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Teacher professional development in ‘challenging circumstances’

What are some of the factors education policymakers and leaders need to consider when it comes to supporting teachers in challenging circumstances? How can teachers play a key role in facilitating quality education despite constraints impacting their classroom or the wider system?

Chris Sowton

Following the publication of ELTons award winning ‘Teaching in Challenging Circumstances’, author Chris Sowton shares evidence-based insights on teacher professional development in difficult situations. Sowton’s book, published in 2021, provides practical guidance for teachers, helping address concerns such as teaching large classes, working with limited resources and supporting learners who have experienced interrupted education and who may be suffering from trauma. 


What are some of the factors that contribute to challenging circumstances? How can education policymakers impact these factors?

Many interlinking factors can contribute to an educational situation being considered ‘challenging’. As a general rule, when several of these factors co-appear, the more challenging the circumstances are likely to be. These factors include, but are not limited to:  

  • Conflict between the official language of instruction and the teachers’ / students’ ability in that language, which can result in minority languages being side-lined or even discriminated against;
  • Institutions and teachers not being involved in the process of shaping policies which directly affect them, thereby denying them agency and meaning the policies are not contextually appropriate or relevant;
  • Textbooks and other learning resources are insufficient – whether in terms of content, condition, level or number;
  • Funders don’t appreciate the situation in which learning is taking place, and set unrealistic, short-term time frames for interventions to succeed;
  • Teachers and institutions are on the front line of challenging political social change (e.g. mass migration), but are not supported in managing these situations;
  • The presence of different educational models (formal / informal / non-formal institutions, low-cost private schools, religious schools, etc.) creates a confusing and volatile educational landscape for stakeholders;
  • Teachers are expected to be ‘catch all’ experts for wider problems in society (e.g. as psychologists, social workers, medical doctors etc.), but they do not receive the necessary support in this, and few (if any) service providers are locally available;
  • Teachers and other staff are paid poorly, late, or not at all, and their position at work is precarious – e.g. they don’t have secure, strong contracts which are fully recognized in law, or aren’t allowed to join a trade union. This can result in high levels of absenteeism.

It is clear that in many parts of the world, educational policy is failing – a problem which has been exacerbated by COVID-19. In response, policymakers need to be simultaneously more realistic and also more radical in their approach, for example by: 

  • Advocating a settled language policy which reflects multilingual realities, and seeing languages as a resource which can promote access to and the quality of education; 
  • Involving educational stakeholders directly in the process of reform;
  • Seeing education in wider terms – not as something narrowly defined as taking place within the four walls of a class – but in more holistic terms; 
  • Producing textbooks which represent the lived realities of the students and teachers who use them; 
  • Creating opportunities for professional development which are not dominated by a ‘centralised model’ approach – e.g. the creation of face to face (F2F) / digital teacher groups; cascade training models; institution-based observation and support. 


Post-pandemic, what role will professional development of skills for teaching in challenging circumstances play? How can policymakers and organisations explore what could be effective and successful for their education system?

In challenging circumstances, teachers can sometimes feel heavily oppressed by the ‘big things’ affecting their lived reality, and this is often what becomes the focus of formal – or informal – professional development (PD). PD can thus often become a forum solely for complaints about the textbooks, learning resources, the school principal, the curriculum, the ministry of education, the government, and so on. Whilst these complaints are often valid, such sessions do not result in meaningful change in the classroom. Furthermore, PD is too often measured by a metric such as how much training has been done rather than what impact has this training had. 

Going forwards, PD needs to adopt less of a deficit model (i.e. focusing on constraints and problems) and more on what can be achieved. Teachers need to know that within their classrooms, with their students, they have the capacity to make huge, significant and lasting changes to those children’s lives, whatever else is going on outside those four walls (and even where the classroom does not have four walls). This is not to trivialise the difficulties which teachers in this situation face, but if you have to be in that classroom, and you have to use that textbook, and you have to listen to that principal, you may as well try to do the best job you can, especially as those 20, 50, 100 students in front of you will only ever get one chance at their education. PD should reflect this reality, and its content and structure should reflect this.   


At Cambridge, we’ve been working with UNICEF to support teaching and learning for refugee Rohingya children in Bangladesh. One of our aims is to enable a smooth path to the next stage of their learning journey. How can the strategies suggested in ‘Teaching in Challenging Circumstances’ connect learners with what is hopefully a less challenging future?

Beyond the obvious value of gaining an education (and qualifications) in practical, tangible terms, Education in Emergencies (EiE) is beneficial for many other reasons besides. Any kind of learning in an EiE context can provide a significant psychological value, with schools commonly being seen as a safe space – potentially even the safest space in the whole community. Furthermore, the very act of going to, and being present at school, is a positive act, and it means that children (and potentially their families) are thinking about an improved future rather than present challenges. Education can provide learners with hope in a context where hope is very often absent. 


What are some successful examples of country- or local- level initiatives to equip teachers with the skills they need in challenging circumstances? 

I am currently working with refugeeEd training teachers from Afghanistan living in Nea Kavala refugee camp in northern Greece. The training is being delivered in a hybrid fashion, with me via Zoom and a local teacher facilitating on site. Some of the programme’s key characteristics as follows:

  • The training is modular, but does not have a specific, prescribed curriculum. This means that the trainers can go at the pace of the participants, and there is no pressure on having to finish a specific content load within a particular timeframe. This decreases the stress and anxiety of all concerned. 
  • The loose curriculum is a co-construction between participants and trainers. This process not only gives agency to the participants, it also ensures that they are more invested in and therefore more motivated towards the training.
  • The training is very practically focused, and looks at specific, pressing issues faced by teachers on a daily basis.
  • Despite these challenges, the training is framed in positive rather than deficit terms, for example using multiple languages effectively in the classroom, supporting children who have had gaps in their education and building on students’ previous knowledge and experiences. 
  • The training pedagogy is participant-centred and dialogic. Activities are demonstrated and modelled, and participants are then invited to run them with their colleagues.  
  • During the sessions, students with weaker English ability sit with stronger speakers to allow for translation into Dari. Throughout the session there are also periodic ‘catch up’ opportunities. This ensures that the language of instruction does not negatively impact on participation.    
  • At the end of each session, participants identify the changes which they are going to try and make in their teaching during the following week. At the beginning of the next session, they are asked to reflect on the extent to which they were able to do this. We have a WhatsApp group in which teachers can share their efforts to do this, and to receive positive and encouraging support from the trainers and their colleagues. 
  • Good practice from the training and key learning points are then shared with other trainers in the organisation, in order to ensure optimum delivery in other refugee camps across Greece where the organisation works. This avoids the ‘silofication’ of training, and ensures that the focus is on the end-users. 


Find out more about ‘Teaching in Challenging Circumstances’ and download sample content here.


Chris Sowton has been working in the field of English Language Teaching (ELT) for 25 years. He has worked for a range of institutions, including the British Council, Cambridge University Press, and the University of London. He has written extensively in the field, as author or co-author on more than 20 ELT books. He has conducted teacher training and educational research in many countries, including Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Nigeria, Nepal, China, India, Saudi Arabia, Somaliland and Indonesia. He has an MA, a DELTA and is currently pursuing a doctorate at the University of Bath, focusing on language-in-education policy in South Sudan.