The term professional development is one that many educators have come to hate—it’s automatically equated with a lot of “sit and get” and a waste of precious time.
As a library media specialist, I have probably shared these experiences more than most, as much of the professional development (PD) I’ve received over the years has had little relevance to my job. I have spent countless hours in one-size-fits-all lectures and trainings that did not pertain to my work because I was required to attend to fulfill my professional responsibilities.
When I started teaching in Kettle Moraine School District after working in a neighboring district, I had similar expectations for PD, but I was surprised to find something different. Two years earlier, the district had shifted from traditional PD to a system of micro-credentialing, which encourages teachers to pursue new learning of their choosing and apply that learning directly to their classrooms. When teachers complete these micro-credentials—or competency-based certifications on topics—they get a boost in their base salary.
Not long after, I was asked to lead a micro-credential based on previous work I had done with Genius Hour. Teachers from all levels and subject areas signed up for the micro-credential, wanting to learn more about this new teaching and assessment strategy that lets students and staff explore their own passions for a set amount of time.
Coming from a district that encouraged little professional growth, facilitating and participating in my first micro-credential was refreshing. I had never been in a room where a second-grade teacher and a high school English teacher could relate, problem-solve, and celebrate with each other. Our meetings provided a chance for staff to hear about the work being done throughout our entire district, which helped as we looked at vertical alignment and the overall journey of our students.
While teachers began the micro-credential as a way to grow individually, most developed professional relationships and partnerships—across grade levels—that extended far beyond it. Two years later, I agreed to join the team of professionals that read and approve proposed micro-credentials for the entire district—a position I still have today.
Three times a year, a two-week submission window opens that allows teachers to propose micro-credentials for completion. Teachers can choose from micro-credentials offered through the district, select ones available through the district’s partnership with Digital Promise, or suggest ones that are specific to their needs.
Micro-credentials offered through the district are usually led by an instructional coach or a group of teachers interested in learning about the same topic. Topics range widely, and have included everything from relearning algebra to using restorative practices in the music classroom.
Once approved, teachers have a year to complete their proposal. Teachers making less than $75,000 per year can apply for $2,000 worth of micro-credentials per calendar year, while teachers making over $75,000 per year can apply for $600. In our last preapproval window, there were 142 micro-credential approval requests; more than 1,500 micro-credentials have been awarded since this compensation model began.
Our assistant superintendent assigns micro-credentials to evaluators invested in the specific skills outlined in the micro-credential. I generally evaluate micro-credentials completed around design thinking, personalized learning, STEM/STEAM, and technology, for example, but depending on the volume of submissions, I might evaluate a micro-credential outside of my field.
In determining whether a plan is viable, evaluators assess if the work will positively impact students, aligns to the district’s mission and vision, and aligns to needs evidenced by the district and/or school data. We also consider whether the work could have an impact on education beyond just our students.
Similar to the two-week window for submissions, there is also a two-week window three times a year for teachers to submit their work for approval. During this time, a Google form is sent to staff on which they can submit evidence of their learning and the application of that learning in the classroom.
As an evaluator, I use a rubric to determine if teachers have artifacts to show: the learning process they went through (such as evidence of completed readings or discussions); the learning process their students went through and how it was measured; samples of student work and reflections on their new learning through video, audio, or another artifact; and the staff member’s reflection on what was learned, how it was learned, the impact, and a prediction of their next steps.
In about a month, each teacher receives feedback on whether their work on the micro-credential was approved. If teachers don’t have enough evidence to share, they receive a “not yet.” When this occurs, they receive formative feedback on how to improve, and they can resubmit their proposal with additional artifacts.
Being a member of the approval committee, I’ve been able to see the long and varied list of micro-credentials our staff have developed and completed. Our kindergarten teachers who work with 4-year-olds are currently creating lessons designed around STEAM and design thinking, while high school and middle school teachers took a course at a local college on how to design online courses to be more accessible. One of our teachers took an online course offered by Stanford University about mathematical growth mindset. The district has offered a course on mental health training.
I have completed several micro-credentials myself, including one on computational thinking that helped me work with students with intellectual disabilities on problem solving and coding.
Micro-credentials have changed the way I—and most of my colleagues—view PD. My professional development now relates to my job, and I’m constantly looking for new opportunities to learn and collaborate with my colleagues. I feel appreciated for my hard work through the salary increase. Instead of an entire school or district being fed the same information, micro-credentials allow many small bits of new learning to take place, personalized to each teacher.
When teachers are encouraged to grow, given the choice to personalize their learning, and then compensated for their work, it is amazing how far they can and will go for their students.