Field Trip: Micro-credentials in Action
At the Weilenmann School of Discovery, competency-based learning has taken wing. This week, administrators and teachers share what they’re doing, and why professional learning has never been so relevant.
Executive Director Cindy Phillips, along with several teachers and administrators, tell the story of how micro-credentials and making videos of their classroom practice help each teacher feed their inner student and gain knowledge they can use right away.
- How they got started with micro-credentials
- What it took to get buy-in from teachers
- Breaking through the discomfort of seeing yourself on video, and why it’s so worth it
- The “unexpected, delightful and productive results” competency-based learning has had on other types of professional development at Weilenmann
For more details on how the Weilenmann School of Discovery implemented competency-based learning and the tools they use, you can read their in-depth story.
CINDY PHILLIPS: Making a reality of what you always hope you can bring to your teachers as an institution. You always hope you can bring continuing education, essentially. You always hope you can bring a group that is dynamic, that has a growth mindset, that wants to help each other, that isn’t afraid to continue to learn and to say I need learning. That is always your goal as an institution to create that, but it’s actually really hard to create.
Today, we’re going to visit a school that is doing exactly that.
In this story, we’re talking with administrators, mentors and teachers. Finding out what makes this school unique, and how the school leadership is empowering teachers to engage in learning that addresses their needs, and lets them use what they’re learning in the classroom right away.
We’re taking a look at how teachers are using micro-credentials as well as capturing their own lessons on video to share with colleagues. And, yes, we’ll hear from teachers about how they feel about sharing these videos — and what kind of difference it all makes to teaching and learning.
For Frontline Education, I’m Ryan Estes. And you’re listening to Field Trip.
Today, we’re headed to Park City, Utah. You might remember it as the place the Winter Olympics were held in 2002 — it’s right over the mountains from Salt Lake City. But we’re not here to ski… we’re headed to the Weilenmann School of Discovery.
MELISSA SHUNN-MITCHELL: We are literally on the side of a mountain, so there’s a lot of outdoor education. Students spend multiple times every week outside with integrated instruction. So they’re working on math and science and writing and they’re outside in the field going on hikes, making observations and writing about that, discussing that. So I think that makes it really unique that we do so many things with an integrated curriculum.
Weilenmann is a public charter school, serving kids in grades K through 8. But — and this is important — the story and the takeaways that we’re sharing apply to all types of schools: public and private, large and small, urban and rural.
One thing that sets Weilenmann apart: their administrators spend time teaching in the classroom, as well. Here’s Cindy Phillips, the executive director of the school.
CINDY PHILLIPS: I became a teacher because I wanted to make a difference in the lives of people and especially our future generation, and more than any other field you can change the trajectory — literally — of a human being by being a teacher.
I am almost a full time teacher in addition to being a full time executive. I teach every single student in the middle school, and I teach them Latin. The board has told me, “Don’t do as much teaching,” and I said, “If I don’t, if you don’t let me teach, I won’t be to your executive director, because that’s truly what fills me up as a professional.”
Cindy isn’t the only administrator who teaches. Melissa Shunn-Mitchell is the Lower School Director at Weilenmann.
MELISSA SHUNN-MITCHELL: There are three administrators, the other two actually have courses that they teach in the middle school, but being an elementary school principal, I don’t have a classroom. But I do teach in all the grades, K through five, whether it’s social skills or giving a math lesson.
KAT MITCHELL: I am Kat Mitchell. I am assistant lower school director. I spend half of my day with the Admin team and the other half as a second grade teacher. I would not be an administrator if I wasn’t able to keep my part time teaching position. That was a contingency. I said, “No way, unless I can stay in the classroom for part of the time, I’m not willing to give up that connection that I have with the kids or the connection that I get with my teachers.” Because I am down there with them most of the time.
Teachers are not, as they say, “in it for the money.” More often than not, they teach for the love of it. But in August 2018, PDK International released poll results, finding that more than half of parents said they did not want their children to grow up and become teachers. And pay was just one of the many reasons given. Among other reasons? A sizable number of survey respondents said that they believe teachers are overworked, and that teaching is a thankless job, that it takes an emotional toll.
MELISSA SHUNN-MITCHELL: Teachers need support because their job is really hard. They are not just teaching the core standards that the state tells them they need to teach. They are doing that in addition to being nurses and therapists and parents and just everything that happens in our society with our kids.
And no matter how much knowledge a new teacher has, it’s a field where there is simply no replacement for on-the-job experience.
