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Strand and deliver: practical considerations in the provision of in-service professional development for teachers by Mark Wilson

1 Introduction

“You’re really not going to like it.” According to an ancient and sacred text*, this is the Deep Thought computer’s sheepish prelude to the revelation that the ultimate answer to life, the universe and everything is, um…..forty-two. Perhaps the challenges posed by in-service professional development for teachers have a similarly crisp answer somewhere. I have not found it, though that may be because I have not yet been trying for 7.5 million years as Deep Thought did. I can, however, offer an interim report on the approach we take in one large IH school, in the hope that it may spark interest or catalyse worthwhile adjustments in other settings.

I use “PD” (Professional Development) as an umbrella term encompassing teacher support, training, and development in all its guises. It is useful to make a broad distinction between two types which should, I believe, play complementary roles in a school’s overall PD programme, in a mix whose proportions are determined by the nature of the setting. On the one hand there is “packaged”, course-based PD, and on the other is “loose” or what might better be called “contingent” PD. The former is characterised by pre-established content, duration and regularity, a fixed group of participants, and an assumption that participants will complete the whole thing; the latter involves flexible content responding to emerging circumstances, delivered to varying target audiences.

Courses can provide breadth, depth, and cohesion of coverage, motivation, satisfaction and status enhancement far beyond the scope of the humble contingent type of PD. Yet they tend towards the logistically cumbersome. They are more time-consuming and costly. They cater to presupposed needs and objectives which may not be fully congruent with the immediate, real, or emerging needs and objectives of teams of practising teachers.

Contingent PD, on the other hand, can be more versatile and opportune. It is sometimes tacitly assumed to be of less importance or validity than its packaged counterpart, perhaps because no assessment of performance is involved, or because its very lack of neatness is somehow suspect. And yet “contingent” need not mean “chaotic”, and “loose” need not mean “disorganised”. I believe that the changing needs of a teaching team can best be met by a flexibly organised mosaic of partly prefabricated, partly ad hoc PD elements. It is with the nature and delivery of these elements that this article will mostly be concerned. I also append three ideas for one-off workshops.

2 The challenge

PD provision will often be faced with logistical challenges of time, venue, staffing, and what could be called “fit” the extent to which PD needs and provision are appropriately matched.

The stakeholders in the process – management, trainers, teachers and (lest we forget) students – may well want different things. The following lists are well worth considering in any setting, especially if consensus can be reached as to which are in conflict, which pinpoint true priorities, and which should be dropped altogether.

List A: Who wants which of these?

1 a happy and competent staff

2 a constantly developing staff

3 all teachers spending at least “x” amount of time on PD

4 a flexible response to client demand, with teachers teaching at any time on any day

5 a PD programme which is relevant and effective for each individual teacher

6 a range of people involved in delivering PD

7 a clear sense that PD provision improves the service to students

8 a PD model that continues to be of use year after year

List B: Who does not want which of these?

1 teachers saying there isn’t enough PD on offer

2 teachers saying there isn’t the right type or quality of PD on offer

3 teachers complaining that some are required to attend and others aren’t

4 trainers putting a lot of effort into sessions for which very few teachers turn up

5 some teachers attending, or engaged in, little or no PD

6 teachers forced to attend sessions which they see as irrelevant or pointless, just to     fill a quota rather than because of genuine needs or usefulness

7 trainers faced with people who resent having to be there

8 DOSs not sure what to say to teachers when asked “Do I have to go to this?”

In summary, then, the challenge may be stated as follows: when we take into account the stakeholders’ sometimes conflicting demands and the constraints involved, how do we organise and deliver a PD programme with the right kind of packaged and contingent PD, in the right balance? It’s a tall order.

3 Responding to the challenge


Analysis of teacher needs

An analysis of any teaching team will reveal what proportion are completely or relatively new to teaching, or to the location; who is currently entering areas of teaching which are unfamiliar to them, regardless of previous experience; who is likely (or has already decided) to undertake some form of packaged PD (IHCYL, Distance DELTA, etc.); who has “been there, done it” but might be motivated by helping others to go there and do it – and so on. This analysis can be considered against the set of PD strands outlined below. This picture can then be further focussed in terms of which elements are best delivered at which times of the school year. Self-evidently, contingent PD requires that the programme always be provisional, constantly adapting to circumstances. And yet with suitable analysis and forethought, the margin of adjustment between provisional programme and eventual reality can in fact be kept relatively small. Contingency without chaos.

The strands of contingent PD

These, the main genres of contingent PD, distinguish between support, training, and development. The first two are support strands, addressing immediate and emerging needs; the third covers general training which is not necessarily delivered “at the point of need”; and the last two concern further development driven more by professional interest and ambition than by the need to cope with the demands of the job.

3.1 ABLE (Age-group, Book, Level, Exam)

Support sessions addressing teachers’ immediate needs as determined by the mix of their teaching responsibilities at any given time.

Typical session titles: Getting Teenagers To Speak, Using SKY 1 & 2, Marking Written Work at CAE Level, etc.


3.2 “Off The Page (OTP)”

These sessions look ahead at specific parts of certain coursebooks, perhaps with a suggested procedure with notes on why certain decisions have been taken. The sessions are considered especially useful by newly-qualified teachers.

