What Makes the National Board Certification Meaningful?

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Recently, I began working with a nonprofit group that supports teachers as they pursue National Board certification. While facilitating a seminar with a group of teacher candidates last week, I heard several favorable comments.

One teacher told me, "This is the best professional development I’ve ever had!"

Another said, "At first, I went after certification for the money, but after the first year of working on this with other teachers, I’m a different teacher than when I started—a much better teacher."

A third teacher remarked, "This is fantastic! I learned so much today. More teachers need to know about this."

Hearing all of this positive feedback made me wonder: What is it about the National Board-certification journey that yields such a positive experience for educators?

To answer this question, I started by reflecting on my own road to becoming a National Board-certified teacher (NBCT). The process was as rewarding for me as others have described, and I found meaning in it partially because it was my choice to apply for National Board candidacy, not that of an administrative or state directive. The relevant, purposeful certification requirements also fostered a meaningful experience—the work encouraged me to describe what I knew about my students, analyze their work, and reflect on my strengths and weaknesses as an educator. It’s not possible to devote just one weekend to the certification process—the NBCT requirements take time to complete and ask teachers to consider their students’ work over an established time frame.

When I was earning my NBCT credentials, I hadn’t yet learned about the benefits of collaborative learning. Because of this, I chose to complete my portfolio alone. But despite this missed opportunity for collaboration, I found the supportive mentorship of other NBCTs instrumental to my success. When I sought guidance from my NBCT mentors, they served as "critical friends," rather than definitive experts.

I was also fortunate to observe how my peers approached meeting the National Board Standards for our certificate area and demonstrated mastery of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards' guidebook "What Teachers Should Know and Be Able to Do." As part of my certification process, I identified examples from my own classroom work where I saw evidence of "knowing and doing" and meeting National Board Standards. Even though the work focused on my own individual teaching practice, I developed connections with other teachers and acknowledged that their approaches, while different than mine, were also effective.

The fact that this process is teacher-led also made the experience more meaningful for me—I knew that the system had been developed by teachers, and that the assessor of the portfolio I submitted would also be a teacher. Throughout the process, I felt as if I was walking in the shoes of the accomplished educators who had come before me and that I was on the path to leading other educators in the future.

My National Board experience was totally unique, unlike any college course or professional development session I had previously attended. No other professional activity had required me to explain the choices I made when working with my students. No other professional activity had prompted me to analyze the work of my students with respect to their educational goals and then to reflect on my work as a teacher. I had always felt that I was a dedicated and effective teacher, but after I completed the required work for my National Board certification, I knew why I was dedicated and effective. What’s more, after becoming an NBCT, I found that I was respected more by my colleagues and by upper-level administrators within my school district.

As I reflected on the positive aspects of my National Board process, I wondered how these elements aligned with commonly accepted standards for high-quality professional development for educators. I looked to Learning Forward, a teacher-learning membership organization, for guidance. Their "Standards for Professional Learning" state that effective professional learning (note the wording they choose is "learning," not "development") is characterized by several factors, which include:

• Addressing the variations in learning styles of adults;
• Appropriate outcomes aligned with student needs and teacher performance;
• Reviewing a variety of accurate student data on which to base teacher learning needs and effectiveness;
• Learning communities sustained over time;
• Ongoing support during implementation of new strategies and approaches used in the classroom;
• Skillful and supportive leaders; and
• Adequate and organized resources for teachers

As it turns out, every step I completed as I worked toward putting together my portfolio and earning National Board credentials proved to be an example of high-quality professional learning.

After attaining their certification, all of the NBCTs in my network continued to pursue professional learning opportunities and continually sought to improve their practice. National Board thinking spurs many teachers into teacher-leadership positions, which in turn often encourages their colleagues to start their own paths to certification. When current NBCTs provide support for new candidates, they revisit the cycle of describing, analyzing, and reflecting on teaching practice that began in their own certification journey.

In addition to NBCTs in school leadership positions, other NBCTs have found an active voice working in education policy, coaching colleagues, initiating professional learning communities, and creating other ways to lead educators without leaving the classroom. All of these opportunities provide a platform for current NBCTs to inspire and mentor even more passionate, dedicated educators who are eager to attain a new level of professional practice.

Perhaps it’s the emphasis on self-selected learning, using data from one’s practice, and learning in the company of others that makes attaining National Board certification so meaningful and an exemplary model of professional learning. As one of the candidates stated earlier, why don’t more teachers know about this? If National Board certification has been shown to generate positive changes within and among educators, then I wonder what might happen with student learning as we see more teachers become certified.

Teachers often say the certification process is too much work—it does require organizing time to ensure that the required components are submitted in a timely fashion. The application fees might also require advance planning. While a teacher can take up to three years to complete the National Board process, each year requires a $75 registration fee. Four components, each costing $475, need to be successfully completed. Still, some districts allow the National Board-certification process to move a teacher ahead on the salary scale, and the National Board website points to available financial and technical resources for teachers interested in getting started.

The state where I taught for 30 years, Nevada, is known for being at the lowest rung on scales that rate student proficiency. Only 3 percent of Nevada teachers are currently National Board certified. But by increasing financial support of candidacy and expanding collaborative opportunities for candidates, Nevada is on track to see its number of board-certified teachers double in the next two years. That’s still a small percentage of proven, accomplished teachers addressing the many needs of our students, but I’m excited to imagine what might happen as we see more National Board-certified teachers work together to improve their practice and our profession.

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