Honor Without Glory

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When Kathleen Reeves, a high school English teacher in Birmingham, Mich., began the long, intensive process to become one of the country's first nationally certified teachers, it was big news in nearby Detroit.

Reeves was featured, picture and all, in a newspaper article about the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards and the rigorous new hurdles it has set for experienced teachers wishing to seek certification. The article and photo went up on the bulletin board in the teachers' lounge at Seaholm High School, where Reeves teaches.

It didn't take long for her colleagues at the school to let her know what they thought about the publicity. Within days, someone had drawn a red mustache across Reeves' upper lip. "That was pretty much the attitude,'' says Reeves, who went on to become certified. "One teacher said, 'Well, there's the master teacher.' She was very sarcastic.''

Like other honored teachers before her, Reeves quickly discovered that being a standout in an occupation that has traditionally expected everyone to be treated and paid alike has its downside: Envious, small-minded colleagues can be mean and nasty.

It's a problem that the profession, policymakers, and board officials will have to grapple with if national certification is to become an integral part of American school life. The board, which is spending some $50 million to create its standards and assessments, hopes states and school systems eventually will pay for teachers to seek certification and offer rewards to those who make it. So far, the privately organized board has certified 176 teachers--generalists and English language arts specialists who work with children in early adolescence.

Reeves acknowledges that her colleagues responded more favorably after she actually became certified. The school board threw a reception for her. And she was thrilled to shake President Clinton's hand at an October gathering in the East Room of the White House. Still, the earlier hurt lingers. And although she is vice president of the Birmingham Education Association, the union has been less than enthusiastic about her achievement.

"They don't want to acknowledge me for fear of offending those who were not certified,'' she explains. "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.''

Terry Knecht Dozier, a special adviser to U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley, also experienced the disapproval of other teachers when she was named National Teacher of the Year in 1985. This mind-set, she believes, has grown up because there are so few opportunities for teachers to be recognized, and the award programs that do exist are often viewed as popularity contests because their criteria are unclear and the odds of winning are so long. "My selection was 1 in 2.6 million chances,'' Dozier says. "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.''

But Dozier points out that this is not the case with national certification. The board has created well-defined standards for good teaching. Teachers' work is evaluated by other classroom teachers. And the prerequisites are such that a large number of teachers are eligible.

Supporters of national teacher certification--which is likened to becoming board approved in medicine--hope that certified teachers will play new leadership roles in their schools and districts. At a minimum, it is hoped they will share their expertise with other teachers.

Since becoming nationally certified, Patricia Simonds, a middle school generalist who teaches at Truman Elementary School in Vancouver, Wash., has been asked to give workshops on gifted education and speak to groups of teacher educators about the national board's work. But oddly, not one of her district's six nationally certified teachers was given a student teacher this year. "That sends an interesting message,'' she says. "I think it's my responsibility to try to impact other teachers so they can help their students.''

Connie Mitchell, a certified middle school generalist in Detroit, had a different experience. Her district created a new position of "teacher advocate'' for her, asking her to come up with ways to support new teachers, assist struggling ones, and encourage others to shoot for national certification. She believes that many teachers are cynical about the board's work because they don't have a clear picture of its mission and "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.''

"Once teachers were able to understand what this is and what it equates to,'' she says, "then they're great.''

Some teachers who have encountered hostility from their peers say it is simply part of human nature for people to be jealous, but others say it stems from a general lack of recognition for good teaching. This, they say, creates so much frustration among teachers that they put down--rather than celebrate--those who do stand out.

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,'' Dozier observes. "We're indoctrinated with the idea that we're all equal and nothing distinguishes us except years of experience and college credit hours.''

Each week for the past 18 months, Rick Wormeli, a nationally certified middle school generalist in Herndon, Va., has seen banana peels, dirty coffee cups, and candy wrappers appear in his school mailbox. They were put there, he knows, by other teachers. Four of his colleagues at Herndon Middle School refuse to speak to him and make derogatory remarks about him when he passes them in the hallways.

"I was astonished and ashamed the first time, ashamed that they were in the same profession I was,'' he says. Like others who have been similarly wounded, Wormeli does not dwell on these incidents. He's too busy teaching, consulting across the country, serving on policymaking committees, and writing a guest column for a magazine on middle schools.

Still, Wormeli can't help but wonder about the classroom practice of those teachers who behave childishly toward him. "How are they supposed to support and nurture and educate the future of our society and yet hypocritically act in this manner?'' he asks. "You can't teach one way and practice another.''

--Ann Bradley

Vol. 07, Issue 04, Page 1-24

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