MELISSA SHUNN-MITCHELL: There’s no one program, whether you’re coming from a traditional teacher education program or you’ve done something different, there’s no one way to gain all of the knowledge and experience that teachers need to be successful to support students.
CINDY PHILLIPS: Pedagogy is it’s its own difficult skill. It’s outside of content and you get this burst of it in your traditional program. Some people who come through an alternative route don’t get any, and you get this tiny little bit of student teaching at the end of your traditional pathway. None of that is enough to teach you how to become a teacher, and you can only learn it on the job, but you can’t learn it just by being on the job.
And so like many schools, Weilenmann has always emphasized the training they provide teachers. Giving them the tools to succeed. And their teachers eat it up.
KACEY WARBURTON: My name’s Kacey Warburton. I have taught here at Weilenmann for two years, going on to my third year. Professional development for me, being a novice teacher, I suck everything in possible I think because I was still in school when I was hired, so I didn’t have all my credentials and license and everything that I needed. And so I was hired willing to suck in any knowledge from other teachers trainings, professional development.
CINDY PHILLIPS: We have always had very ambitious professional development, and it was of the type that you might imagine: bringing in experts, using our experts from within, looking for local and sometimes national conferences, and then having people who were sent to attend those bring back the most salient, important best practices or cutting edge pedagogy.
But professional development, the way it’s often offered, has issues, Cindy says.
CINDY PHILLIPS: It’s quite time consuming and it’s quite inefficient.
And anyone who’s been an educator for any length of time can talk about the limited impact of workshops and traditional professional development.
CINDY PHILLIPS: We can paint with a very broad brush and hope that everybody gleans from it, what they can — bring in experts, utilize our own experts from within — all of those things are actually good. They’re not bad, but they are inadequate.
MELISSA SHUNN-MITCHELL: Just like our students coming in with unique backgrounds, with unique strengths and weaknesses, that’s what our teachers are. They come to us with different strengths and weaknesses, and it’s not a one-size-fits-all for professional development.
KACEY WARBURTON: During professional development where teachers might be replying to emails or taking care of other personal things, or as the instructor is asking a question to the overall audience and it’s silent, you don’t get a response at all from anyone, and then you’re thinking, “Oh my gosh, I really am totally disengaged from this training.”
STEVE WILLIAMS: The struggle we have with any kind of training is time.
That’s Steve Williams. He’s the Middle School Dean, and teaches Middle School English.
STEVE WILLIAMS: Teachers are busy, they work here, they take their work home, and carving out time in the day for them to collaborate with each other and plan together and then talk about it afterwards, that’s a hard thing.
And the leadership at Weilenmann realized, they differentiate learning for their students. They provide time and space for collaboration. Why not do the same for teachers? What would it look like to enable each teacher to seek the learning opportunities that they need as individuals?
CINDY PHILLIPS: And each of those teachers brings very different skills, expectations and understanding of the education world, for instance, compliance or special education, to their position. There is no real way to be effective in professional development and in supporting teachers when you try to treat all those teachers the same. Each one must be treated based on the skills they bring and the needs they have, and also the strengths they bring.
So Weilenmann dove into the world of competency-based learning, this idea that learning can be about demonstrating mastery of a given skill. It’s something they were already doing with their students, grading on the level of mastery based on priority standards that they’ve developed.
CINDY PHILLIPS: When we understood the studies related to students’ learning that focused on assessment based on actual competency, we knew that that’s what we had to do for our teachers.
Fundamentally, competency-based learning is not about grading or points. It’s not about somebody putting a star on your forehead even. It is about student-centered learning that is guided by an expert and reaching a level of skill regardless of how long it takes, how many times it takes to expose that individual or to be self-exposed to that curricula.
Competency based learning always has the advantage over any other learning because it is genuine, and it is immediately felt. And the person who understands the acquisition of the skill immediately has confidence going forward that he or she knows what they’re doing, right? And so it’s a great — it’s the only way to learn. There isn’t another way.
Cindy and her team took a multi-pronged approach to competency-based learning. First, they began offering micro-credentials, and they encouraged all of their teachers to choose two or three to complete.
Here’s how it works: using an online system, a teacher selects a micro-credential that they want to pursue. There’s a clear breakdown of everything that the teacher needs to know in order to complete it. If they need more knowledge or training in the area, they have options for pursuing that learning. And then, the teacher submits certain pieces of evidence to demonstrate mastery of the skill. That evidence might be lesson plans, artifacts, even videos of the teacher giving a lesson… it all depends on what that particular micro-credential requires.
