Every year, as the deadline for portfolio submissions nears, I find that candidates take comfort and amusement at my own certification story.
Flashback to mid-October 1997. I was in my 9th year of teaching chemistry. I’d also taught biology, physics, and pretty much every math class besides calculus. The district’s curriculum director appeared outside my classroom door one day. She had a news email (back in those days, teachers didn’t have email accounts, so admins had to print anything they wanted to share) from the Ohio Department of Education. She offered me the paper and pointed to a paragraph near the bottom of the page. “Here is some information about a new national certificate. Tom (an Algebra I teacher in my building) is going to do it in Math. This is the first year science teachers are eligible. I think you should do it too.”
I took the paper. There was a cost of $2500. Ohio would pay the entire cost except for $65 to enroll. After certification, I would receive $2500 per year, but that’s not all. Enroll now and there would also be professional development and countless opportunities for professional advances.
I made the call after school and requested the enrollment package. It arrived about a week later. I spent the better part of a Saturday preparing the paperwork and writing letters to verify employment, education, principal support, identification, etc. Geez, I thought, I am not sure what the point is, but hey, for $2500 a year for 10 years, I was in. I would soon have a child in college. Just before Christmas, a box (THE Box) arrived from NBPTS. I placed it next to my desk at home, too busy to open it at that point, and forgot about it.
A week or so later, I picked it up while vacuuming and thought that it felt a bit heavy to be a certificate. I opened it; any candidate who’s been certified for several years would recognize the huge 3-ring binder with hundreds of pages of instructions, the means of sending directions before DVD’s and downloads. The first day back to school after break, I trotted into the curriculum director’s office, dropped the box on her desk with a resounding THUD and said, (expletives deleted), “What is THIS????”
Curriculum Director replied, “Yeah, Tom got one of those over break – I guess now you guys have to fill that out, too. You have to make videotapes for it. I got a grant to pay for the videos but Tom is using it all so you’ll have to get creative.”
I said, “I don’t have time to do this! It’s due in June. I have to teach.”
Curriculum Director: “If you don’t do it, I think you have to pay Ohio back the $2500.”
I managed not to choke her; being a teacher, I have tremendous self-restraint. I did have a few chemistry units that I had been meaning to revise; perhaps this would give me the prodding I needed to polish up those units. So, I “filled it out.” I had no facilitator, no cohort group, no one to read my entries and provide feedback. Tom and I didn’t even really talk much about our work. We just didn’t know what to say. After all, we were in 2 different subject areas. What help could we possibly be to one another?
I set up a template for each part of each entry I had to write and made folders for them, named, well, I really shouldn’t say what I named them. I had a student who could push buttons to videotape my classes. I read the prompts for each entry and answered them as best I could. I said vocabulary words under my breath – words I hadn’t realized I knew. I revised, described my lessons and videos, I analyzed each lesson at the atomic level, and then reflected until I felt like a giant concave mirror, knowing even then that this would be the best professional learning I’d ever have.
Nine years in, most teachers begin to feel comfortable. According to some literature, we peak sometime after year 5. The National Board process created a new, much higher peak I had to climb. I walked into class every day during the process as a more accomplished educator. A lesson I thought was good the week before was no longer acceptable as part of my practice, and was tweaked to be the best thing for my students at that time and place in their learning. I saw that I was impacting student learning in ways I never knew I could do. My focus was on becoming a better teacher, not on the portfolio I would submit. I followed the instructions in the portfolio. I re-read everything I wrote, editing for clarity. I Xeroxed and filled in all the cover forms. I put everything in the correct envelope (apparently). I sent it in, all 6 entries (remember this was in the Olden Days.)
I signed up for the test on the only day in August that the AYA/Science test was offered. I went to Belize twice that summer with student groups, and returned just in time to make it to the assessment center. I promptly forgot about the whole process until October, when I got a letter saying I should watch for a FedEx package in early November. It would contain my results. Results? What did they mean, results? Wasn’t I to get a certificate? I called 1-800-22TEACH (again) to ask. No, someone told me, less than half of the teachers who send in a portfolio are certified. WTF? All that work could be for nothing? I thanked the nice lady with all the courtesy I could muster and hung up.
Beginning on November 1, I went home daily at lunch to check for a package. Nothing. A few more days; still nothing. I decided not to bother going home anymore. Obviously this whole thing was some kind of horrible hoax. All that writing experience would serve me well as I would most likely be filing reports and claims with the BBB. The day I stopped checking for packages, my chemistry classes were doing the Water of Hydration lab. Odd, how I still remember that. A student office aide appeared at my door near the end of 5th period, carrying a flat FedEx box. I looked at the sender – NBPTS. My fingers trembled and I thought how I would no doubt have to call 1-800-22TEACH (again) and ask for an explanation as to why I did not get a certificate. I had sent in damn good stuff.
The class was cleaning up and I wondered whether to open the envelope immediately, or to wait until after school. I later learned that my husband had stopped at home by chance, found the letter, brought it to the HS office, and handed it to my friend Sue the secretary. Sue then made her aide bring it to me because both she and my husband were too afraid. Not being a patient person, I did not hold that thought long.
“Congratulations,” the letter began. I searched the enclosed leaflet for my scores. Was there some mistake? Could this be true? I was certified? Yes indeed. Although there was actually a mistake on AYA/Science score reports that year (the last two assessment center exercise scores were not printed but were included in the total score) I had way more than enough points to certify. I was one of 98 science teachers in the country to achieve certification that inaugural year.
Tom was not so fortunate. He needed to submit twice more as what we now know as an advanced candidate, but he finally certified. Those times, I read his entries and offered feedback. He was an excellent teacher, but had difficulty simply writing to the prompts.
Since then, I’ve had the privilege of facilitating dozens of successful candidates in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Washington, and Oregon. I know that I learn at least as much from each candidate as he or she does from me. In November 2007, I got word that my renewal Profile of Professional Growth earned renewed status. All that I learned and all that I continue to learn, largely as a result of the National Board process, continues to be the most organic and impactful professional learning I’ve ever undertaken. Candidates, take heart. Fellow NBCT’s, congratulations.
Update, April 28, 2014
The growth and learning continue. I’ve taught courses at both undergraduate and graduate level at 2 state universities. Working with pre-service teachers is a privilege. Working with teachers is an honor. Facilitating National Board candidates is intense. Meeting with renewal candidates as they share their professional growth in practice since initial certification is like having a direct line into the practice of dozens of the best in the profession. The best professional learning and improvement to our practice comes from networking with accomplished teachers. The National Board Certification process has provided the opportunity to network with the best of the best in my profession and the skills I needed to learn all that I can from each one. It’s who I am as a professional. I’d love for you to join me as I continue learning to do the very best I can for Oregon’s children.
I’ll renew again in 2016-17, year 28 of my career. I don’t want to have to say that I used to be a National Board Certified Teacher.