This study explored leadership practices in the provision of teacher professional development (TPD). The study utilized a Practice-Based Inquiry approach. In this study, an ethnic national college, founded amidst the crisis in an ethnic region in Southeast Myanmar, was selected for a case study. A semi-structured interview was conducted with the college’s Academic Principal to examine the principal’s insights and perspectives on promoting teacher professional development in a challenging time.
The results highlight the principal’s practice of cultivating a collaborative and supportive school culture and fostering teacher ownership in teacher professional development. Limited funding and inadequate teacher commitment emerged as challenges. This research offers practical implications and factors to consider while supporting TPD in a challenging context. The study also provides reflection and insights on the use of practitioner-based inquiry (PBI) and affirms the applicability of PBI in educational settings. In addition, the researcher recognizes the importance of acknowledging the lived experiences of practitioners and the benefit of collaboration in research design.
In Myanmar, alongside the mainstream education system other providers of education services play a crucial role in supporting underserved regions. Due to the inability of the Ministry of Education to provide adequate support and access to regions controlled by armed ethnic organizations, regional ethnic education organizations have become the sole providers of educational services in various regions (Jolliffe & Speers Mears, 2016, pp.13-18).
The Myanmar education system, centralized under military rule for decades, was severely affected by a coup in 2021 and by subsequent political chaos. Over half of the teachers were on strike and 90% of students refused to attend school under the Coup regime at the start of the 2020-2021 school registration period (Myanmar Now, 2021). As a result of students resisting the military-operated colleges and universities, ethnic schools encountered notable increases in student enrolment and high demand for higher education programs (“Karenni youth struggle”, 2023). The article further reveals that due to inadequate resources, ethnic schools are not able to accommodate all students, and many students are thus unable to continue their higher education.
This study took place in relation to an ethnic national college (ENC) which emerged in an ethnic region aiming to continue the education of ethnic high school students, in particular those participating in a civil disobedience movement aimed at opposing military rule. The establishment of ENC was primarily rooted in national spirit and voluntary action. An in-depth semi-structured interview was conducted on-line with the Academic Principal of ENC (an educator with 10 years working experience). The interview sought to capture how the principal approached the hardships faced, the organizing of teacher professional development and the principal’s perspectives on future possibilities for strengthening education in Myanmar.
Research Goal, Method, and Outcome
While there is extensive research on definitions, approaches, models, and theory on how teacher professional development initiatives work (Evans, 2014), there has been limited literature on hands-on knowledge and understandings of leadership practices employed in ethnic regions in Myanmar. Moreover, the growing demand for higher education in ethnic regions due to resistance to the Military Coup has imposed challenges to ethnic education that require educational leaders to develop practical leadership strategies.
Employing a Practice-Based Inquiry approach (PBI), the study sought to uncover real-life issues and context-specific challenges faced by an educational leader in a conflict filled geographical region of a nation in turmoil in Mainland Southeast Asia. The research aimed to examine how a principal envisions and supports teacher professional development in an ethnic area during a time of crisis. Three key topics were addressed: (1) the principal’s current practices, (2) the challenges the principal faced, and (3) the principal’s perspectives on future TPD and strategies.
This paper aims to enrich the literature by adding to the understanding of ethnic challenges and leadership strategies employed by principals of limited-resources schools in conflict zones. Though this single case study will not be applicable to all limited-resource schools in all conflict zones, the findings may provide insights and practice-based knowledge useful to other educational leaders serving in resource-constrained contexts.
Designing Teacher Professional Development (TPD)
Many studies of teacher professional development have emphasized the need for a long-term engagement with a well conceptualized range of teacher needs, rather than with short-term courses that may fill a calendar of professional development events but not meet teachers’ genuine needs for growth and strengthened practices (Villegas-Reimers, 2003, p.13). In addition, the design of TPD should be rooted in theories of student and teacher learning (Kennedy, 2016). It is also important that TPD links teacher learning with strategies to help teachers enact that learning into their daily practice. Unfortunately, in developing countries such as Myanmar, the approach of one-off workshops, or a series of marginally relevant workshops, often persists (Lall, 2020, p.169), along with a lack of attention to helping teachers link their professional development with daily educational practice.
The Role of a Principal in TPD
(1) Supporting Teacher Learning
Effective TPD necessitates a focus on teacher motivation and active engagement (Guskey, 2002; Kennedy, 2016) and requires that teachers actively participate in the planning, implementation, and evaluation of PD activities (Bredson, 2006). TPD may address teachers’ beliefs, their comprehension of effective teaching, and the management of student behaviour, and can result in substantive changes to their practices (Timperley, 2008). To maximize the effectiveness of PD, principals should explore what motivates teachers and ensure that PD is relevant to teachers’ needs and is designed to encourage teachers’ participation in professional development.