Once they submit it, an assessor at the school — an administrator or veteran teacher at Weilenmann — reviews the evidence and can confirm, “Yes, this teacher has demonstrated that they’ve mastered this skill,” or not, as well as provide additional feedback.
CINDY PHILLIPS: From all the research about any age student – I don’t care if you’re 80, I don’t care if you’re 5 – students love choice. They just do. You choose the things that are more interesting to you Sometimes they’re interesting to you because you’re good at it and want to know more. That’s a valid reason. Or because you’re poor at it and want to smooth away that deficit. But you always are more motivated as a student if you’re given choice – not only choice in what to study, but how to study it, and what I love about the micro credentials that our school’s working on is the variety and choice that our teachers will have in how they learn what they want to learn. And as a teacher of more than three decades myself, I can tell you that students will absolutely give you 300 percent compared to the 50 percent that they would have, if you let them direct their learning and, I might say, their artifact or the way in which they demonstrate their learning.
Micro-credentials, Cindy said, are not just for new or struggling teachers. Great teachers can get just as much out of them. For example, a 20-year veteran teacher who does really well, but might not be as flexible about how they could improve.
CINDY PHILLIPS: Yes. Even that teacher is learning, and you do get teachers who are comfortable where they are. They too, don’t want to, many times, do something new or something that’s better, because of their comfort level, and because what they’re doing has been so successful. And so that affords them an opportunity to see some things in action that are better, to embrace it, to take baby steps toward something better and to challenge themselves, even though they’re good teachers. But again, in a way that preserves dignity, in a way that preserves a little privacy. And then usually when they have some measure of mastery, they’re willing to be more vulnerable at that point among their colleagues and among their administrators.
One of the micro-credentials that Kacey completed dealt with classroom management.
KACEY WARBURTON: When you start micro-credential it has different sections. So for example, within the classroom management section, it has four or five different subsections, and then you can complete different activities within those subsections. So there’ll be videos you can watch, reflection pieces, different questions you can answer. And I think those questions that you answer and the little pieces that you write are the most reflective towards your teaching.
There is a piece called “teacher self-reflection activity,” and so you’re really looking at exactly what are you doing? Are you redirecting students misbehaviors? Are you looking at the framework of classroom management to actually better your teaching? There’s a peer discussion where you can go, and it’s where you talk to other teachers, and really have that discussion and collaboration with other teachers. Any teacher can benefit from that, because having that collaborative discussion is where teachers learn to become better teachers.
CINDY PHILLIPS: I believed that were I to bring this opportunity to my teachers, that they would embrace it, that many of them would go far and above what the minimum requirements are for use and that it would stimulate them to bring us new and innovative ideas for our school and for ways that we could do professional development.
Perhaps more controversially among the staff, the leadership at Weilenmann began asking teachers to make videos of their own lessons, either using a high-tech camera that swivels to follow the teacher around the room, but more often, just using an iPhone. These videos are sometimes submitted as evidence when completing a micro-credential — but more than that, they’re a way for teachers to collaborate with each other and with administrators, around their own practice as they watch the footage. To give and receive feedback on teaching, as well as use the video for self-reflection.
And no, it’s not always comfortable.
KAT MITCHELL: So many teachers feel like they’re under this magnifying glass all the time, no matter what they do. And some of them are like, “You want me to record? You want me to record my classroom? And then you want me to let other people watch it?”
CINDY PHILLIPS: Well, if you’ve ever seen yourself in film or seen yourself or heard yourself on tape for the first time, you know, or an audio, you’re horrified, right? The first you do is you think, “How many times did I say ‘um’?” or, “Do I actually talked to my students with that tone?”
It’s an eyeopener. It’s an eye opener in every way. It causes you to be very conscious of where you stand in the classroom, how you’re moving, what your collaborative groups look like for your students, where the computers are in your room, even the environment of your room, the tone of your voice, the way that you may write something on a smart board or a white board, how difficult it might be to even hear you in some cases if your room structure… you learn all kinds of things and then you calm down and you decide to improve the experience that your students are having based on what you liked and what you didn’t like about what you saw.
What you learn really quickly is what an effective tool this is for helping you improve as a teacher and that it’s not a Hollywood trailer, right, or some something to sell your teaching. It is an unbelievably good way to self-reflect on what you’re doing and what you’re not doing, and how well you’re doing what you want to do.
