This PD Program Pays Teachers to Solve Real-World Problems in Class

By Alix Mammina — December 19, 2017 4 min read
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Many teachers dread sitting through lengthy professional development courses that offer few relevant strategies for the day-to-day classroom experience. But one school district is seeking to change that with Rocket Ready—a professional-learning program that pays teachers to pursue their passions and solve real-world problems.

Developed in 2016 by the technology team for the Laguna Beach, Calif., school district, Rocket Ready incorporates microcredentials, technology, and cross-curricular collaboration in one yearlong program. The district designed the program to address a key problem affecting the teaching profession: workplace engagement. A recent Gallup poll found that only 30 percent of teachers in the United States are engaged in their jobs, while 57 percent are “not engaged” and 13 percent are “actively disengaged.”

See also: Teachers Are Quitting Because They’re Dissatisfied. That’s a Crisis, Scholars Say

“We were trying to think of a program that would connect [teachers] together with a purpose,” Michael Morrison, the chief technology officer for the school district, said in an interview with Education Week Teacher.

Teachers who choose to participate in the program work through five microcredentials—digital “badges” that focus on proving mastery of a single competency—which each take approximately 15 hours to complete. Each microcredential focuses on a specific skill set of classroom practice, including using technology and engaging students. After producing relevant student work, teachers “level up” to the next microcredential, earning between $500 to $1,000 to spend on their classroom for each badge earned.

The program culminates with the “World Changer” microcredential, which requires teachers to work with their students and other educators—both within and outside of their schools—to solve a real-world problem and create a video demonstrating their work. In the pilot year of the program, one teacher explored how to use solar power to charge laptops in the classroom, while another helped her art students create an installation out of recycled plastic to raise awareness about plastic pollution in the ocean.

Heather Besecker, a 4th grade teacher at El Morro Elementary School, participated in the program last year and led a “World Changer” project on increasing gratitude in the classroom. She connected with a teacher at Crossover International Academy, a boarding school in Ghana for survivors of child enslavement and sex trafficking.

“We teach California history in 4th grade, so we asked the students in Ghana to come up with a list of questions that they would like to know about California,” Besecker said in an interview with Education Week Teacher. “Then my students answered those questions by creating a Google My Map.”

Her students used My Maps to “pin” different locations on a map of California, with each pin offering an answer to a question the Crossover students had asked. Besecker also had her students research the culture, history, and geography of Ghana, to help them understand the differences between their homes and where the Crossover students live.

While Besecker said she usually finds professional-development programs unhelpful, Rocket Ready was different. “With Rocket Ready, it’s things you’re already doing in your craft, but you’re putting a spin on it to learn something new,” Besecker said. “I felt it was way more beneficial and had way more of an impact on my class—it wasn’t just ‘I have to go,’ it was ‘I want to go,’ and I don’t ever really feel that way about professional development.”

For Besecker, the program succeeded in its goal of promoting teacher collaboration. She learned about new technology and classroom strategies from other teachers throughout the program, and collaborated with a high school class that also connected with Crossover International Academy for its World Changer project.

“Our teachers built relationships and friendships through the process, and that really sustained [the program],” Morrison said, later adding, “If I told you that you’re going to do 75 hours of staff development, most teachers would say, ‘Forget it.’ But if you’re with a partner and you’re working on it, and it’s something you’re passionate about, it becomes more meaningful.”

In the future, Morrison hopes to expand the use of Rocket Ready to schools nationwide. A nonprofit is currently in the works, with the goal of helping districts across the country replicate the program.

As teachers increasingly express dissatisfaction with current professional development opportunities, Rocket Ready is one of many unconventional forms of professional learning now offered by districts across the country. My colleague Liana Loewus recently reported that in Georgia, teachers must craft personalized plans for improving their instruction and participate in professional learning communities. “‘How long’ teachers spend in PD is no longer the central question; instead it’s ‘How much did they grow?’” Loewus writes.

Teachers, what does good professional development look like to you? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Images courtesy of Michael Morrison. Top image: Staff members from CUE, a nonprofit educational corporation, serve as mentors for teacher participants in Rocket Ready.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.