Four steps to developing teaching excellence

Written by: Emma Espin | Published:
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Good teaching is vital for improving pupil outcomes, so how can you ensure your teachers are supported to be their best. Emma Espin sets out four practical strategies for unleashing excellence in teaching

There are many elements that make an excellent teacher but how can you ensure they are constantly improving? You may have heard it said before that teachers improve in their first few years and then, in many cases, their practice plateaus.

Once the endless cycle of “plan, teach, mark, repeat” sets in it can be difficult to break free – to stop, reflect, and improve.

However, research has shown that in the right environment teachers can thrive at any point in their career (1) – and thrive they must, because evidence (2) tells us that quality of teaching is the most important school-based factor in pupil achievement. So what can you do to ignite continual improvement across your school? Here are four strategies to help you move your teachers towards excellence.

Set the tone

As a leader, you decide what matters in your school. What is on your priority list for this year? If it isn’t there already, add “teachers’ professional development” to the top of your list. Research shows that promoting and participating in CPD will have a greater impact on pupil outcomes than anything else you do as a leader (3).

Furthermore, staff development will only make a difference if it is truly valued in your school (4). How are you encouraging and creating the right conditions to foster excellent teaching among your staff?

Build space into the timetable for teachers to engage in sustained reflection, training and research projects. Staff also need time to collaborate with one another and share best practice. Conflicts with work schedules is one of the main reasons teachers cite for not being able to engage with professional development. Perhaps your teachers can introduce or increase peer-marking among pupils to reduce their own workload and reap benefits for pupils too (5)? Time regained can then be devoted to professional development.

And, of course, focus on each teacher’s individual needs and the needs of your school to really make the most of precious CPD time and facilitate meaningful changes to classroom practice.

Get pupils’ perspectives

If your school is familiar with the work of Professor John Hattie, especially when it comes to pupil feedback (6), you may have spent a lot of time looking at how teachers give feedback to pupils in the classroom. But have you considered the power of getting pupils to give feedback to teachers?

Although not masters of education research (some may still be learning their alphabet!), pupils are perceptive and will be able to offer insights into their teachers’ strengths and areas for development. We could say that pupils are observing lessons every day: they see it all – let them be the experts.

To get started, ask your teachers to audit their practice, perhaps with reference to the Teachers’ Standards. Then, they should seek feedback from pupils about their experiences and preferences. A pupil questionnaire or an informal interview will do the trick here. How well does the teacher help them to get to grips with a difficult topic? What happens if a pupil misbehaves in class? What else could a teacher do to help a pupil learn? Answers to these questions will help your teachers to evaluate themselves through their pupils’ eyes.

Where appropriate, invite teachers to talk openly with their pupils about areas of practice they are looking to develop, they could even get their input in terms of ideas and solutions.

This approach is powerful but will require a lot of trust and openness on the part of both teachers and pupils. Perhaps you could model good practice by first inviting colleague feedback as part of the leadership team?

Using evidence in identifying development needs

How do you and your teachers identify areas for development? Lesson observation is a common tool, but on its own it provides a snapshot in time – and teaching amounts to so much more than a single lesson.

To get a more rounded picture of teachers’ practice, build an evidence bank. Start by showing staff how they can test their self-evaluations by drawing on a range of sources (7), such as lesson observations, pupils’ books, pupil voice, assessment data and lesson plans. Focused questions are the key to gathering useful evidence.

When seeking feedback on their use of questioning, for example, teachers could ask: How many questions did I ask? Were they closed or open? Which pupils answered most? The aim is to pinpoint exactly which aspects of practice need targeting for improvement.

Make change achievable

Once specific areas of development have been identified together, it’s important to expose teachers to relevant, evidence-based strategies that will drive improvement.

The Education Endowment Foundation’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit would be a good place to start. Importantly, teachers should experiment with these strategies to find out what works in their classrooms.

Embedding research and making changes to practice is challenging. So how can you make it happen? The key is to break it down into manageable steps.

Action planning is one way forward. Train and support staff to take their areas of development and identify specific actions and measurable milestones to help them monitor progress. What training will they attend? Which effective teacher could they observe? When will they apply the new strategies they’ve learnt? Remind staff that action plans should be flexible and adapted in response to what happens in the classroom.

  • Emma Espin is CPD content manager at The Key, which provides leadership and management support to schools. Access The Key’s CPD Toolkit via


  1. Kraft & Papay (in press). Do supportive professional environments promote teacher development? Explaining heterogeneity in returns to teaching experience. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis:
  2. Improving Student Learning By Supporting Quality Teaching, Hightower et al, December 2011, Editorial Projects in Education:
  3. School Leadership and Student Outcomes: Identifying what works and why, CUREE Research Summary, December 2009:
  4. Developing Great Teaching, Teacher Development Trust, June 2015:
  5. Getting to Grips with Assessment (Primary): Self and peer assessment, NFER best practice leaflet (2012):
  6. A glossary of Prof John Hattie’s influences on student achievement:
  7. An example list of suitable evidence against the Teachers’ Standards, Worcester University (2012):

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