My teachers were mostly horrified by what they saw. And that’s good, because that means that you know you have room for improvement, and you have an opportunity to restructure that whole provision of teaching. And they did.
My favorite story is, one of my teachers who is really good at whole group teaching found herself in the film with only the top of her forehead showing, time and time again. So hers was more of a technology issue. But what she learned from that was, she was able to just actually hear her voice, and it became an audio instead of a video, but because she was already so good at so many things, just hearing her voice was actually the perfect thing she needed to improve what she was doing, so it turned out to be, even as a mistake, to be very helpful.
STEVE WILLIAMS: Being able to download a video and then get feedback from your colleagues. Maybe they’re watching at home at night, you know, over lunch in the morning, quickly while they’re getting ready, it does give some flexibility.
I think it does allow freedom and that said, yeah, I also appreciate being able to, “Oh, I can look at that this weekend. I can look at it tonight. I don’t need to do it right now,” or sometimes I do have time right now and I can pop in, quickly check it out.
CINDY PHILLIPS: It always is helpful. It’s always horrifying. And then you turn around and embrace what you need to improve, and it’s helpful.
Weilenmann’s push into competency-based professional learning was not something they jumped into blindly. Cindy was up front about the questions they asked as they took their first steps. At first glance, she said, it’s a big task, that seems like a lot of work for teachers. They had to make sure it would do what they needed it to do.
CINDY PHILLIPS: We were worried. We wanted to make sure it was high quality. We were worried, “Will this meet the quality that we need for that kind of a standard?” And we were worried about the buy-in, because one of the things that you will find that teachers sometimes coming from other schools, coming to a new school, they’re bringing their misconceptions or previous conceptions or previous experiences. It’s hard to get them, sometimes, to buy in to professional development. It feels like a day when they could have been working on their curriculum or they could have been vacationing, right? Or hours that they could have spent doing x, which would have been more beneficial for the students. They’re very, very jealous and protective of their time, because they have very little discretionary time, and they want whatever they do with it to matter.
I wondered if this was a difficult change to make, and if they got a lot of push back from teachers at first.
CINDY PHILLIPS: Yes, and yes. None of us currently teaching — even our youngest teachers coming from education preparation programs — none of us has ever done what we’re trying to do. We’ve never seen it done. It wasn’t done for us as students. It wasn’t part of preparation programs, and even those youngest of our students who have studied it hypothetically have not ever engaged in implementing it. And so when you’re doing something at a school that has never been trained for or experienced by anybody in the building and by very few people outside the building, because it’s very cutting edge, you have to first of all be patient, and you have to realize that implementation is going to take a number of years, and it’s going to take continual professional development. And it’s also going to take a lot of people with a growth mindset and a lot of administrative support.
Nobody was talking about this, it, it wasn’t something anyone was doing. And so when we learned about the opportunity to have this kind of professional development at our school, we were very excited, but we were also a little bit worried. We met as an administrative team. We talked about how glorious it would be if we could really bring something with this kind of differentiation to our teachers and knowing as we do teachers — because we are all teachers — that teachers love to learn and that they want it to be real learning and they want it to be challenging learning and they want it to be something they can use on Monday morning, they want it to be very relevant. They’re tired of any other kind of professional development, frankly, and they don’t have time for it.
And so began a journey to win the hearts and minds of teachers. As Weilenmann began to implement competency-based professional learning, it was a culture shift.
Getting started with the training meant emphasizing some significant underlying principles. Number one at Weilenmann is the importance of people — both students and faculty, and how that flows out into the importance of collaboration, in supporting each other through weaknesses and in developing strengths.
CINDY PHILLIPS: We also have a very strict honor code that permeates our professional development culture, which is essentially the guideline for how we treat each other, how we speak to each other, how we support each other in our weaknesses and help each other toward developing strengths. The kind of collaboration we do as an administrative group and as a school, not just as an administrative group. So it starts there, acknowledging that your people are your most important resource, and acknowledging as well that studies demonstrate, embracing those studies that a student’s relationship with an excellent teacher is the difference in career and academic success.
