Later this month, thousands of teachers will go online to find out if they have become National Board Certified Teachers. This moment will come after eight months of hard work, and six more months of waiting. They will be nervous, I know, because in November of 2004, I did the same thing.
For me, pursuing National Board Certification was the absolute best professional decision I ever made. It was also one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. In many ways, it was like a long, slow gladiator fight, battling beast after beast until I was the last one standing, bloody and dirty, but victorious.
If you’ve gone through the process, you know what I mean. If you’re considering it, I’m here to tell you that you’re in for a fight, but when you’re done, you’ll be stronger and better, and so glad you did it.
Early in my teaching career, I thought the only way to advance in this profession was with more degrees: a master’s for sure, and possibly a doctorate. Then I attended a conference in Detroit, where I learned about the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS), the organization that offers National Board Certification. I fell in love with the idea instantly: Phrases like “the most challenging thing you’ll ever do” and “only 40 percent of candidates pass the first year” had my overachieving inner child positively drooling. But you couldn’t apply without 3 years of teaching experience, and the $2,000 price tag was steep, so I put it on the back burner for later.
Fast-forward to August of 2003. I sent in my application fee, and a few weeks later, my mailman delivered THE BOX. About the size of a briefcase, the box contained a dozen or so large envelopes and instructions for completing my portfolio, which would be due in April of the following year. Although the specific content is different for every certification area (find yours here), portfolio requirements are similar across the board: two video entries of actual teaching practice, one in-depth examination of student work samples, and Documented Accomplishments, where candidates provide evidence of work with families and the community, work as a learner, and work as a collaborator and/or leader.
But that was not all. In addition to the portfolio, my certification would also be based on a 3-hour written exam I’d take in the Spring. It would assess my knowledge in literary analysis, reading and writing instructional theory, and language study; all areas I’m expected to have expertise in as a language arts teacher.
With my work laid out before me, I began. Over the next six months, I read and wrote and thought more deeply than I ever had before. The process was incredibly time-consuming, life-consuming, and at times I couldn’t believe I’d actually paid money to put myself in that position.
What made it so hard? And is it even worth the trouble? In the nine years since I achieved initial certification, I have figured out just what made it so challenging for me. It was four things, really; four things they don’t cover in the instructions.
And yes, it’s definitely worth the trouble.
The Four Beasts of National Board Certification
Without a doubt, earning National Board Certification requires serious immersion in best practices for your content area. But being well-versed in good teaching isn’t enough to get you all the way there. Because what’s really being tested is your ability to fight four massive, intangible beasts that come after you again and again throughout the process. If someone is able to prevail against these four, they’re well within their rights to do a bit of chest-beating when it’s all over.
The Beast of Logistics
Assembling your portfolio requires obsessive attention to detail. The instructions contain page after page of specs that address everything from font size to page length to how much you should enlarge your driver’s license when photocopying it. There are dozens of cover sheets. Dozens of forms to be signed. And everywhere, everywhere, this panic-inducing message: If any of these components are missing or incorrect, your entry will not be scored.
The time it took to me comb through these details may have actually exceeded the time I spent planning and teaching the lessons themselves. What does any of this have to do with teaching? I wondered.
I’ll tell you what it has to do with teaching: Teachers have to pay attention to details. Teaching is not comprised entirely of floating into classrooms, emitting bursts of Rain Man-like brilliance, and floating away again. We have to align our lessons with standards, complete IEPs and gifted service plans, and make sure our credentials are up to date. We need to read about new strategies, keep up with advancements in our field, learn new technologies, and pursue graduate studies. A gifted actor still has to be counted on to learn his lines and show up on time for shoots. A gifted surgeon still needs to follow hospital procedure. Any principal will tell you that a teacher who isn’t able to consistently read and follow instructions is a constant headache. If we are going to call ourselves professionals, details have to matter.
What helped me fight this particular beast was joining a support group, led by two experienced NBCTs. In our monthly meetings, we read and re-read the instructions, discovering the minutiae that could sink us if we weren’t careful. Without this group effort, I surely would have missed something. If you don’t have access to a support group, even finding one other candidate to work with can go a long way. Just don’t try to do it all by yourself.
The Beast of Procrastination
Because certification is self-guided, candidates have to plan and stick to regular periods of work. I’m sure there are some people who manage to pull together everything they need at the last minute, but they are the exception. (They are also probably the same people who have perfect marriages, easy pregnancies, and “don’t need much sleep.”)
This beast is the one that sets National Board Certification apart from graduate degrees. In most graduate programs, students have regular assignments, meetings, and other deadlines that force them to keep up a steady stream of work. Someone who has earned their NBCT did not necessarily have any of that structure, so the credential tells you they were somehow able to manage their time well enough to get everything done, and done well.
My support group was also key to meeting this challenge. Our mentors set “suggested” deadlines for bringing in drafts of our entries – failure to do so had no consequence, but we’d miss the opportunity for feedback and would fall behind. This process can easily be replicated in a smaller group, or even on your own: However you do it, setting mini-deadlines along the way will get you to the end in one piece.