Typical session titles: Using Unit 2 of English in Mind 2, Using Unit 4 of Ready for First Certificate, etc.

3.3 DTS (Developing Teaching Skills)

A mainstay of teacher apprenticeship for inexperienced teachers, and of refreshment for experienced teachers. Sessions are largely concerned with familiarising teachers with useful rules, recipes, routines, and techniques.

Typical session titles: Presenting in Context, Controlled and Semi-Controlled Oral Practice, The Phonemic Alphabet & Chart, Using Cuisenaire Rods, Tips For Revision, etc.


3.4  TD (Teacher Development)

Generally most suited to “post-apprenticeship” teachers. Largely concerned with encouraging teachers to critically reappraise whatever rules, recipes, routines and techniques they habitually use, and with keeping them abreast of new developments in the ELT world. Titles tend towards the more cryptic – requiring an explanatory gloss in weekly staffroom announcements.

Typical session titles: From Expert To Facilitator; Is My Map To Scale?; New Perspectives On Skills Work, etc.

3.5 CPD (Continuing Professional Development)

Generally most suited to experienced, long-term teachers. Likely to be in the form of such things as projects, mentoring, increasing technological literacy, reviewing ELT materials or websites, or involvement in training and consultancy.

Commentary on the strands

This is, of course, an open game. Other strands could be identified – perhaps INTEC (Integrating Technology into the Classroom) or MOTONE (advanced language refinement for teachers whose Mother Tongue is Not English). But however we draw the lines, in defining the strands we furnish ourselves with a lexicon with which PD providers and consumers can discuss needs and objectives with greater precision than would otherwise be the case.

However, we soon come to a paradox. As the year progresses, some strands may morph from the “contingent” into the “packaged”. It may, for example, become clear that it is expedient to put together a pronunciation course, or a “teaching advanced levels” course, and so on. And where a (say) 20-hour course may be unwieldy, a 5-hour “distillation” might well be much better than nothing at all. And what might emerge as a series of contingent one-off sessions seen only in hindsight as forming a cohesive bundle, can eventually be packaged into a course for subsequent years.

Over time, the “centre of gravity” of a teaching team may shift towards the experienced teacher rather than the apprentice, or vice versa. The stranded approach aims to address this challenge of “perenniality”– offering flexibility not just within a given academic year, but from one year to the next.

4 Implementation

To my mind there are many good reasons for operating a policy whereby regular PD attendance is not compulsory, but where all attendance is recorded. Where there is a significant lack of attendance of relevant PD, then the teacher in question is asked to establish their case for non-attendance. And yet it is acknowledged that ultimately, the value of a teacher to the school is never simply a function of the amount of PD attended.

If attendance is not compulsory, then how do session leaders know how many people to expect? In three ways: (a) by collecting the names of teachers who sign up ahead of sessions; (b) by naming a proposed target audience and assuming they will attend; or (c) by guessing. Of these, (c) is usually the most reliable.

Certificates of attendance can be issued to those attending a pre-established minimum number of sessions, whose titles can be listed on the back of each certificate.

Teaching timetables are analysed at the start of the school year to find the points of maximum availability of teachers, and possible “PD slots” are held open, even if not everyone can potentially attend. Weekly staffroom flyers are issued to announce upcoming PD sessions, along with a more long-range yet provisional programme. The flyers feature a brief explanation of sessions, and code them according to strand – ABLE, DTS etc. – with a standard gloss at the foot of the page.


All of this presupposes the availability of trainers to lead the sessions. In settings where human resources are stretched, my analysis may look all too utopian. I would hope that it does, however, help to prioritise. Even if a PD programme never gets beyond the ABLE type, for instance, then in my view that is much better than giving inappropriate prominence to the TD type which, however interesting, may well fail to meet the most pressing needs of the most beleaguered teachers.


So, does it all work? Well, there are occasional frustrations where educational and commercial agendas are incompatible, or where the “fit” has been misjudged in some way, and there are (I speak only for my own sailing skills) occasional sessions which are complete shipwrecks. Yet an average of 15-20 teachers in varying groupings attend a diversity of “needs-adjusted” weekly sessions which receive positive feedback. Other groupings are engaged meanwhile in courses of some kind. It’s not as neat as “forty-two”. But I think we’re giving Deep Thought a run for its money.

5 Three workshop ideas

I append these materials not because they are typical, but simply because I think they are widely adaptable. Improving on them – or making them more applicable locally – can be regarded as an integral part of each session. Good luck with them.

  1. Overview


  1.  (Five Kinds Of Management of Learning)


  1. Teacher Self-Awareness Checklist


  1. Practical Classroom Situations – cards outlining classroom situations for discussion.



*The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, Douglas Adams 1979

Author’s Bio:
Mark Wilson is Training Coordinator at IH San Sebastián (Lacunza), Spain, where he has worked for over 25 years in various roles and is also responsible for the school’s advanced courses. He has taught in Indonesia, India, the Dominican Republic and the UK. He has a long association with Cambridge CELTA and DELTA schemes, though in recent years only in the capacity of Local Tutor for the Distance Delta. He is the co-author of children’s songs for various projects for the Federation of Basque Schools – Story Projects, The Explorers, and The Adventures of Hocus and Lotus.

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