We start with that premise, and so then you have to do two things, if you start with that premise. You have to develop the quality of the people and allow them to develop, and you also have to let them use it. There’s no point in developing qualities of great teaching or leadership abilities or whatever it may be you’re developing and have it hidden away in some corner of the school. So you also need to not only allow your teachers the autonomy to innovate and to utilize new skills in new ways, even if it wasn’t exactly what you had planned, because they’ve now learned something, they’ve grown beyond what they were doing before and want to try it out. As an administrator, if you snuff that out, you have completely undermined the credibility of all the premises on which you say that your school is based.
So you need to let them use it. You need to let them have the autonomy to use it. You’re then valuing them as a professional, and you also need to acknowledge the time and effort they’ve put in to do that. Whether that be in compensation of some kind, in stipending, in some kind of an incentive or in some kind of other way. There are all kinds of ways to incentivize, but to remind people that that time was valuable to you, that you now want them to — you expect them — to use it, and you expect them to enrich their colleagues, their students, the institution, and you expect them to come back to you at some point and tell you how to do what you’re doing better at the school. And if you have a culture that allows for all of those things, the professional development, the training is incredibly meaningful.
Their process begins with something that everyone’s familiar with.
MELISSA SHUNN-MITCHELL: Our teachers have to work on two goals a year, and those are personal for their professional development, their own personal professional development, not as a school.
CINDY PHILLIPS: My administrators, each of the division heads meets with each teacher, each staff member several times during the year. They’re usually attendant to an observation that’s formal or informal, because we do both, and we ask our teachers to set very specific goals that are aligned to our state standards of professionalism. And we identify the micro-credential that goes with that goal.
MELISSA SHUNN-MITCHELL: The teachers will choose things that they want to work on, and we’ve got data collection, we have classroom management, I mean that spectrum is huge because they’re all individual and unique to that teacher and where they are in their teaching career. So they get to choose what will help them in their teaching practice.
That doesn’t mean Weilenmann doesn’t have school-wide goals as well — they do. But it does mean that a large part of the focus is on what each individual teacher needs and wants.
As Weilenmann rolled out the program, every teacher was encouraged to participate. The school even provided a financial incentive for each micro-credential completed, up to three.
STEVE WILLIAMS: We’ve incentivized teachers, said, “Hey, if you want to do this, you don’t have to, you don’t have to do a micro-credential, but if you do, we’ll pay you a little bit of money to take your time and we hope that it benefits you and benefits our school as a whole.” And we’ve also been very open to their feedback about it. So I would say that’s a really big part of this.
As the staff at Weilenmann worked on their micro-credentials over the first year, the leadership at the school noticed a number of things happening, like improved instruction.
CINDY PHILLIPS: We have been able to see observable results from the use of this kind of professional development in our classrooms, and by use of our teachers. What we have seen in general is a huge infusion of a variety of pedagogies that we’ve never seen at our school before, which are effective. I’m not saying that the pedagogies prior were not effective, but what the variety allows for is reaching more students and in more efficient ways. The ones I’ve seen most particularly have to do with the way that you structure your classroom, the way that you deliver instruction and the way that you communicate with your students in the process of doing formative assessment
KACEY WARBURTON: I was able to really see where I could become a better teacher and help the students more, I think is the biggest piece. The reflection piece, I think, is what makes that possible, where you can really look back and when the micro-credential would ask you, “Well, now talk about how you do this in your own teaching,” and you go, “Either I’m doing it or I’m not,” and it makes you want to be able to do it in your teaching and become better.
CINDY PHILLIPS: We had a rather shy, somewhat new teacher to our school who was very, very hesitant to speak up in faculty meeting, whether it be division, grade level, department or all-school. Any. He wasn’t willing to do that. He’s very, very good in his area or subject, but was still learning the skills of becoming a teacher. And I don’t think he felt confident about participating, whether it be in our collaborative groups that we’ve implemented in our school or whatever kind of group.
And so, upon the completion with a highly, highly skilled level of one of the micro credentials, I reached out to him and asked if he would be willing in a faculty meeting to share some of his really significant results from his research that I thought people would be very interested in hearing. And he hesitated for just a moment. I reminded him about how highly he was scored on that, even higher than any teacher that had done that credential so far. And he said, “You know, I would like to do that.” And he was absolutely brilliant, and he has now not only a new kind of standing among his peers, but more to the point, he has a kind of confidence in the choices he’s making as a teacher in his classroom and in his various grade levels that he teaches, to just do what he thinks is best.
And I feel like sometimes that hesitancy that a new teacher brings is the killer. It’s almost better to do something poorly, but just to do something in a teaching situation, than not to do anything. And so the confidence that he now has among his peers, and among a very competent group of peers too, I should add — we have a great group of people at our school — to join the discussion and then to be the real leader in his classroom. It makes a huge difference.
