What Price Success?
When Kathleen Reeves began the long, intensive effort to gain national certification as an outstanding English teacher, it was big news in suburban Detroit.
A reporter from The Detroit News wrote a story about the rigorous certification standards set by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, and Ms. Reeves' picture ran on the education page. The article and the photo went up on the bulletin board in the teachers' lounge at Seaholm High School in Birmingham, Mich.
It didn't take long for Ms. Reeves' colleagues to let her know what they thought about the publicity. Within days, someone had drawn a red mustache across her upper lip.
"That was pretty much the attitude," Ms. Reeves, who went on to become certified, said recently. "One teacher said, 'Well, there's the master teacher.' She was very sarcastic."
Few Chances for Recognition
It has always been difficult for teachers to stand out in an occupation that values conformity and insists that everyone be treated and paid alike. Yet many teachers find it frustrating to see their efforts to excel ridiculed and scorned by their colleagues.
A Herndon, Va., teacher--one of the first to become nationally certified--regularly finds garbage in his mailbox. A Utah teacher's co-workers passed an insulting note about him after he was named the state's teacher of the year. And some winners of the $25,000 Milken Foundation awards get the cold shoulder.
As the national teaching-standards board spends $50 million to create its voluntary certification system, policymakers will have to grapple head-on with these attitudes. The privately organized group is asking states and school districts to foot the bill for teachers to undergo the expensive assessments and to create incentives and rewards for them to do so.
Terry Knecht Dozier, a special adviser to U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, suggested that some teachers are cool to colleagues who receive special honors "because there are so few opportunities for teachers to be recognized for their expertise and knowledge."
The awards programs that do exist, she said, are often viewed as little more than popularity contests because their criteria are unclear to teachers and the odds of winning are so long.
Ms. Dozier has felt the sting of other teachers' disapproval herself. In 1985, she was chosen the National Teacher of the Year in the competition sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers and Scholastic Inc.
"My selection [as teacher of the year] was one in 2.6 million chances," she said. "That's crazy. There are so many wonderful teachers out there, but with those odds you can see why teachers would be cynical and envious."
So far, the Detroit-based national board has certified 176 teachers--generalists and English-language-arts specialists--who work with children in early adolescence. This month, it is expected to announce the results of another round of assessments in those fields.
Many board-certified teachers emphasize that there is a big difference between certification--which is earned--and awards that are bestowed on teachers.
"Awards, by their nature, are political," said Patricia Simonds, a certified middle school generalist who teaches at Truman Elementary School in Vancouver, Wash. "Being certified is an affirmation of what I do well. It's the first time I have felt really proud to be a teacher."
In contrast with awards competitions, candidates for national certification are given the standards by which they will be judged in advance and are expected to use them in the assessment process. Their work is evaluated by other classroom teachers. And the prerequisites for undergoing the process are designed to make it available to a large number of teachers.
Since Ms. Reeves became one of the nation's first certified English-language-arts teachers, her Birmingham colleagues have been more positive. The school board threw a reception for her. And last month, she was thrilled to shake President Clinton's hand at a gathering in the East Room of the White House.
Still, the hurt lingers.
Although she is the vice president of the Birmingham Education Association, Ms. Reeves said her union has been less enthusiastic about her achievement than the school board.
"They don't want to acknowledge me for fear of offending those who were not certified," she said. "It's a way of being compassionate, but it's shortsighted.
"I'd like to see [the union] in the forefront, being stronger advocates for those who will make us look good, instead of those who make us look bad."
Although some teachers who have encountered hostility from their peers after gaining public recognition say that jealousy is simply human nature, some aspects of teaching appear to encourage it.
The general lack of recognition for good teaching creates so much frustration that teachers denigrate--rather than celebrate--those who stand out, said Joyce Elliott, who teaches English and speech at Robinson High School in Little Rock, Ark.
"There is a syndrome of equalizing down rather than equalizing up," said Ms. Elliott, who also serves on the national board's 63-member governing board.
The way teachers are paid, assigned to classrooms, and evaluated also contributes to this leveling effect.
"We give a 20-year veteran the same responsibility that we give a first-year teacher," Ms. Dozier observed. "We're indoctrinated with the idea that we're all equal and nothing distinguishes us except years of experience and college-credit hours."
National teacher certification--often likened to the legal profession's bar exam or board certification in medical specialties--is aimed at strengthening standards in teaching and recognizing good work so that teachers do not have to leave the classroom to advance professionally.
Its supporters hope that certified teachers will play new, larger roles in their schools and districts. At a minimum, it is hoped they will share their expertise with other teachers.
