Two fingertips wiped away the tear that had started to slide down the novice teacher’s cheek as she laid her frustrations at the feet of the workshop leader, classroom veteran and nationally certified teacher Mary Reed.
All the 1st grade teachers at the beginner’s school were new like herself, she explained, as was the teacher in the media center. Some of her pupils couldn’t yet write their names, and one parent had already barged into her classroom without a visitor’s pass, refusing to leave. The neophyte didn’t even know if the school was supposed to have a reading coach to help her.
But this painful exchange was as much why Mary Reed had volunteered on a Saturday at the National Board Certified Teachers of Miami-Dade’s new-teacher conference as was the framework for beginning reading she had just outlined.
The new-teacher conference is one of numerous enterprises the NBCTs of Miami-Dade has undertaken since it formed more than three years ago, apparently becoming the nation’s only group of teachers certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards to have raised money for its own activities as an incorporated nonprofit organization.
The group’s intention was to bring such teachers to the fore of the school improvement agenda in the nation’s fourth-largest school district. It works to promote national certification, raise teacher quality, and give teachers a voice in education. About 300 of the district’s almost 800 nationally certified teachers currently pay dues to the group.
The group’s star has risen higher in the past year or so because of changes in the 362,000-student Miami-Dade County system and the union that represents the district’s 20,000 teachers. Superintendent Rudolph F. Crew signaled his interest in the NBCTs almost from the start of his tenure a year ago, meeting with two of the group’s leaders in October.
As a result, the teachers are now sought out to provide professional development in the district’s lowest-performing schools and for its beginning teachers.
For its part, United Teachers of Dade underwent a major shake-up starting in 2003 after a financial scandal brought down its longtime president. Administrators named by the union’s national parents, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, put new emphasis on professional concerns, giving the UTD more reason to support the work of the NBCTs.
In sharp contrast to three years ago, when neither the district nor the union would provide a list of new teachers to the NBCTs group for its new-teacher conference, the Aug. 20 event was sponsored by the district and the union. As in past years, the conference was underwritten by Washington Mutual, a bank with headquarters in Seattle but a strong presence in Florida.
In fact, money from Washington Mutual and other help from the local Education Fund, an independent, nonprofit group that raises money to support public schools in Miami-Dade, made the start-up of the NBCTs possible. So far, the bank has put about $90,000 into the group’s work, according to Ramon L. Rodriguez, the corporate-giving-fund manager for the bank’s Southeast office.
The Arlington, Va.-based national board was started in 1987 as a way to challenge and reward accomplished teachers, who must show their mettle by passing a series of assessments, including videotapes of teaching and analysis of classroom learning.
Moving to ‘the Zone’
Linda Lecht, the president of the Education Fund, said it’s hard to overestimate the long-term influence of the local group on the culture of the district and its teachers.
“Their message is, ‘We’re going to take an active and assertive role in doing what should be done for all the children in the district.’ … They are changing the dynamics of the discussion by being the ones to champion teacher quality,” Ms. Lecht said.
The Education Fund turned to the NBCTs group to advance a project that helps teachers do research in their own classrooms and schools, then use the findings to weigh in on policymaking. An earlier effort languished, but this one, which involves Jill Beloff Farrell, an education professor who specializes in “action research” at Barry University in Miami Shores, is moving forward.
Now, board-certified teachers from the group sit on advisory committees at the university, and the new head of professional development for the district wants to encourage such classroom research for experienced teachers throughout Miami-Dade County.
“I’ve always felt NBCTs were an untapped wealth,” said Eva G. Byrne, who started her job as the deputy superintendent for professional development in the Miami-Dade district last winter. “Lori Nazareno was one of the first people I met when I started,” she said, referring to the group’s president, “and I said we need to build on” what the NBCTs group was already doing.
When district leaders grouped the 39 schools needing the most progress into a “school improvement zone” in the middle of last school year and gave them additional resources, they made a direct pitch to the NBCTs group for accomplished teachers to move to those schools. The few who did included Ms. Nazareno and two other board-certified teachers who have been active in the group. They joined another teacher with the national credential at a school with what they viewed as a simpatico principal.
Teachers with the credential in Florida get a salary boost of 10 percent of the previous year’s average teacher salary and another 10 percent if they spend 90 hours mentoring beginning teachers. In addition, teachers in “the zone” get a salary hike for the extra hours the schools operate. But there is nothing more for board-certified teachers who make the move, except chances for leadership in schools where principals appreciate their skills.
“What are the reasonable and logical ways to get accomplished teachers into hard-to-staff schools? We haven’t gotten so far as to have that discussion,” said Ms. Nazareno, who went from teaching science at an alternative high school to teaching 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade science at Myrtle Grove Elementary School in Opa Locka. “But it’s a complex problem that requires a complex solution.”
Nonetheless, hopes are high inside and outside the district for fruitful collaboration by the NBCTs group, the district, and the union.
Barnett Berry, the president of the Center for Teaching Quality in Chapel Hill, N.C., who has been tracking the uses to which board-certified teachers are being put nationally, calls the growing role of the Miami-Dade group “a bold, important step for the teaching profession.”
At the same time, he cautioned, the group is going to need “lots of allies and someone whose job 24-7 is to make this happen.”
Back at the workshop, Ms. Reed, the nationally certified teacher, has pledged to find her anxious young colleague some help, but she is also urging her to turn to the other newbies in her school.
“You do have each other,” the veteran soothes. “Ask, ‘Do you have this problem? Do you have any ideas.’ You are going to do fine.”