The Beast of Holdups, Delays and Setbacks
Pursuing National Board Certification forces you to keep going long after you think you’ve had enough. Things will go wrong: Cameras will record without sound. Lessons will flop. Students whose work you planned to use will move halfway through the year. You will get sick. Snow days will happen. Setbacks like these will discourage some candidates to the point where they just can’t keep going. If you can, you’re demonstrating a tenacity that sets you apart.
This tenacity becomes especially critical if you don’t certify the first time around. Many candidates do not earn high enough scores to certify in their first year of candidacy. Once they receive this news, they must choose which items to do a second time around – often a combination of some portfolio entries and portions of the written exam. You can “bank” the scores you’d like to keep, then re-do others for a higher score. Sounds simple, but the inner strength it takes to get back on that horse after so much disappointment is incredible. Some think it’s a negative thing to certify in your second or third year; I say those are the people to admire more, because they didn’t give up.
The key to beating this beast is simply knowing it’s there. Just be ready for it. Plan for things to go wrong. Do a lot of trial runs. Consider the first lesson you record to be the first of many. Go into the process fully expecting that you’ll have to re-do some things…
Which brings me to the last beast, the biggest and fiercest one of all.
The Beast of Ego
Among my certification materials was an 80-page booklet of standards that would be used to score my work. These standards scared the crap out of me. The more I read, the more I thought: I don’t do that. I don’t do that. Not that either. Who does all that?
Here’s an example; just one section of one of my sixteen standards: Accomplished teachers facilitate classroom conversation. In these teachers’ classrooms, students can be found engaging in exploratory conversations about texts. Students pay attention to one another’s comments about texts, ask each other questions, challenge one another, defend their individual opinions, and work cooperatively toward reaching consensus or clarifying and understanding differing perspectives about matters of urgency to them and their peers.
It sounded like heaven. And nothing like my classes.
Every standard I read made me feel more and more incompetent. Freaking out one night, I called Lynn, one of my support group mentors. I’m pretty sure I was crying.
Me: These standards. There’s just so much! They’re impossible! I hardly do any of these things!
Lynn: (pause) … So start.
Lynn: Start doing some of them. No one does all those things all the time. It’s an ideal. Something we should all be trying to do. If you haven’t been doing them yet, now’s the time to start.
That advice helped more than she knew. I took a breath, stepped away for a day or two, then looked through the standards again and picked a few areas I could work on. Instead of turning my anxiety on the standards themselves, dismissing them as unrealistic, I began to recognize their value. And after wallowing in self-pity because the standards were too hard, I started to get motivated by their near-impossibility. Didn’t I want high standards? What was the alternative? Standards that basically said, Just do what you think is best, and that’ll be good? You’re perfect no matter what? Not really. And hearing Lynn say that no one exhibits these all the time calmed me down. There’s a reason you get half a year to assemble your portfolio: Pulling together your very best work takes a LOT of time.
A few weeks later, I found myself in despair again. This time over the word EVIDENCE. It kept turning up. In every portfolio entry, they kept asking me to point to evidence of student learning.
Evidence? I thought at first. I beg your pardon? Is it not enough to teach with supreme energy and grace?
It sounds strange to me now, but the concept really was baffling at the time. In one video, I had to show myself conducting a whole-class discussion. I did that, and thought I’d really done a good job. But then, in my written analysis, I had to point to specific instances in the video where student learning was evident. And, well…I couldn’t do it. They talked, of course, but did the things they said actually demonstrate that they were reaching my stated objective for the discussion? Not really.
Despite having what I originally thought were great video entries, I ended up re-doing both of mine. Because even though I had already put so much work and time into those lessons, when I started writing up my analysis, I realized I couldn’t point to the kind of evidence I was supposed to have. There was no way to BS this one. I had to actually get better.
Getting over your own ego is most definitely the biggest challenge of National Board Certification. And it’s the one that makes the biggest difference, too. Because pursuing certification isn’t really about proving what a great teacher you already are; it merely shows you the path to greatness. If you’re able to drop your defenses, set your ego aside and take some good, heavy steps on that path, then…then you’ve earned the right to put the NBCT after your name.
A Fight Worth Fighting
Certification did not make me a flawless teacher. What it did was give me a process for making sense of the times when things go wrong. And the urge to make sense of them. And the belief that it’s my responsibility to make sense of them.
And that’s it right there, the reason it was worth it: Above all else, certification made me believe the buck stops with me. If my students don’t learn, it’s on me. Even if they come from chaotic environments – it’s on me to figure out how to reach them. Even if they are chronic absentees – it’s on me to connect with their families and help them devise a plan to improve attendance. Even if I have an unsupportive administration, toxic co-workers, limited supplies. It’s on me. If the air conditioning goes out, if the Internet is down, it’s on me to improvise, to model good character, to lead. Throw bad policy at me — I’ll find a way to teach my students anyway. I know what I need to do. I am the teacher. I am the professional. It’s on me. ♦
What is National Board Certification? Issued by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, the certification takes 1 to 3 years to complete and is the highest professional certification a teacher can earn. National Board Certification is offered to educators from pre-K through high school, in just about every subject area, including concentrations like Career and Technical Education, English as a New Language, Physical Education, and Counseling.
Have you considered pursuing National Board certification? What questions or concerns do you have? If you are already an NBCT, tell us about your experience. Would you recommend the process to others? How has it impacted you?
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