The letter from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards arrived in early fall, announcing this as my first year of eligibility to renew my 10-year advanced teaching certificate in Adolescent and Young Adult English Language Arts.
Since the day I received the NBCT title in 2001, renewal was a foregone conclusion.
But then came huge economic shifts.
The fiscal downturn meant the stipend I’ve enjoyed as a board certified teacher in Virginia might be cut. The $2,500 my state provides, added to the $1,000 I get from my district each year, has given me some autonomy for professional development, as well as a buffer for holiday expenses (when the money usually shows up).
The renewal was not cheap—$1,000. I was facing my second year without a pay raise while health insurance contributions have continued to rise. Some teachers would lose their jobs altogether this school year. One thousand dollars was not something to be spent lightly.
The certification would extend my access to the title through 2021. Surely, I would retire before then.
It is also a lot of work. Hours spent gathering documentation, videotaping, editing, copying, writing, reflecting. Paperwork under new data-collection rules at school had already extended my after-school work into the evening and was sapping my energy. And the last round of budget cuts increased my class sizes and workload.
What it Means to be a NBCT
There is a long history to the NBPTS and I have followed it every step of the way. Since 1983, when I was still a novice teacher and the report A Nation at Risk revealed the weaknesses in our education system, I have aspired to be a master teacher. That report gave the following recommendation for improving teaching:
Salaries for the teaching profession should be increased and should be professionally competitive, market-sensitive, and performance-based. Salary, promotion, tenure, and retention decisions should be tied to an effective evaluation system that includes peer review so that superior teachers can be rewarded, average ones encouraged, and poor ones either improved or terminated. (Emphasis mine.)
In 1983, I agreed with this premise. I wanted to be a superior teacher who would be rewarded, not only with increased pay, but with an opportunity to lead without leaving teaching. The report suggested: Master teachers should be involved in designing teacher preparation programs and in supervising teachers during their probationary years.
I wanted that. And I wanted this: School boards, administrators, and teachers should cooperate to develop career ladders for teachers that distinguish among the beginning instructor, the experienced teacher, and the master teacher.
So, I waited for change. And I waited.
Early attempts at peer review left a sour taste. Building supervisors identified master teachers for pay raises and differentiated job descriptions. To those left out of such selections, it felt like favoritism. Sometimes it was.
I watched the horizon, and the NBPTS rose up out of the phrase “peer review.” As its 25 areas of certification were developed, teachers sat on panels to discuss what it means to be an effective teacher of that content. I sat on one and came away electrified. I wanted to be the kind of teacher we described.
When a meeting about National Certification was hosted in my district, I went. By the time I drove the five minutes back to my house, I had decided to apply.
The program made sense to me: Teachers document their teaching and anonymously send it to a board of peers for review. Only the quality of the teaching and the professional’s ability to articulate classroom moves and decision-making would be evaluated. A written test of content knowledge would underscore the teacher’s ability to be effective in the certificate area. No politics would cloud the issue.
That year of reflection on my practice made all the difference in how I view my profession, my teaching, and my ability to explain what quality teachers know and do. It lead to opportunities outside of my district, including this one: writing about teaching. The letters after my name continue to add credibility to my message.
Keeping the Faith
Yet, we still have a long way to go to meet the criteria outlined in A Nation at Risk. It is a national shame that nearly 30 years has passed since identifying needed changes. In the past ten years, teachers have lost even more power in their classrooms and districts while being assigned even more blame for the failures of a public system.
We still have no mechanism for career ladders where I work. Ascension to positions of leadership are arbitrary in most districts. Leadership is still top down with little input from practicing teachers. Salaries are still low and getting lower. Pre-service instruction for undergraduates across the nation is haphazard and expensive. Peer review is non-existent in the careers of most teachers.
But I will not give up hope. I believed then, and I believe now, that the changes recommended in 1983 will result in a vigorous school system that can provide high-quality instruction for all of our students.
We have lived through 10 years of reform where the input from career educators has been ignored, maligned, and sidestepped. The NCLB changes have stagnated student achievement, caused a generation of exemplary teachers to flee the classroom, and threatened a democracy that relies on a well-educated populace to face a rapidly changing future.
So what did I decide to do about my renewal application?
I barely hesitated before I mailed it in last week because I still believe that reform will work when we include our best teachers in reshaping the profession. The job of teacher is one that can be taught, supported, and managed from within. Exemplary teachers know that students are energized when they own their own learning. Imagine the energy from a group of professionals who own their own work.
I’ve waited for our profession to shift for 27 years. I don’t want to wait for change any more. I want to shape it. And if being an NBCT means I might have a voice in that arena, then I want to be an NBCT, now and into my retirement.