A culture of improvement: reviewing the research on teacher working conditions

Front cover of the working paper. Teacher Development Trust. Working Paper: A culture of improvement - reviewing the research on teacher working conditions. David Weston, Bethan Hindley, Maria Cunningham, February 2021

This is a Teacher Development Trust working paper. That is, it is currently a work in progress, offered on this site by the authors, in the interests of scholarship. Working Papers are not refereed. We warmly welcome critique and suggestions as we continue to develop this paper further.

We are very grateful to a number of colleagues for their advice and critique, including Rob Coe (Evidence Based Education), Matthew Kraft (Brown University), Emily Perry (Sheffield Hallam University), Cat Scutt (Chartered College of Teaching) and Sam Sims (UCL Institute of Education).

This discussion paper for the School Improvement Through Professional Development conference has been written by the Teacher Development Trust. While funding from Wellcome has made it possible, it does not necessarily reflect Wellcome’s views or position.

Suggested citation: Weston, D., Hindley, B., & Cunningham, M. (2021). A culture of improvement: reviewing the research on teacher working conditions. Working paper version 1.1, February 2021. Teacher Development Trust.

You can contact the authors via enquiries@TDTrust.org

The authors

Executive Summary

Most existing reviews of professional development literature focus on the content and process of teacher development. They also tend to draw upon experimental studies based on large interventions. This potentially neglects important findings about how/whether teachers’ working conditions affect teachers’ improvement, measured in terms of impact upon students’ academic attainment, over time.

We reviewed 30 papers on teacher working conditions and school leadership in order to explore the impact of teacher working conditions on student attainment. We find evidence that:

  • The quality of teachers’ working conditions has a clear, consistent relationship with student attainment that tentatively suggests a causal impact;
  • The role of the school leader in fostering these conditions appears to be crucial;
  • There are five aspects of teachers’ working conditions that appear most closely associated with increased student attainment:
    • Creating opportunities for effective teacher collaboration to explore student data, plan and review lessons and curricula, and plan and moderate assessments,
    • Involving teachers in whole school planning, decision-making and improvement,
    • Creating a culture of mutual trust, respect, enthusiasm in which communication is open and honest,
    • Build a sense of shared mission, with shared goals, clear priorities and high expectations of professional behaviours and of students’ learning, and
    • Facilitating classroom safety and behaviour, where disruption and bullying are very rare and teachers feel strongly supported by senior leaders in their efforts to maintain this classroom environment;
  • Allocating teachers to certain partners, mentors, subjects and classes and keeping this stable over time is associated with a positive impact on student attainment;
  • The same working conditions appear to be associated with successful, sustainable school turnaround…
  • … and with successful retention of teachers in the profession…
  • … and with successfully navigating the complexities and uncertainties of COVID-19.

We identified four guiding principles for training leaders around the required skills, the necessity to focus on use of time including meetings, the importance of mentoring and coaching and the importance of an open and communicative culture.

Watch our working paper video discussion with Dr Sam Sims