teachers than others, depending on their specialist subject. It allows teachers to practise new techniques in a controlled environment before applying it in their classroom setting, as part of a deliberate practice approach.
For modelling and rehearsal to be effective teacher educators will need to build their skills in this area. Modelling precisely, breaking down and unpicking teaching, building a supportive environment and giving constructive, high-quality feedback are all essential.
With these considerations in place, teacher educators are best placed to have an impact on the practice of teachers and school leaders, as well as the outcomes of pupils across their school and trust.
Develop as a teacher educator
The National Professional Qualification (NPQ) in Leading Teacher Development brings together the knowledge and skills to help current and aspiring teacher educators make classroom teaching in their school be the best it can be.
Ambition Institute’s Transforming Teaching programme supports a whole school setting to build its capacity to design and deliver effective professional development, tailored to its particular needs and context. Find out more.
Feldon DF (2007). Cognitive load and classroom teaching: The double-edged sword of automaticity. Educational Psychologist 42(3): 123–137
Fletcher-Wood (2017) Teacher learning: it’s just learning. Improving Teaching. https://improvingteaching.co.uk/2017/10/08/teacher-learning-its-just-learning/
Grossman P, Compton C, Igra D, Ronfeldt M, Shahan E, & Williamson PW (2009). Teaching Practice: A Cross-Professional Perspective. Teachers College Record: The Voice of Scholarship in Education, 111(9), 2055–2100
Kennedy M (2016) Parsing the Practice of Teaching. Journal of Teacher Education 67(1): 6-17
Lemov D (2021). Teach Like a Champion 3 : 63 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College. (3rd ed.). Jossey-Bass.
McDonald RI, & Crandall CS (2015). Social norms and social influence. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 3(3), 147–151.
Slater H, Davies NM, & Burgess S (2011). Do Teachers Matter? Measuring the Variation in Teacher Effectiveness in England*. Oxford Bulletin of Economics and Statistics, 74(5), 629–645.
Zuccollo and Fletcher-Wood (2020) The effects of high-quality professional development on teachers and students. Education Policy Institute. https://epi.org.uk/publications-and-research/effects-high-quality-professional-development/