(2) Developing positive school culture
Developing a positive school culture is a crucial factor in the implementation of effective PD (Timperley, 2008). School culture incorporates the collective attitudes, expected behaviours, and values that influence the functioning and operations of an institution (Fullan, 2007). In such an environment principals can exercise significant influence on teacher learning and development (Bredeson, 2006). Thus, a principal is important in creating the conditions in which teachers can improve their professional skills while also reinforcing positive school culture.
(3) Establishing a Professional Learning Community
Teachers engaging in professional learning communities is seen by some professional development scholars and practitioners as essential to empowering teachers. Collaborative and open professional development, facilitated by shared intellectual, spiritual, and emotional resources, can contribute to the development of teachers’ desired skills (Gu, 2014). In this regard, the principal’s role is crucial in establishing a professional community that fosters trust and promotes critical engagement among colleagues.
Challenges in TPD
(1) Lack of Funding
The lack of adequate funds often limits the resources and opportunities needed for effective TPD programmes. Bredeson (2006) pointed out that PD may be cut from budgets and disregarded as a passing trend rather than seen as a meaningful or sustainable approach to improving education. A principal can play a crucial role in finding funding opportunities for TPD and in encouraging teachers to also identify funding sources.
(2) Teacher Inadequate Commitment
Inadequate teacher commitment to TPD initiatives is also a critical issue. Commitment to professional development activities requires active teacher engagement in the initiatives (Timperley, 2008). Metcalf (2019) reported that teachers may be less motivated if they are assigned to involvement rather than becoming involved through self-directive means. Moreover, in some cases, limited resources may hinder teachers even when they are willing to participate in TPD (Darling-Hammond, Hyler, & Gardner, 2017). To obtain meaningful engagement, a school principal can play a crucial role in helping develop TPD strategies and fostering teacher leadership in their own learning.
(3) Lack of Evidence of PD Outcomes
Evidence demonstrating TPD’s impact on student success and teacher efficacy is often weak or non-existent. As Guskey (2000) highlighted, evaluation plays a crucial role in providing both outcome data and analysis of outcomes. A principal is a key figure in planning for gathering evidence on the impact of TPD.
(4) TPD in Challenging Contexts/Contextual Influences
Contextual factors are crucial elements in the effectiveness of teachers’ professional development, and understanding their impact is an important part of assessing the success of TPD programs (Guskey & Yoon, 2009; Hammer, 2013). Burns (2015) explained that teachers in a fragile context face numerous barriers to accessing quality professional development programs including challenging working conditions, systemic challenges within education systems, the impact of conflicts, and poorly designed professional development programs. Such barriers hinder the improvement of teacher identity, efficacy, and professionalism (Burns, 2015). Therefore, a principal serving in such fragile contexts is required to understand the nuanced socio-political context of the educational practices in one’s region and institution.
PBI approach to exploring a Principal’s Practices
In this study, I applied PBI in the context of educational leadership to investigate a school leader’s insights and lived experiences in relation to teacher professional development. In brief, practice-based inquiry (PBI) is an approach that centers on the examination and improvement of practices by practitioners in their respective professional environments. It is a collaborative and reflective process that is shaped by political, social, historical, and cultural circumstances (Wenger-Trayner et al., 2015). PBI is a cyclical procedure that involves action planning, evidence gathering, and analysis of the evidence (Taylor, 2023).
This qualitative research explored objective and subjective elements of an educational leader’s experience in an educational context (Taber, 2013). The research is based on a brief case study of an academic principal and utilized a semi-structured interview and follow up discussions for data collection.
The principal was selected as a practitioner who has relevant work experience in the field, is a principal of a college in an ethnic region which has limited resources and is in a conflict zone, can communicate in English or Burmese/Myanmar language, and had access to the internet for an online interview and other communication. The collected data was transcribed and translated ensuring the accurate presentation of the practitioner’s voice. Then the data was analyzed through a thematic data analysis approach: identifying patterns, color-coding, labelling and interpreting based on emerging themes (Creswell, 2009).
Principal’s Current Practices at the College
(1) Cultivating Collaborative and Supportive School Culture
This theme is based on interview evidence of the principal’s efforts to enact a collaborative and supportive school culture and to link such a culture to teacher professional development in the college. As the principal described it, “The common ground that is necessary for all is collaboration. I went based on good communication, collaboration, and mutual respect practices.” Furthermore, to cultivate collaboration, ‘We don’t go with a top-down system. We go with a collaborative approach.’ The principal remarked that “At first glance, it appears slow, but as soon as everyone gains mutual understanding and everyone mastered the process, the speed accelerated.”