Since becoming board certified, Vancouver's Ms. Simonds has given workshops on meeting the needs of gifted children in regular classrooms and has spoken to groups of teacher-educators about the national board's work.
But she is disappointed that not one of the nationally certified teachers in her district is supervising a student-teacher this year. Such mentoring has long been a way for good teachers to spread their expertise.
"I think it's my responsibility to try to impact other teachers so they can help their students," Ms. Simonds said.
Although her state union, the Washington Education Association, has been supportive of the national board's work, Ms. Simonds said, her local affiliate has been more hesitant to embrace a mechanism that differentiates among teachers.
In contrast, Connie Mitchell, a nationally certified middle school generalist in Detroit, has been given a new position tailored to her expertise.
Her district created the job of "teacher advocate" for her. In that position, Ms. Mitchell will find ways to improve the substitute-teacher pool, support new teachers, assist struggling ones, and encourage other Detroit teachers to shoot for national certification.
"A lot of teachers are cynical because so often we have been set upon by others outside the profession, who didn't really understand what we were doing, but thought they had the answers," Ms. Mitchell said in explaining attitudes toward the national board.
"Once teachers were able to understand what this is and what it equates to, then they're great."
Many teachers are socialized to believe that anything that takes them away from their students is harmful, Ms. Dozier said. That makes some teachers resentful of colleagues whose awards and professional-development activities require absences from the classroom.
This attitude may make it difficult for candidates for national certification to take the time they need to put together the required portfolios, Ms. Dozier said, even though many teachers describe the process as one of the best experiences of their careers.
Richard K. Bojak, the Utah Teacher of the Year for 1995, noted that seeing successful colleagues earn recognition can be especially discomforting to worn-out teachers who do little more than collect a paycheck.
Mr. Bojak, a psychology teacher and football coach at West Jordan High School, said the compliments and positive experiences he has received far outweigh the snide comments
But he remembers the insults with great clarity.
A pal who is the art teacher at his school, he recounted, printed note pads for him with his picture and the words "Coach Rick Bojak." Someone on the staff got hold of the pads and distributed pages throughout the school; on them were scrawled: "If you need help teaching, come see me. I can do it."
The insinuation, he said, was that he was a hotshot who thought he was better than everyone else.
Different teachers at his school have responded in different ways, he added.
Women are much more likely to ask his advice, trade ideas, and express interest in his techniques than men are. "To this day, some guys I work with haven't brought it up," he said, referring to his state award.
Melanie Hocking received both a Milken Family Foundation National Educator Award and the Ohio Teacher of the Year award this year.
She said her success has been met with nothing but accolades and excitement in Wintersville, a financially troubled rural district in eastern Ohio with 2,600 students.
"These are really bad times here, and there are not a whole lot of positive things going on," said Ms. Hocking, who teaches chemistry at Indian Creek High School. "When I was selected, it was a boost for the area, from students all the way up. I've just had wonderful support."
But that has not been the case, she said, for every Ohio recipient of the Milken award, which brings a $25,000 cash prize.
"I've heard stories where teachers had to change jobs," Ms. Hocking said, "where they were shunned, or were being given the worst equipment in the building to use."
For the past 18 months, Rick Wormeli, a nationally certified middle school generalist in Herndon, Va., has had to cope with weekly appearances of banana peels, dirty coffee cups, and candy wrappers in his school mailbox.
He believes they were put there by other teachers. Four teachers at Herndon Middle School refuse to speak to him, Mr. Wormeli said, and make derogatory remarks about him when he passes in the hall.
"There are a few teachers in my building who still behave much like our clientele," he said. "They're rather adolescent."
Like others who have been similarly wounded, Mr. Wormeli said he does not dwell on such incidents. He is too busy teaching, consulting across the country, serving on policymaking committees, and writing a guest column for a magazine on middle schools.
"I have found a voice with both my colleagues and the administration that I didn't have before," he said. "The dialogue has been very rich and so engaging."
Cynthia Monberg, a board-certified teacher who works with pregnant and parenting teens in Hammond, Ind., has enjoyed a similar blossoming.
"I've gained confidence that says, 'I do have expertise and I am burning to share it with other people,"' she said.
A Worthy Goal
Ms. Monberg said both her school district and union offered emotional and financial support as she went through the assessment process.
Striving for a worthy goal, nationally certified teachers say, is exactly what they hope their students will learn to do.
Teachers who have experienced the rewards of hard work themselves, they say, are in a better position to push their students to excel. When teachers behave childishly, Mr. Wormeli said, it makes him question their classroom practice.
"How are they supposed to support and nurture and educate the future of our society and yet hypocritically act in this manner?" he said. "You can't teach one way and practice another."
Vol. 15, Issue 12