July/August 2022

Commentary: Investing in Teachers to Achieve Student-Centered Goals 

By Travis McGuire

Ask any educator why they chose this profession, and it’s a safe bet their answer will have something to do with making a difference in students’ lives.

Maybe it’s the joy of seeing a student’s face light up when they achieve a goal they’ve been working toward all semester. Or perhaps it’s the satisfaction of watching a student blossom into a confident self-advocate who takes charge of their own learning.

It’s moments like these that remind us why we do this work. But in the last few years, these moments have been harder to come by.

Principals, teachers, and support staff have been overwhelmed with the demands of the pandemic: Adapting to a new teaching style in leading remote or hybrid learning. Comforting and helping students get to a place where they can focus on their education as they battle being frightened or anxious about COVID. Working long hours trying to make up for lost instructional time.

These factor contribute to why school district employees are burning out and morale is at an all-time low.

At Hinckley-Big Rock CUSD 429, a small school system west of Chicago with 700 students, we’re taking advantage of a unique opportunity available to Illinois school districts to solve this problem. Using federal pandemic relief aid, we’re giving educators the chance to earn credits toward a graduate degree at no cost to them, through an innovative model they can pursue in their spare time.

As a result of this initiative, our teachers are learning new skills that are helping them become more effective, which is bringing the joy back into their teaching. They’re also increasing their earning potential without personal expense. And they’re doing all of this in a highly personalized way that doesn’t add more to the considerable challenges they already face in their classrooms.

In short, we’re preventing teacher burnout while also advancing learning recovery — and our solution is one that other Illinois districts can replicate.

To support our teachers with the skills needed to meet students where they are and move them forward, we have partnered with BloomBoard to offer teachers pathways to micro-credentialing. Teachers can enhance skills in critical areas such as Learning Recovery, Student Well-Being, Equity in the Classroom, and Effective Blended Learning — which have been approved for graduate credit from the University of St. Francis in Joliet.

The learning is self-paced, which gives teachers the flexibility to progress as their schedule allows. Credentialing is based on competency rather than seat time: Teachers can earn credit by demonstrating competence in one specific skill at a time using a portfolio of evidence accumulated from their teaching. What’s more, teachers have access to a robust set of supports whenever they need help. Each micro-credentialing pathway describes the learning goal and the requirements for demonstrating competency. A performance rubric helps teachers understand what success looks like. Participants develop knowledge and skills by engaging in a set of activities that are recommended based on responses to a self-assessment. They can watch videos, receive personal coaching, and collaborate with other educators.

As teachers try out their new skills in the classroom, they’re building a portfolio of artifacts they can use to demonstrate their competency. When they’re ready, teachers upload their artifacts and submit them online. A certified assessor and a certified approver review their work and provide concrete feedback. If their work meets the standards put forth for that micro-credential, teachers earn both certification and credit toward a graduate degree from St. Francis.

Because these micro-credentialing pathways align with the goals of the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) program — addressing learning loss, attending to equity, and meeting students’ social-emotional needs through evidence-based interventions — Hinckley-Big Rock CUSD 429 has been able to use ESSER funding to pay for this professional learning. We’re paying for our teachers to have this opportunity at no additional cost to them. It’s an investment we’re making in our teaching staff that we believe will have significant benefits for our students as well. 

To ensure that this investment pays off for our district, participating teachers must agree to reimburse us for a percentage of the cost of their degree if they leave our district within three years of completing the program. 

What Our Teachers are Saying
Through this self-paced professional learning opportunity, teachers are acquiring skills that will aid in learning recovery and enhance students’ well-being. This past school year, we had eight teachers working toward a master’s degree through the BloomBoard program. 

Our teachers appreciate the opportunity to earn graduate credit at no cost to them. They also like the self-paced, job-embedded nature of the program, in which they’re learning new skills in the context of their everyday teaching without having to endure traditional “sit and get” professional workshops.

“I like that it applied directly to my teaching,” one teacher told us of her experience with the program. “I was able to implement what I learned immediately in my classroom. It wasn’t just ‘something to do’ or something extra. Instead, it fit right into my teaching and helped me improve as I went through each micro-credential.”

Staff morale is about establishing a school environment in which educators know they’re having a measurable impact on student success. When you’re part of a community that’s making a difference, going to work every day doesn’t seem like such a chore — even when the work is challenging.

The BloomBoard initiative has helped us reinforce the character tenets that we strive towards as a staff. Guided by these tenets, we intend to create an environment where students feel welcomed and we develop relationships and strive for excellence. That’s what we’re trying to achieve at Hinckley-Big Rock CUSD 429. Our approach to professional learning through micro-credentialing opportunities has enabled us to avoid the attrition that has affected other districts, while supporting the growth and development of our staff and students alike.
Travis McGuire is the superintendent of Hinckley-Big Rock CUSD 429.