Even though completing the application can take teachers up to 300 hours (outside the working day), cost several thousand dollars, and leave them feeling overwhelmed and exhausted, the hardship is worth it, say teachers who have attained what many consider the gold standard of teacher credentials: the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) certification of National Board Certified Teachers (NBCTs).
Sarah Brown Wessling, the 2010 National Teacher of the Year who was recently feted by President Obama at the White House, vividly remembers the difficulty of undertaking the NBCT process on her own and consciously implementing the standards in her lessons.
During the certification process, Wessling, an English teacher at Johnston High School in Johnston, Iowa, followed 40 randomly chosen students of the 150 she teaches. This meant collecting all the work of these students and keeping brief notes on their learning processes.
"Not only did this reinforce the necessity to see students as individuals, but it also illuminated the importance of seeing the story of each learner," says Wessling.
The NBPTS offers certification in 25 areas, which account for about 95 percent of U.S. teachers, according to the group. If a teacher has the motivation to undergo the rigorous application and evaluation process for board certification in her field, she can reap rewards that are not only personal and professional, but also monetary, as districts in some states often pay higher salaries to NBCTs. But what does it take to be an NBCT?
An Emphasis on Reflection
Money aside, the certification process, with its heavy emphasis on reflection and analysis, also provides insight into the teacher's own practice. Although not a necessary credential, National Board certification provides both internal and external validation, say teaching experts.
"It demands a high level of reflection by the teacher, which is extremely valuable professional development," says Charlotte Danielson, author of the ASCD book Enhancing Professional Practice. "The other reason is external: it permits a school or district external affirmation of the quality of teachers—it's not just that they say they're good, but their skill has been validated through a rigorous, external process."
In her book, Danielson writes that many educators and researchers "believe that the ability to reflect on teaching is the mark of a true professional."
In fact, the NBPTS grew out of the crisis of confidence in U.S. education provoked by the 1983 landmark report
A Nation at Risk: The Imperative of Educational Reform, in which student achievement was said to be falling behind partly because of a lack of professionalism in the teaching field.
The Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy then replied with its own task force report A Nation Prepared: Teachers for the 21st Century, which called for setting up the NBPTS as essential to increasing achievement levels for all students.
The NBPTS, set up in 1987, identified five core propositions to underpin its work in setting teaching standards in a variety of subject areas:
- Teachers are committed to students and learning.
- Teachers know the subjects they teach and know how to teach those subjects to students.
- Teachers are responsible for managing and monitoring their students' learning.
- Teachers think systematically about their practice and know how to learn from experience.
- Teachers are members of learning communities.
Laying Bare the Teaching Process
Certification is not cheap. In addition to a $65 application fee, candidates pay another $2,500 for the assessment itself. The application process includes submitting four classroom-based portfolio entries, each of which includes a video of the teacher in action, along with student work. A fourth portfolio submission should document the work a teacher does outside the classroom with colleagues, families, and the wider community and detail how these efforts influence student learning. A candidate must also complete six 30-minute exercises to demonstrate her content knowledge in the certificate field; these are typically administered at locally designated testing areas. Finally, a dozen trained evaluators in the same field evaluate a candidate's four portfolio submissions against the NBPTS standards.
Steven Willott, a National Board–certified math teacher at Francis Howell North High School in St. Charles, Mo., says submitting his assignments, the student work, and his consequent feedback was "intimidating." "I think of my assignments and feedback as particularly personal. Submitting copies of student work and my communication with my students regarding their work was making me feel vulnerable. I felt strange being judged on my students' work," he recalls.
Willott, who had already thought of himself as a reflective teacher, underwent certification to make the reflection more systematic, but also to get an "objective evaluation" of his practice. The certification process also challenged him to teach differently. For example, to fulfill the requirement for a large-group student discussion, Willott found a way to mirror the deliberative and collaborative process that he remembers from college by giving his AP calculus students a variety of sources about a topic, such as surface area and arc length, that required them to come together to thoroughly explore the various aspects through discussion and board work. This lesson has become a favorite of both Willott and his students, so he uses it annually.
Engaging Parents in Student Learning
Science teacher Dat Le says that although he appreciated the opportunity to engage in deep reflection on his day-to-day practice, clocking nearly 300 hours for the NBCT process was extremely difficult.
"It was like going to graduate school again and putting everything outside of teaching on hold," says Le, who teaches at H. B. Woodlawn High School in Arlington, Va.
Le says he did learn a lot along the way. Watching and writing reflections on videos of his daily interactions with students helped him improve decisions about his lessons as he analyzed which aspects most effectively supported learning. He also found that he could speak more specifically to parents about their children's individual progress.
After one routine call to a parent to introduce himself and share his observations about the child, Le learned that his student had always struggled with math and reading and could easily become stressed. He also learned that the student had an artistic and creative nature and responded well to encouragement. As a result, Le gave the student more support when analyzing experimental data and provided him with lots of praise for small improvements. He also developed lessons that gave his class options to draw, use arts and crafts, and create digital images when appropriate— for instance, in cell model projects. "The artistic student really thrived and at the same time mastered the content area of the lesson," Le says.
Now Le says parents are more likely to open up about their child and become willing partners in their child's success. Le says he finds more parents willing to participate in field trips, science fairs, portfolio nights, and conferences.
Being the Change
When Linda St. Clair, an art teacher at Lakeside Middle School in Nine Miles Falls, Wash., was certified in 2004, teacher collaboration was a new and untried idea in her district. Through the certification process, St. Clair "experienced the power of learning interdependently with a team," and since then, she continues to take part in a Critical Friends Group, which is a highly functioning collaborative learning team whose members discuss teaching and learning, assessment, and reflection. As a result of being an NBCT, St. Clair has taken more leadership roles in art education at district, regional, and state levels.
"As an art teacher, teaching in isolation—one person or one department—is characteristic of my assignment. Being able to work collaboratively gives me the opportunity to experience learning the way we ask our students to learn," says St. Clair.
Wessling says the most rewarding aspect of undergoing the rigors of certification is that she more deeply understands her instructional design and how it manifests itself in her students' work. The NBCT recognition also helped validate that teaching in a different way from one's colleagues isn't necessarily a negative thing—in fact, it can be quite effective.
For example, on the first day of her AP literature and composition class, Wessling doesn't hand out a syllabus and recite her expectations of students. Instead, they read Plato's Parable of the Cave in a circle on the floor with a lit candle in the middle. After reading and working together to make sense of the imagery and metaphors in the essay, Wessling suggests to her students that they'll be able to articulate to her their expectations of themselves, of the class, and her role in the class.
"By the end of class they get that enlightenment comes with hard work, diligence, skepticism, and all the imperfections that create a path," says Wessling.
Tips for Getting Through the Process
Sarah Brown Wessling attained National Board Certification in 2005. She offers the following tips:
- Give yourself time to process the big picture at the beginning, and time to really delve into the student work and recorded teaching segments. The more thinking, writing, and talking you do prior to the actual writing, the more prepared you'll be to focus on how you created teaching moments.
- Cultivate a team of teachers to engage with in the process.
- Find some critical readers who don't already know what you do in the classroom.
- Reserve at least two full days to just photocopy, package, and mail your materials. This isn't something you want to rush through.