Unique challenges require unique solutions.
When the COVID-19 pandemic forced many school districts to abruptly shift their education to a distance-learning model, teachers and administrators had to adapt their curriculum and teaching styles to a virtual setting. The challenge was twofold: teachers had to learn how to use the online tools at their disposal and how to develop and nurture relationships with their students through a digital format.
CPS found a solution through its Distinguished Educator program, a gamified professional development track focused on maximizing the use of digital tools and building connections with students in the virtual classroom.
"We knew that our teachers wanted a professional development program that would help them learn, grow and support students," says CPS Digital Learning Manager Megan Safko-Preslin. "We've always talked about gamifying professional development, but this was the chance to figure out how to do it best and in a way that we could keep up with it. We really wanted to give teachers the chance to feel like they were leveling up in the process."
The program has four distinct stages, each one with badges and certifications built around a set of new skills and tools:
- Stage One — Curriculum Content: Technological competency and aptitude
- Stage Two — Connection: Developing student relationships
- Stage Three — Collaboration: Cooperation and culturally responsive teaching
- Stage Four — Creation: Innovation, adaption and beyond
The Distinguished Educator program was developed in collaboration between CPS' Learning Technologies team and Curriculum and Instruction team, along with instructional design and technology experts from the University of Cincinnati.
"You can't do something this ambitious by yourself," points out Safko-Preslin. "Everyone worked together for the sake of our teachers, administrators and most importantly, our students."
By the fall of 2020, more than 98 percent of district educators had passed stage one and more than 40 percent had passed stage two. More and more teachers are earning their certifications every day.
CPS Director of Curriculum and Instruction Emily Campbell says that the buy-in from teachers across the district has been remarkable.
"It's not often you get a whole system to say, 'let's level up,' but that’s exactly what's happened here."
While some teachers have worked through the program on their own, others have teamed up and collaborated with one another to share tips and learnings as they progress through the program.
For Safko-Preslin, it is the collaboration and dedication that stands out most to her.
"I am so amazed by how far the teachers have gone above and beyond for their students. That's what makes me emotional. My advice for teachers from the start was just, 'try one new thing.' They've all done that and so much more. The dedication they've shown just blows me away."