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Invest in people, prioritise education

Inclusive education   DevelopmentInternational Education DayReflective practiceSelf-awarenessUNESCO

Celebrating International Education Day 2023 with Cambridge International

I remember a conversation over dinner with a colleague when I was taking my first steps as a teacher at a university in France and we were discussing how rewarding, but also, emotionally draining it was every day to share our knowledge with our students. Sitting in her garden, she compared us to watering cans, helping young people grow and flourish, while nobody thought to do the same for us. She felt we were missing some means of turning on the tap to fill us up again, to renew our supply and nourish us as well. She was worried that one day soon we would run dry.

The theme of UNESCO’s 2023 International Day of Education is to “Invest in people, prioritise education”. To my mind, this isn’t just about investing in young people for the future but also investing in the adults who enable young people to learn. School budgets are stretched, and competing priorities have to be considered, but in any place of work, as the entrepreneur Richard Branson is quoted as saying, you should “train people well enough so they can leave [but] treat them well enough, so they don’t want to.”


Teachers and school leaders also need to be willing to invest in themselves. And this starts with recognising that they need continuing professional development for their benefit and also that of their students.

You may have come across the ‘levels of thinking’ attributed to business coaches in the 1970s. They talked about people occupying different stages of competence and self-awareness, starting from being ‘unconsciously incompetent’ and culminating in being ‘unconsciously competent’ (see the image below).

Imagine, for example, that, as a new school leader, you are asked to address an audience of parents for the first time. You may be very successful in doing so but, on the other hand, you may reflect afterward that it wasn’t as good as it could have been. You have gone through the first two steps shown in the image. You can then go away and develop yourself before the next time you are presenting and thus become ‘consciously competent’ at what you are doing, though still (hopefully) aware that you can always get better. Eventually, after more reflection and practice, you can do a good job with little effort: you can now focus on developing other aspects of your role.

Or imagine that you are teaching a topic for the twentieth time. Your students are struggling to learn but you’re not sure what you could do differently, so you are on the second step (‘consciously incompetent’). Perhaps you need to take time now to study how you could teach the same lesson better until you see your students are making progress.

Reflective practice

The best teachers and school leaders operate in reflective cycles, such as that described by Graham Gibbs, shown below.

If you reflect well, you can consider more objectively how a situation or lesson evolved, what external and internal factors may have influenced it, what went well, what could be better, and then what you would want to do the same or differently next time. The key thing is always to focus on learning rather than teaching. Ideally, you would analyse your approach with a trusted partner, who may be a colleague or a friend, and then begin the cycle again. The action you decide to take may result from discussion or from another form of development, which may be standalone or part of a series.

Opportunities for development

Fast forwarding a quarter of a century from when I was a young lecturer and worried about my professional development, it is my role nowadays to provide opportunities for teachers and school leaders worldwide to be even better at what they do – in a supportive and nurturing environment.

At Cambridge International, we work with schools and communities worldwide to prepare students for life and raise standards in education. Working with more than 10,000 schools in 160 countries, for more than 160 years, we respond to the needs of our schools and partners worldwide. We provide a wide range of high-quality courses and resources that anyone can engage in or with – and in a variety of formats. You can read a document, such as one of our Education Briefs or Getting Started Withs, watch a webinar, attend a workshop in person or online, explore curriculum resources, participate in a conference, listen to a podcast, read a book, a magazine article, or another blog. You can also sign up to offer or participate in a course leading to a Cambridge Professional Development Qualification. Or you could develop yourself as a teacher-trainer or assessor.

Remember that you can be ‘unconsciously incompetent’ or slip into bad habits as a teacher or school leader and that we all need a refresher from time to time. To quote Dylan Wiliam, this is not necessarily because we ‘are not good enough, but because [we] can be even better’.

Think about how you will keep watering the garden. Often the source is low-cost or even free. Invest in and prioritise your education so that you can do the same for others.

Further reading

Cambridge Assessment International Education. (2021). Education brief: Teacher professional development. https://www.cambridgeinternational.org/Images/621009-teacher-professional-development-facsheet.pdf

Gibbs, G. (1988). Learning by Doing: A guide to teaching and learning methods. Oxford: Oxford Polytechnic Further Education Unit.

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