KAT MITCHELL: The micro-credentials, specifically, were really great for helping our teachers first take their own time to do them. We have a lot of teachers that would rather do their PD at home, and having a micro-credential makes that attainable. We also were able to let them choose, but then maybe push some toward other micro-credentials, and some toward some different micro-credentials. So some of our teachers that were struggling with classroom management, I mean there were two classroom management micro-credentials that were very beneficial, both of which required a video. And within that video, they were able to share it with their team, they were able to share it with their administrators and then accept feedback on that.
So not only did they get to do the learning piece, they shared it via a video, and then those videos were shared with their group, which is their grade level team, and then with their administrators. They all got feedback on that. So they got to take what they learned in the micro-credential, take it into their classroom, share it with a couple of different groups, and then receive feedback on it. So it’s really nice to be able to say, “Hey, you’re new, maybe, to project based learning. So there are two project based learning micro-credentials,” or “You’re new to the classroom, maybe you’re a first year teacher. So here are some classroom pieces.
The differentiated instruction was great. In the area that we are up here, you don’t think about it too much, but bloodborne pathogens, [that’s a] big deal. We had several teachers that were very happy that they learned, “How do I handle something like that?” in a more in-depth way than just our half day PD on, “This is how we handle a bloodborne pathogen.”
CINDY PHILLIPS: Several of the micro credentials, although their main focus was something else, had a preponderance of the curriculum focused on professional practices, and it immediately brought a dimension of professionalism, the completion of a micro-credential like that brought a measure of professionalism to that colleague that I’m not sure we could have achieved within even a two year period of experience. So the combination of being in the classroom and really being motivated to learn and understand what you’re doing, along with really good curriculum to support that, and then being held accountable for it by your administrators and by your colleagues. It doesn’t hurt to get paid, either, for your time and to be honest, those combination of things really make you feel like a professional and give you the tools to become a better professional.
And it turns out, by and large, teachers were positive about the micro-credentials, too.
KAT MITCHELL: I personally loved them. I could pace at my own rate, I could do it on my own time, I could share it with others via a video, via a chat, and I like that because it’s more conducive for my time.
KACEY WARBURTON: I think professional development without the micro-credentials is just something where you just sit in a large room. It’s not as collaborative. It’s not as reflective, it’s just someone talking to you. Whereas when you get to do the micro-credentials, it’s a lot more collaborative. You can talk to other teammates about it. It’s right there in front of you, so it’s not like you’re doing this professional development a month ago, and then trying to piece it into your classroom. You can connect it to your classroom immediately.
STEVE WILLIAMS: They’ve all, I think, been surprised themselves and pretty positive about coming away having learned something that they have used in their class. Even the day after they did the micro-credential, or very soon after that, it was something they could take and immediately apply to their classroom, which is different I think than a lot of professional development where you perhaps go away, maybe it’s a summer thing or a weekend, you go away and you learn it and you think, “Okay, I’d like to try that,” but you’re kind of looking down the road a little bit. And I feel like this sort of creates more of an immediacy to the use of the micro-credential, use of the learning, whatever it is.
The thing I like about it, and this is something that I have seen, is that teachers are talking about what they are learning together with each other, which for me, that’s huge.
And I think one thing I’ve seen is that teachers are talking about things they’ve learned. They would talk, they talked about things that they would improve… I have seen that among all of our teachers and I think they want to do this. I think 90 percent of the teachers that I’ve talked with are interested in doing more micro-credentials.
CINDY PHILLIPS: I’ve heard lots of things, but one of the things that sticks out in my mind more than almost anything else I heard, and you may be surprised by this, is the relief. The relief. Teaching can be a very lonely profession. You can get into a situation where, sure, you have a team, but you’re all in three different rooms. You have administrators who get in there and observe and then give you good feedback. You have usually somebody at the school that’s kind of your special colleague that you tell your vulnerabilities to, usually. We like everyone to have somebody like that, but it can be a very lonely profession in many ways.
In fact, almost everything you do with regard to professional development is an effort to get people to improve what they’re doing and then to help other people in, whether it be in a professional learning community or collaborative grade level or division level groups, cluster groups. Because you’re trying to handle the isolation that often occurs in teaching just by its nature.
