When sixth-grade teacher Cynthia Walker thinks back to the two-year process of national board certification, she recalls the months of sleepless nights but also the days of thoughtful discussion with her colleagues.
“You start sharing ideas – what are you trying to accomplish (in the classroom)? And why?” she said. “I tend to be a reflective person anyway. Every lesson I do, I think, ‘How could it have been better?’ But it was more on my own.” Now, after months of self-examination — not just about her role in her own classroom, but in her community of colleagues and learners — her reflective nature has become more inclusive, she said.
More than 8,600 teachers and school counselors achieved National Board Certification in 2010, bringing the total number of highly accomplished, certified educators to more than 91,000, according to the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. This year, their ranks included more than 2,200 in North Carolina and 1,200 in Washington State – like Walker, a sixth-grade geography and language arts teacher at Grandview Middle School.
Walker’s school, located in a small agricultural community where 85 percent of students live below the poverty line, received a federal School Improvement Grant for chronically low-performing schools. But, in that respect, she’s certainly not unique. About half of all NBCT-certified educators work in Title 1-eligible, high-needs schools, says the National Center for Educational Statistics.
And they’re actively making them better.
The process of achieving national certification — an arduous undertaking that requires teachers to frankly examine their strengths and weaknesses – is a really positive strategy to improving student achievement, says Arden Watson, president of the Marysville Education Association in northeastern Washington. And it’s not just because that one certified teacher will be doing great work with her 25 kids, she said.
“At the schools that have been able to carve out collaboration time, professional learning time where they actually have meaningful conversations about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, it actually does influence their colleagues,” Watson said. At schools doing it right, they look at student data together, she said. They talk about good practice and strategies together. And that way everybody, but especially new teachers often assigned to low-performing schools, can benefit from the knowledge of their nationally certified peers.
This is exactly the kind of collaborative approach promoted by NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign, which seeks transformation in the nation’s lowest-performing schools. It’s also an approach valued by the Washington Education Association, which has provided enormous support to Washington’s teachers seeking national board certification. Through its four-day National Board Jump Start Seminars for teachers undertaking either full certification or its two-day seminars for participants in Take One!, the bite-sized approach to certification, teachers get key information and assistance to be successful in their portfolios and applications.
The state of Washington also provides financial incentives — a $5,000 salary stipend for nationally certified teachers, as well as a $5,000 stipend for teachers in high-needs schools. (Sadly, both are likely to be cut in the penury budget under consideration.)
Local union contracts also provide significant help. In Marysville, the benefits include tuition reimbursement for the costs of certification, as well as five release days to prepare portfolios and other required materials and take the test. Especially when you get to the end, you need some time to pull it together, Watson noted.
But the effort is worth it — “success breeds success,” she said.