Published: June 18, 2020 By
Teacher in classroom with student wearing virtual reality goggles.

Credit: CU Boulder School of Education

CU Boulder’s School of Education will soon launch a new online master’s degree program designed to address the shortage of teachers in Colorado’s rural communities by supporting teachers to stay in the classroom.

The CU Board of Regents voted to approve the new degree, a Master of Arts in Teacher Leadership, on June 18. Pending final approval from the state Department of Higher Education, the program’s first classes will kick off in fall 2020. 

The School of Education developed the program with input from partner educators in rural Colorado. It promises to support teachers who are looking for an affordable and accessible pathway to develop new skills and competencies and to help teachers gain confidence and connection to other educators, said Emily Gleason, faculty director for the new degree.

“We hope these certificates will help teachers committed to their profession who may feel that they lack knowledge to meet the needs of changing populations," said Gleason, senior instructor in the School of Education.  “The idea is to nurture possibilities for teachers to develop leadership skills and tools that they will enact in their classrooms, share with their peers and implement at the school and community levels. 

“The teachers we worked with shared their excitement about greater opportunities to learn and connect. They are hungry to learn more and join a community of teachers to talk about important content areas and tools to create sustainable practices.” 

Kathy Schultz, dean of the School of Education, agreed.

“This innovative program reflects our commitment as a school to teachers in rural Colorado and promises to provide them with knowledge and skills that will allow them to take on leadership roles from their classrooms,” Schultz said.

Many hats

The new program addresses a major concern in rural Colorado, including in communities, such as Haxtun and Julesburg, in the northeast corner of the state: many schools in this part of Colorado are underfunded and short on qualified teachers. Teachers in those towns, as a result, wear many hats and hold multiple positions, Gleason said—from teaching science to coaching sports teams and even driving school buses.

“They’re doing it all and doing it well,” Gleason said. “But they’re eager for more learning opportunities and more resources.”

This is where the new degree comes in: Gleason and Dan Liston, faculty advisors for the program, and their partners in Northeast Colorado designed the new master’s program to help schools retain teachers who are overwhelmed working 60- or 80-hour weeks.  

The program, which runs entirely online, revolves around a series of “stackable” certificates that focus on key topics in education. Teachers, in other words, can pick and choose from seven areas identified by teacher partners. The initial courses for each of the certificates are self-paced followed by a summer capstone course that teachers attend online with a cohort of peers. Once students have completed three certificates, they’ll receive their master’s degree in teacher leadership. 

“If a teacher just wants to do one certificate, that’s great, too,” Gleason said. "We wanted to provide many pathways and a low-barrier experience that would be dynamic, rich and feasible for busy teachers."

The School of Education selected content areas for the certificates by drawing on focus groups with teachers and school administrators across the state. The program will launch with an initial suite of three topics of study: “Social and Emotional Learning,” “Leading for Change in Science Assessment Practice” and “Teaching Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Learners.”

By fall 2021, the program team plans to expand to a full offering of seven certificates.

Homegrown leaders

Gleason said that the ultimate goal is to help Colorado’s teachers realize their potential as leaders, both in their classrooms and in their communities.

“I hope there will be ripple effects in these schools where these teachers will take their new knowledge and tools and share them with their peers,” Gleason said. 

The teacher leadership program’s accessible approach is being looked at as campus model for future online offerings. The Board of Regents also approved four other degree programs at today’s meeting. They include online master’s programs in corporate communication, outdoor recreation economy and data science and a traditional master’s program in data science.

“These new online master’s programs represent CU Boulder’s commitment to innovation and impact,” said Robert H. MacDonald, dean of the University Libraries and senior vice provost of online education. “Not only will these programs offer individual opportunities for students to advance in their professional careers, they will provide a significant impact to our communities and to the economy at a time when the need is significant.”