And so what will tend to happen with the new teacher is she will begin to struggle. She will know that things aren’t going as well as they should. The next move is to maybe tell one of your colleagues, but to definitely play it down. And then the final move is to hide it and to try to figure it out on your own, which you’re not often able to do. So the kind of environment that you want to create in a school is one where people come into your office here, plop down and say, “I am having a terrible time and I need help.” It’s a hard thing to create, because you’re essentially going to your bosses or your supervisors and telling them that you’re horrible at what you’re doing. We’ve worked very hard to create that environment.
But the great thing about this tool is the fact that after the fact, after teachers on their own, self-selected, have learned some of the skills that they need to learn, have mastered some of the things they’ve been weak in, that they’ve self-identified through their efforts on this individualized professional development, they come to you and say, “You don’t know what a relief it is to finally understand how to establish procedures in my class or how to build better relationships with my students or how to do a hybrid class with a combination of technology. And small group learning.” They are so relieved as they come and talk about not what they were bad at, but what they’re getting good at. It’s just that it changes the whole perspective, the lens through which you look at your job and through which you look at professional development.
But what about the video piece? Teachers being asked to film themselves in front of their classrooms? And not just film, but to watch it, and let others watch it? Turns out, a lot of them are seeing the value of it – both administrators, and teachers.
STEVE WILLIAMS: The funny thing is, one of my colleagues who was the least likely to do anything like this was our top, I think he was the top video-doer of the entire state or country or universe or something. Anyway, he did a lot.
KACEY WARBURTON: So it was a reflective video of you teaching and you shared it with your team, and you could go back over. I found when I watched myself teaching, my other teachers made me watch it with them, which was not something I wanted to do, but it was really reflective in the sense of, I heard myself saying the same words over and over again. “Nice, Nice. Nice. Good job, good job.” So my vocabulary wasn’t… I didn’t expand my vocabulary very much with the students.
MELISSA SHUNN-MITCHELL: It’s a big time saver where we don’t need to schedule a time and have an observation, and I’m quickly writing notes while I’m observing a teacher in the classroom. With it being uploaded, I’m able to pause if I need to and type in something bigger to give some feedback.
KACEY WARBURTON: For me, it was a little nerve-wracking. That’s my boss, that’s my head boss. And so I wanted it all to look very nice as she was reviewing all of it. So it was a nerve-wracking process, but I got great feedback from her, whether it was constructive or just really positive and it makes me feel like, “Okay, they’re watching my stuff, they’re seeing what I’m doing in my classroom and they like it,” or, “They’re giving me really good feedback to become better.”
STEVE WILLIAMS: Watching lower school teachers guide their students through a lesson or with the kind of scaffolding that they do – I think they do that really well and I find that really helpful even as a veteran teacher to see young teachers doing that — was actually kind of professionally developing for me as I was evaluating them. I was also getting some really good, good ideas.
Some teachers even watch the playback of their lessons with their students. It’s a chance for students to see the content again, of course, but it goes beyond that.
KAT MITCHELL: So this year was the first time that I filmed myself and I said, “Well, somebody has to start, so here we go,” and I put my phone up and I started, and it was a quick lesson and the students said, “Ms. Mitchell, what is it you’re doing?” And I said, “Guys, I’m filming my own teaching and we’re going to watch it.” And they said, “Oh, okay.” I said, “I want you to tell me how you feel like it went.”
So I put a rubric up, kind of like the ones that we create for them on any of their projects, and told them “This is what my team is going to look for when they go back through my video, and they are going to look for these things.” And they said, “Okay.” And when we got done we went back through and we watched it via my projector on the whiteboard. And through each piece they were able to say, “Oh wait, see, look right here, we weren’t doing that. We weren’t engaged, we didn’t know we weren’t engaged.”
So it really worked well for me to see that they understood what they should be doing. I understood the pieces that I am strong at and the things that I need to also improve on. And I think they felt a little bit more connected to it, because I let them watch what we’re doing. I think sometimes we will record something or we’ll tell the students we’re going to do something, but then they don’t ever see the wraparound of that. And when they are able to see the wraparound of that, I feel like their want to learn becomes deeper.
The students, she said, wind up reflecting on their learning in much the same way she is reflecting on her teaching.