The principal’s strong belief in the benefits of a collaborative approach to professional development supported the notion of ‘culture of support’ defined by the existing literature. Such a notion consists of developing collegiality, openness and trust and creating and supporting networks, collaborations, and coalitions (Villegas-Reimers, 2003).
(2) Fostering Teacher Ownership in Professional Development
Empowering teachers with a sense of ownership in their professional development emerged as another theme, closely related to the first theme. As the principal put it: “Teachers are encouraged to design the entire course for students in the college. They can freely practice designing courses, discovering their growth through experience, and collaborating with other instructors.” Additionally, the principal sought to build effective communication channels to listen to teachers’ voices and address their needs. “Through surveys, we listened to feedback from teacher: all their conveniences and inconveniences.” Moreover, “We observe teachers’ needs which are submitted through channels.” Furthermore, “We conduct regular meetings with teachers and [hold] discussions and collaborate on improvement in teaching and course design.”
Based on the interview and follow up discussions, it appeared that this educational leader fosters shared leadership with teachers by allowing them to actively participate in the curriculum development process and by developing effective communication channels to involve teachers in decision-making processes related to both curriculum development and teacher professional development. The principal appeared to have a solid understanding of the importance of shared leadership in decision-making to empower teachers to lead their own professional development. This is aligned with the claim of existing scholars’ that when teachers are involved in planning and developing professional development content, and implementing, it is much more likely to meet their needs (Bredeson, 2006).
Challenges and Ways to Overcome
(1) Challenges at the College
The college in this study is confronting limited funding which has impacted teacher recruitment as well as ongoing support for teacher professional development. Facilitating resource acquisition for professional development is an ongoing and difficult challenge for the principal. In addition, the principal shared that “Teachers have other jobs to do for their livelihood, [and] they cannot devote their full time to our college.” This fact indicates the college’s struggles to maintain teacher participation in TPD programs.
(2) Ways to Overcome Challenges: Facilitating Resource Sharing and Developing Reflective Learning
In response to the challenges, the principal mentioned that “I try to interact with teachers and conduct trainings or create customized trainings in collaboration with external academic networks.” This approach helps the principal keep teachers engaged with continuous learning. In addition, the principal actively acts as a resource and provides instructional guidance, offers training sessions on curriculum design, and helps teachers navigate international standards. In other words, the principal attempts to serve as a role model for the kind of interest, engagement, and belief in continuous improvement that lie at the heart of effective professional development.
Given the situation where teachers are not able to fully participate in fixed-time TPD initiatives, the principal has attempted to foster learning practices in which teachers are engaged in self-reflection on the needs of students, on designing curriculum content and on evaluating their own practices. This approach aligns with ‘Knowledge-of practice’ wherein teachers enhance their understandings through reflection and inquiry (Villegas-Reimers, 2003) and is consistent with the notion of self-regulatory skills defined by Timperley (2008). The principal’s specific practice of encouraging teacher ownership in TPD points to possible ways to increase teacher commitment and reduce the impact of limited resources for TPD.
Envisioning the Future TPD: Strategies towards the Goal
The principal envisions a more open and liberated future for the country, with more rights as well as regulations, and an improved educational environment. To prepare for this hoped-for future, the principal has sought to strategically incorporate PD into the college at a system level. The principal also sees this as a way to leverage TPD as a part of a longer-range view of building human capital in education to prepare for future educational changes in the region and the nation as a whole.
(1) Embedding PD in School Strategy and Systems
The principal has advocated for the value of PD to the college’s internal management committee and has sought to maintain PD as a key component of the college’s overall strategy for its institutional development. With the purpose of continuous PD support for teachers, the principal developed a funding proposal which included long-term and short-term approaches. The principal mentioned “To make it a systemic practice, I consider the importance of TPD and implement it.” For instance, “I incorporated this concept significantly into the [college’s funding] proposal to the Donor Organizations (e.g., USAID) so that teachers could continue their teaching careers.” The principal further explained that the designated budget for teacher professional development programs could secure the teachers’ salaries and provide long-term professional development support for teachers at the system level.
Effective approaches to professional development in education rely on recognition by institutional leadership of the potential and impact of PD for enhancing pupil outcomes (Coldwell et al., 2008). Prioritizing PD is a key component of school improvement planning and implementation (Stoll, Harris, & Handscomb, 2012). The principal in the present study appeared to have a solid understanding of the importance of PD and sought to strategically implement the concept of continuous professional development as a part of the college’s culture and operational orientation.
