You Can’t Force Teachers to Improve Their Teaching

by Monica Ruda

It might sound like an oxymoron, but often teachers cannot (or will not) be taught – that is what I have concluded in my seven years in the TEFL world. Training and development should play a vital role in every teacher’s professional life; in fact, institutions that offer such opportunities are better regarded than the ones that do not. So, why are some teachers so reluctant to improve their teaching? Based on my observations as a staffroom member and as a teacher trainer, I have tried to answer this question by analysing possible reasons for this phenomenon and to give some suggestions to managers who are looking for practical solutions on the matter. 

Factors that contribute to teachers’ motivation 

Regardless of the employment sector, motivation is what fuels workers’ ambition and willingness to develop in order to achieve high standards of performance. It is a widely known fact that intrinsic motivation has a more powerful impact on teachers’ classroom performance and career progression than its extrinsic counterpart. In other words, we, as teachers, strive more for holistic development when we enjoy what we do and when we find our jobs rewarding – that motivation comes from within. In contrast, when we push ourselves to work harder and better for external reasons, such as a higher salary or a higher status among peers, our motivation levels can easily decrease at the first signs of failure.  

Often the division between external and internal motivation is not quite as neat and clear cut as that; there are situations in which an external factor, such as the necessity of getting a job, becomes so ingrained in our personality to intertwine with internal factors, such as taking pride in our work. A balance between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation would be the ideal scenario for practitioners who are passionate about teaching and view Continuing Professional Development (CPD) as an integral part of their career path. 

Why teachers are reluctant to develop 

During my years as a teacher, and more recently as a teacher trainer, I have met a surprisingly large number of teachers who are not interested in their CPD and perceive it as a burden. Naively, I used to think that this was due to the fact that the time spent on development (e.g. INSET sessions) is often unpaid, but this is not always the case. In fact, even schools that are willing to pay for the attendance at in-house training sessions see a lack in participation. 

A deeper analysis has led me to consider other aspects that may contribute to this behaviour. As well as spending long hours in the classroom, EFL teachers invest their own time and effort planning, marking and dealing with administrative duties which often leave little time and energy for development. In contrast, those who succeed in finding the time and energy for their CPD might face burn out and fatigue. These very common issues among teachers can be detrimental not only to their health but also to their professional performance.

Another obstacle to professional development may be the confidence required to implement new techniques and methods in the lesson, as teachers feel pushed out of their comfort zone – not every teacher has the knowledge and the experience to be that flexible in their teaching. Even those who are adventurous enough to attempt new ideas in their classes might feel demotivated by their restricted autonomy regarding syllabi and teaching styles often imposed by their school.

A further factor could be the lack of clarity in the career progression path offered by their employer. Last but not least, there are, of course, teachers who are very experienced and, therefore, do not feel the need for development. It is clear that this behaviour could lead to a repetitive and one-size-fits-all kind of teaching, possibly resulting in depersonalisation of the lessons.  

What schools can do to increase Teachers’ motivation regarding development 

Although not every teacher is happy to embrace new ideas, there are some changes that schools could implement in order to foster an environment where development is presented as a team-bonding experience, promoted not only for professional purposes, but also for personal growth. Agreeing to pay for training sessions might seem the quickest and easiest solution to teachers’ lack of interest in CPD, but this could in fact be counterproductive. Not only can it be financially challenging for the school, but it can also induce teachers to perceive that in-house training is for the school’s sole purpose of ticking boxes in times of inspections; it might also reinforce the misconception that they are carried out only for the benefit of the school. In actual fact, the workshops’ primary aim is to help teachers expand their pool of classroom activities and techniques. To counter this, paying exclusively for compulsory training/workshops, but not for the optional ones appears to be a trend among language schools nowadays. In addition, some choose to offer light refreshments during their workshops, promoting a relaxed atmosphere and encouraging team building.  

Paid or not, the key factor here is that schools should have a structured and ongoing professional development system effectively set up. Observations should be frequent, purposeful and varied: drop-in or planned, spot or full-length, for assessment or development, by peer or line manager. In order to be time-effective, carefully designed forms can be useful to record post-observation feedback, teachers’ self-reflection comments and pre-appraisal self-assessment notes. Issuing attendees with internal INSET certificates is also an effective way to build up their teaching portfolio and to add face value to the training offered in-house; inviting external experts in the field to give talks and run workshops could help boost teachers’ motivation. Similarly, attending external seminars might have a positive effect. Those teachers could then share their newly acquired knowledge with their peers by delivering their own session.  

Very often schools are guilty of not making time for development. This can be solved by agreeing on a specific routine, day and time (e.g. fortnightly, Friday at 3.30 pm) where teachers are free from teaching in order to attend their sessions. Some schools have a system in place where the same session is repeated at a different day and time, making it more convenient (and more likely) for teachers to attend. Also, planning an INSET session timetable ahead and getting every teacher involved could appeal to their team spirit.  

Despite all efforts though, teachers might still be reluctant to embrace their professional development if schools are not willing to give some leeway regarding the structure of their syllabi and, consequently, their lessons. Having a non-course day every week, allowing teachers to experiment with supplementary materials and different teaching styles, might prompt teachers to expand and develop their repertoire of activities and skills. 

How to make development more effective 

Professional development can often be perceived as extra unnecessary work if imposed by the employer, but it does not need to be that way – it is for the teachers; therefore, it can come from teachers, by tapping into each other’s strengths and allowing some autonomy.  

  • Teachers should be allowed (when possible) to choose how and in which areas to develop. Teachers could contribute to choosing some of the workshop topics and design/deliver the INSET sessions with the support of senior members of staff. Often undervalued, peer observation is another effective way for teaching improvement, as long as it is carefully planned. Both teachers, observer and observee, should agree in advance on areas to focus on; in this way the observation would be beneficial for both of them. Requesting more frequent formal observations from members of the management team could be an option for more experienced teachers who want to fine tune their teaching practice. 
  • Most staffrooms have a vibrant and collaborative atmosphere. This is an advantage that can be exploited, setting up an official buddy system. Experienced teachers can further their development by mentoring and coaching less experienced teachers. The mentees, on the other hand, would benefit from their mentors’ expertise. This will enhance the existing peer-to-peer relationship, having a positive impact on teachers’ confidence and willingness to develop. 
  • Any kind of development should be concrete and classroom-based. Practical and applicable advice and suggestions should be made readily accessible to increase the likelihood of being implemented. Theoretical knowledge, albeit interesting, will have little impact on the everyday classroom.  
  • Teachers should become reflective practitioners. We all learn from our mistakes so, for future reference, keeping a record and analysing what went wrong and what could have prevented such mistakes would be beneficial for every teacher’s development. It is also important to record what worked well and why: not only could it have a positive impact on teachers’ motivation but also on their future lesson planning. 

In a nutshell, you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink. Nevertheless, every school should make sure there is a pond big enough for everyone to dive in, should they decide they are thirsty for teaching know-how. 

Author’s Bio: Monica Ruda is a Delta-qualified Teacher and Cert.Tesol Teacher Trainer. She has been in the TEFL industry since 2010, teaching in the Czech Republic, Italy and the UK. Monica works at EF Cambridge as a Senior Teacher and Teacher Trainer. She is particularly interested in experimenting with new classroom techniques and helping teachers develop. When she is not teaching, Monica enjoys cooking for friends and family.