Published Online: December 6, 2011

Confessions of a New NBCT

Since becoming a teacher in 2003, I've experienced a myriad of professional development sessions. A few were eye-opening, some were intriguing, many were unconscionably time-wasting, and nearly all were one-time "drive-by" sessions.

Until I set out to earn National Board certification—which I achieved last month.

The National Board process, a lengthy, expertly constructed inquiry into quality teaching, stands head and shoulders above any other professional development opportunity I know of. At age 30, I still have much to learn (and I expect to believe that decades from now), but the National Board process has strengthened my teaching enormously.

What Does National Board Certification Involve?

To become certified in Adolescent/Young Adult English Language Arts (grades 7-12), a teacher completes four portfolio entries. Each entry involves 15 to 30 pages of writing and artifacts. Entry No. 1 requires an analysis of eight pieces of work supplied by two students. Entry Nos. 2 and 3 involve 15-minute videos of your teaching. Entry No. 4 includes 16 pages of collected documents that prove your effectiveness in increasing student learning by collaborating with families, working with other educators, and being a leader among your peers.

Once you turn in the portfolio (which must be done by the end of March), you complete six half-hour essay tests called "Assessment Centers," administered one after another in a computer terminal. You must take the tests by June.

Over the summer and fall, trained evaluators score the 10 items, each weighted differently. Anxious candidates learn the results in November. The maximum score is 400; a passing score is 275.

Candidacy isn't free. Applying for full certification costs $2,500 per individual teacher. If you fall short of achieving certification, you can redo any of the ten items the next year for $350 apiece. More than half of first-time candidates do not achieve certification—but many continue working toward the goal.

Why Do It?

I knew that I was signing up for a lot of extra work, but a number of factors pushed me forward.

• My wife was all for it.

• I want to be better for my students and I'd heard that this was the best way to do it. I also wanted to earn professional recognition.

• I didn't pay a cent. My school covered half the cost and OSSE (Office of the State Superintendent of Education) for Washington, D.C. subsidized the other half. And my school offered a salary bonus for achieving certification.

• I didn't have to jump right into the deep end. In partnership with the Center for Teaching Quality and George Washington University, my school offered the Take One! program for any teacher to try out the certification process by completing just one portfolio entry. Through the partnership, we had access to virtual and in-person mentors. Eleven of us did Take One! and we never felt alone.

• When grant funding lapsed for GWU doctoral candidate Christine Frank to mentor NBCT candidates at my school, she continued to do it anyway on her own time. Her insightful feedback and the structure provided by her check-ins were crucial.

• Only three teachers at my school continued onward to seek full certification this past year—but the entire school, from the administration to the students, cheered us on.

What Do You Learn?

Watching videos of yourself teaching is like drinking a gallon of pomegranate juice— excruciating but startlingly healthy. While watching myself, I noticed some of my distracting mannerisms, my penchant for talking too long, and how individual students come alive when praised. These are things I don't always sense when I’m front of the classroom—but after observing myself, I have made a concerted effort to adapt.

But here's a more specific example. For my portfolio video on whole-class discussion, I needed to craft a lesson that could showcase excellence in the following standards:

• knowledge of students
• knowledge of English language arts
• instructional design and decision making
• fairness, equity, and diversity
• learning environment
• instructional resources
• integrated instruction
• listening and speaking
• viewing and producing media texts
• self-reflection

Now there's a puzzle for a lesson plan.

My old habit for whole-class literature discussion was to plan for pre-selected students or to lead a traditional, freewheeling book-club-style chat. When kids wanted to talk, they’d raise their hands and be called on, one at a time. But with that kind of plan, where is the fairness, equity, and diversity? Is it possible for kids to zone out and retain nothing? Does the lesson design favor talkative people like me? Does that kind of plan integrate multiple types of instruction or is it just the simplest, easiest route?

The old ways aren't good enough for my portfolio. I began to push myself as I planned lessons, moving past my own default settings. In my video, I showcased parts of four different styles for leading a literary analysis discussion. One involved an "opinion continuum": I made an opinion statement based on the text and students had to literally take a stand with their bodies in a place in the room that signified their level of agreement. Everyone participated in the ensuing discussion.

Another segment was a written discussion dubbed "Passing Notes," based on a method I observed in another teacher's classroom. Each student starts with a piece of paper with one of many different discussion prompts. A student has three minutes to respond to the prompt in writing before passing it on to the next student. As soon as they pass their note forward, they receive a new note with a new prompt and another student's idea already written on the page. After five rounds, each student has joined five discussions. Engagement and participation are guaranteed, the students are strengthening their writing, and accountability is built in.

These were good ideas, inspired by the demands of the National Board process. My students' writing on literature was noticeably better after I incorporated these kinds of activities. Now other teachers at my school have adopted them.

Ready to Take Part? Here's How to Get Started.

• Watch the process in action—and invite administrators and parents to do the same. The new documentary Mitchell 20 shows 20 teachers in one high-poverty Arizona school attempting to become NBCTs. It's a poignant demonstration of how National Board certification is good for teachers, good for their students, and good for the school community.

• Find out what resources are available to you. Many schools, districts, and states support National Board candidates in paying application fees (some use Title II funds) and even give salary increases to those who achieve certification.

• Encourage your professional learning community to take part together—or, if direct participation is not feasible—to base your activities on elements of the model.

• Identify mentors. It takes a village to raise a National Board Certified Teacher. The best part is that the National Board process is so enriching that those who achieve certification are eager to pay it forward. Locate NBCTs in your school or district (or, if necessary, a virtual professional learning network) who may be willing to help you through the process.

• Intimidated? Consider starting with Take One! Even completing this one step of the process can lead to powerful changes in your practice—and can "count" toward a future effort to gain full certification.

For additional teacher perspectives on measuring student learning, visit Teaching Ahead: A Roundtable, which focused on the topic this month.

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