(2) Leveraging Professional Development for Teacher Commitment and School Sustainability
This theme addresses the principal’s efforts to foster teacher commitment at the college and to ensure the long-term sustainability of the college. In the interview, the principal discussed the importance of nurturing current teachers at the college as well as continuing efforts to recruit new teachers. The college currently depends on individual educators’ voluntary contributions since the college is not able to fully provide teachers’ salaries. Therefore, it is important for the principal to carefully devise a strategy for future possibilities and sustainability. Thus, the principal installed career counselling sessions for teachers as a part of TPD. The principal explains “Career Counselling is a part of teacher development” and “… through experiencing counselling sessions, teachers can find their development.”
In the present study, the principal of a college took action based on an understanding that teacher professional development has potential for strengthening the school’s human resources, including increasing teacher commitment. Ultimately the principal sees this action as contributing to the sustainability of the college.
On the other hand, the interview revealed that evaluation of TPD outcomes at the college is deficient. While established knowledge in the literature indicates that few institutions with limited funding can create adequate systems for tracking PD outcomes, calls for addressing this issue are often emphacised (Darling-Hammond, Hyler, & Gardner, 2017). For the principal in the current study, addressing the issue remains an aspiration.
In this study, Practice-based inquiry allowed both the researcher and the participant/practitioner to reflect on leadership practices associated with teacher professional development and to explore creative solutions to the challenges faced by this college. Overall, the principal recognised and appreciated the reflective approach and acknowledged the emergence of a new awareness of the principal’s own initiatives and worthiness in promoting TPD. In general, the use of reflection also provides participants a chance to reflect on positionality (Finley, 2008, p.98) in society and increases consciousness regarding the value of time spent on reflection (Moon, 2004). In the present study, the entire process of researcher and practitioner interaction in relation to reflection seemed to increase feelings of worthiness on the part of both of us.
As a researcher, I encountered deeper insights on the reasons principals can be reluctant to use existing theories and leadership practices in their practice environments. This echoes the literature that practice has its own locality, and standards alone may not generate the practice (Wenger-Trayner et al, 2015). In this study I realized the hardship encountered by the principal and recognized the importance of understanding the position of practitioners, and the particulars of a practice environment. This realization enabled me to acknowledge the principal’s context-specific knowledge and expertise. Ultimately, the learning process in the present study allowed both parties to learn from each other, and this exchange will now inform my approach to future research design and my understanding of its relevance to the real-world.
Implication and Limitations
This study provides limited support for some practical implications for practitioners and educational stakeholders in relation to developing TPD particularly in contexts where resources are limited. Although limitations of the study prevent generalizations (see limitations below), I offer the implications in a spirit of sharing ideas to strengthen practice in TPD.
- Before embarking on major PD initiatives, it is important for practitioners and educational leaders to conceptualize their own positionality in relation to the varied contexts relevant to the initiative. Such contextualized understanding ensures the PD initiatives are personalized to their unique context (Scribner, 1999, as cited in Villegas-Reimers, 2003).
- Such analysis also can serve educational leaders in advocating for a PD initiative, including seeking funding opportunities and policy support for resource allocation.
- Educational leaders embarking on TPD initiatives should give careful thought to gathering evidence regarding the impact and efficacy of the TPD provided. Such consideration can be an important part of securing the resources for continuous TPD.
Nevertheless, it is essential to critically assess the findings and acknowledge certain limitations. One significant limitation to consider is the issue of generalizability. This research focused exclusively on the examination of an ethnic education organization in Southeastern Myanmar, which might display cultural, social, and geographical distinctions compared to other regions. Additionally, it is important to consider the political landscape in Myanmar and the ethnic educational setting, as these factors can potentially shape the approaches and viewpoints of leaders in relation to the provision of support for teacher professional development (TPD). Hence, it is imperative to take into account these influential aspects during the development of any TPD.
This study explores a principal’s practices in facilitating TPD in an ethnic region of Southeast Myanmar. The findings are organized into several themes based on the principal’s experience of promoting TPD as a way to enhance teacher commitment and school sustainability within a resource-limited context.
The principal, a determined and visionary educational leader, sought to develop self-reflective practice among teachers in the college, advocated for the incorporation of PD into the college system and utilized it to build human-resources as strategic response towards the sustainability needs of the college. There is much that is worthy in the work of this principal.
This research also suggests that small-scale PBI in educational leadership and management settings may enhance practices of practitioners and point to areas in which further changes may be helpful. However, the research also points to limitations of small-scale PBI and raises questions regarding the intersections of TPD as discussed in theory and the real-world challenges of implementing meaningful professional development in education.
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To cite this work, please use the following reference:
San, K. C. S. S. (2024, February 7). Exploring a Principal’s Practices Regarding Teacher Professional Development in a College in Southeast Myanmar. Social Publishers Foundation. Exploring a Principal’s Practices Regarding Teacher Professional Development in a College in Southeast Myanmar – Social Publishers Foundation