KAT MITCHELL: And it’s actually wonderful to watch. I mean, it’s hard. You can’t teach motivation, especially intrinsic motivation, but you can always give them the opportunity to reflect on a situation and find the great things that happened, and find the things that they could have maybe done better…. And the conversation is not a negative piece. It was not, “Oh look: Johnny was doing that while the rest of us who were doing this.” It is very much, “Oh, I see that even though I thought that I was doing this, I really wasn’t. I could have done it better in this other way.” And those conversations, they start themselves. It’s fun to see.
It has now been over a year since the Weilenmann School of Discovery jumped head-first into the deep end of the micro-credentials pool, since they started encouraging teachers to film themselves teaching, since they began splashing around in the refreshing world of competency-based learning. Looking back, what have they learned? Cindy said if they could go back and do it again, they’d implement this model in slower and more measured steps. And they’d be more patient, both with teachers and with their school as a whole.
I asked them, what would they say to any other schools or districts who are considering making the leap into micro-credentials?
CINDY PHILLIPS: I would say the first thing they need to do is look at the research. You know, if you don’t make good research-based decisions as an institution, you’re bound to just be sort of kicked around by every fad and every new thing and every charismatic group. You look at the research on the efficiency to time of this kind of a provision of professional development, and you just can’t beat it. So look at the research and be open minded, and then just take action.
KAT MITCHELL: Instead of assigning them a micro-credential, we asked them to choose, please choose one, two, three to do. And when we asked them to choose, we had far better success in them wanting to do it when they were choosing the micro-credential. And that’s the same that we find in our teaching. If we let our students choose what they’re going to do, then we have a better success rate.
STEVE WILLIAMS: Communicating early and up front with faculty about what it is, is important. Making clear to them that you’re interested in their feedback about it. I don’t think anyone appreciates just a push-down initiative. There’s a need to feel like whatever sort of plan is being introduced, that there’s opportunity to talk about it, and it’s not just something you have to put your head down and do. And I think that gives people strength and it gives them a sense of, kind of like they’re a part of this and that their feedback really does matter in the process.
CINDY PHILLIPS: I would say, have more fun with it from right from the beginning, just like you do with your students. Students will always do something that they perceive as fun and that they see that there’s something meaningful about it. You’ll always get investment, so I would say that one of the best ways to get that buy-in before the first year even starts is to have a fantastically fun moment with your teachers where you’ve previewed all kinds of great curriculum, assign it out and have the teachers demonstrate how they’re going to use it the very first day, so that your buy-in is almost immediate because it’s fun and meaningful. Just the same way you would hook your students in.
They also suggested connecting people together for support
KAT MITCHELL: Hey, if you’re ready to start another micro-credential, this is the group that is also starting the same micro-credential…
Building time in to the school’s strategic schedule to focus on them.
KAT MITCHELL: You know, we’re coming up on a break that’s about a week long…
Working closely with teachers to help them become comfortable.
KAT MITCHELL: Helping them to just be comfortable. I’m comfortable in what I’m doing and the content that I’m putting out and give them the opportunity to say, “This is what I’ve learned in my micro credential…”
And fostering a culture of learning across the entire building, administrators included — even having administrators complete micro-credentials themselves.
Taking the time to really work through all of these things, they said, takes work, but it’s worthwhile.
KACEY WARBURTON: If you are thinking about introducing micro-credentials to your staff, I say you should definitely do it. The professional development is more collaborative, more relevant and more effective to each specific teacher than regular professional development.
CINDY PHILLIPS: You always hope you can bring a group that is dynamic, that has a growth mindset, that wants to help each other, that isn’t afraid to continue to learn and to say, “I need learning.” That is always your goal as an institution to create that, but it’s actually really hard to create. Most of us do it all right. But by using this tool, we have come very close to achieving our goals of making meaningful, usable, satisfying, collaborative, continuing education a seamless part of everything we do at our school.
A special thanks to Cindy Phillips and her colleagues at the Weilenmann School of Discovery in Park City, Utah for speaking to us in this story. If you’d like to find out more details about Weilenmann’s journey in competency-based learning, including the tools they’re using and how they implemented micro-credentials, visit FrontlineEducation.com/WSD. You can see pictures of the school, read their case study, and hear additional audio from Cindy, Kat, Steve, Melissa and Kacey.
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Field Trip is a podcast from Frontline Education. Frontline supports the world of K12 education with software built exclusively for schools and school districts. It’s designed to help you recruit, hire, engage, grow, and retain teachers and staff. To find out more, visit FrontlineEducation.com/FieldTripPodcast.
For Frontline Education, I’m Ryan Estes. Thanks for listening, and have a great day.