Why one Illinois school district is betting on teacher improvement

Four teachers from Forest Park sit at tables and work on laptops during professional development training.
One Illinois school district invested federal emergency funds in professional development for teachers across the district as schools were shuttered during the pandemic. (Courtesy of West40)
The fight to rebuild school communities after years of pandemic-era uncertainty.

Mallory Lawler, a ninth year teacher in Bellwood School District 88, found teaching in a remote setting over the pandemic year challenging. She struggled to find new ways to educate third grade students online and to build relationships at a distance. 

During that year and a half, she felt like a novice teacher all over again.

 “You’re getting into the groove of learning your routines,” Lawler said, “learning how you want to put your classroom together, and how you’re going to build relationships with the kids.” 

Bellwood, where Lawler teaches, is a small K-8 district in the western suburbs of Chicago that serves a majority of Black and Latino students in seven schools. About 99% of the district’s 2,300 students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. According to the state’s own scale that shows which districts get the most funding and which get the least, Bellwood is among the most underfunded districts in Illinois.

The struggles faced by Bellwood teachers during 18 months of virtual learning — it went remote in March 2020 and remained shuttered through the 2020-21 academic year — illustrate the impact of the pandemic on educators, especially those in under-resourced schools, and how those lessons can be carried into a new, challenging year.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought new hurdles for Illinois districts — and for teachers on the frontlines. It also brought the biggest windfall of federal emergency dollars for schools in American history, with Illinois receiving $7 billion. Districts have a lot of say in how they spend that funding, from technology to new curriculum materials to summer programs.

In Bellwood 88, which received about $3 million, officials decided to invest a small percentage — $210,000 — into professional development. But that small investment could pay off in helping the district retain teachers during a trying time and improve their instruction. 

Victoria Hansen, Bellwood’s assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, said that one of the pandemic’s challenges was trying to meet the needs of her educators. Bellwood’s multigenerational teacher workforce ranges from teachers who just graduated from college to those who have been at the district for up to 40 years. Hansen wanted to provide all teachers the opportunity to learn about new technology and new teaching strategies. 

“It became quite a challenge for us to sort of figure out how to personalize the professional needs of all of our staff,” said Hansen. “I said ‘we’ve got to do something different. I’ve got to equip teachers with a new set of skills to help them be able to navigate through this.’” 

A different way to train teachers

Bellwood’s plan was to use federal funds earmarked for professional development for micro-credentials — a flexible way for teachers to take college courses and gain skills in their chosen subject area. Unlike one-size-fits-all professional development sessions, educators have the flexibility to choose courses and potentially earn credits toward an advanced degree, which can lead to a pay bump.

Hansen saw information about microcredits on the Illinois Principal Association’s website and thought that it was a fresh way to do professional development. Usually, the district invites a speaker to talk to teachers about a specific topic for a day. Hansen held these sessions for teachers through the pandemic and will continue to do so, but she saw micro-credentialing as a way to ensure that teachers were soaking up new knowledge. 

“Teachers are doing this while on the job,” said Hansen. “They’re able to practice with the students and have a cohort where they can bounce ideas with others while on the job.”

When Hansen had the chance to offer her teachers courses through BloomBoard, a micro-credentialing provider, she jumped at the opportunity. 

At Bellwood, microcredits were not required for teachers but the courses were strongly encouraged. Hansen worked with the district’s teachers union to give teachers a $500 stipend each time they completed a course. Teachers can choose from several courses such as blended learning, social-emotional learning, learning recovery, and equity in the classroom. 

Christine Jackson — a 17th year general education teacher who teaches second grade in Bellwood — and Patti Baldino, a 16th year science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics teacher — both took a course called “Foundations of Blended Learning.” As districts throughout the state shifted between remote and in-person learning often, this course taught teachers how to use technology for remote learning and create learning plans whether students are in-person or at home. 

The abrupt switch to remote learning left some veteran teachers, like Baldino, struggling to figure out new concepts. But she recognizes that some technology that was thrust into the classroom during the pandemic is now here to stay.

“I’m not all that computer savvy, and I really felt like a dinosaur when all this technology was being thrown at me,” said Baldino. “I felt like I really wanted to increase my skills in that area.”

For Jackson, the course reaffirmed what she already knew for her students to be successful.

”The things that were confirmed were things like surveying, parents, and students on strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, making sure students are a part of developing norms and rules,” said Jackson. 

Baldino said that she would recommend micro-credentialing to other educators who want to stay in their classrooms and pick up a new skill without having to go back to college. 

“I already have a master’s. I don’t want to go back to school for a doctorate, but I felt the need to grow,” Baldino said. “I wanted to learn new things and I want to stay on the cutting edge of where teaching is.”

Microcredits aren’t entirely new. According to Shannon Holston, chief of policy and programs at the National Center for Teacher Quality — a nonprofit advocacy organization in Washington, D.C. — they have been around for about seven years. Some states such as Tennessee are piloting programs across multiple districts. 

Micro-credentialing has some positives for educators, Holston said.

“One positive that micro-credentials do offer is the ability to individualize professional development,” said Holston. “Rather than everybody getting the same professional development session, whether they’re good at that skill or not or need help in that skill or not.”

One of Holston’s concerns is that some teachers who are struggling in the classroom may not be taking advantage of micro-credentialing — and miss out on the targeted training they need to improve

Looking forward to the new school year

Bellwood opened its doors to students this year on Aug. 22. Lawler, Jackson, and Baldino expect some challenges ahead, but feel more prepared this year to take them on. 

Lawler is currently taking a microcredit in social-emotional learning as she is concerned about the mental health of her third grade students who haven’t been inside of a classroom since first grade. 

She has already started to use some of what she’s learned in the social-emotional learning course, such as introducing morning and afternoon meetings. At the beginning of the school day, Lawler does a feelings check-in with her students and plays a quick community building game. At the end of the school day, students reflect on the day, share one thing they enjoyed and one goal they have for the next day. 

“I think our students are coming to us with a lot of trauma that they have experienced throughout this whole global pandemic,” said Lawler. “Whether they lost family members or just from being remote for a year. I hope to be a guiding light for them in dealing with that.”

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