Power in Numbers
It sounds like a script out of Hollywood: a group of teachers at a high-needs school voluntarily band together to pursue the most demanding, difficult, and time-consuming professional development experience in teaching.
But this isn’t fiction. Despite what the media reports about “bad teachers” would have you believe, more teachers, including those at Roosevelt High School, located in Portland, Ore., are actively taking steps to become better educators.
Hallie Gleason, a fourth-year social science teacher, was able to convince seven of her colleagues to sign up for the nation’s most rigorous teaching certification program—National Board Certification.
“We started thinking about what’s going to turn this school around and what will it take to lift up a whole community,” said Gleason, who graduated from Stanford University’s highly regarded Teacher Education Program. “It’s high quality teaching, high-level strategies. We thought National Board Certification could help us achieve those goals.”
What Gleason didn’t tell her colleagues, however, was just how demanding the process would be—or how many candidates (roughly 60 percent) actually fail their first try. “Yeah, I kind of left that part out,” she said. “I’m surprised my house didn’t get tp’d [rolled with toilet paper].”
Going for the Gold Standard
The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS), which designs and administers the program, offers 25 certificates in a variety of subject areas (art to English and P.E. to science) and student development levels (early adolescence, for example). The certificates are applicable to more than 95 percent of America’s teachers.
The certification process requires candidates to submit four portfolio entries. Three entries are tied to what happens in the classroom, documented by video recordings and examples of student work. A fourth portfolio entry relates to teachers’ accomplishments outside of the classroom—with families, the community or colleagues. Teachers must demonstrate how the outside work affected student learning. Candidates also must demonstrate content knowledge, measured by responses in the chosen certificate area.
“Doing the Boards [certification process] made me think about how to pace the year,” said Barbara Macon, who recently switched from teaching language arts to health. “I felt like the process would challenge me to work harder and master my content area.”
Educators who go through National Board Certification as a team collect and review tons of data on teaching and learning so that they can jointly develop targeted instruction to meet student needs. The teams review student outcomes, noting which strategies worked well and where they need to improve.
“It was an opportunity to collaborate with this large group,” said Vanessa Crock, a sixth-year science teacher, “and I felt that [National Board Certification] was going to give me a really good dissection of my teaching—who I am and where I want to be.”
The key concepts—using student data to improve instruction, reflecting on one’s own professional practice, and learning to collaborate with other educators—are all essential ingredients for success. Principals with groups of Board-certified teachers in their schools report a change in the conversation around teaching and learning. Teachers no longer talk about how big the problems are, but rather about finding effective and efficient ways to overcome the challenges so that all students can succeed.
At the end of the day, the process is about learning to reflect on your teaching practice, according to science teacher Rafael Bobenrieth, a Gleason recruit. That makes you a better classroom teacher—and pays off for your students.
“They’ll notice a difference,” Bobenrieth said.
Using Federal Funds to Help Students
There are more than 91,000 National Board Certified Teachers (NBCTs) nationwide—but only 243 in Oregon and only six in the district. If the eight teachers at Roosevelt High School are successful in achieving accreditation – and they won’t know until December whether they’ve made the cut – they’ll more than double the number of teachers in the school district who are Board certified.
Having highly accomplished, certified teachers in classrooms benefits all students, especially in struggling schools. Because of this positive influence on student achievement, certification is supported by federal School Improvement Grant (SIG) funds. SIG money is paying for the eight Roosevelt educators to pursue certification, which otherwise would have added a financial challenge to the already time- and labor-intensive process.
“It takes a lot of money and support to do it. We all saw an opportunity with this influx of [SIG] money,” said Gleason. “We said, ‘We’re interested, the money is here, let’s go for it.’”
Gleason credits collaboration among the school, the local union (the Portland Association of Teachers), and the district for the chance to pursue National Board Certification. The three groups worked to develop a plan that allowed the candidates to pursue National Board Certification while meeting the SIG requirements for additional professional development or growth.
“It’s a great example of how when unions and districts collaborate and work together, they can achieve great things for teachers and kids,” said Josh Ziady, one of the eight NBCT candidates.
The group of eight hopes that other teachers in Oregon and elsewhere will take on the certification process together because they already see value in the experience. And the benefits—like feeling inspired again as a teacher—are far outweighing the costs.
“This is the first year that I have felt I want to keep teaching here,” said science teacher Brian Fain, who has taught for seven years at Roosevelt. “I had been feeling really de-valued, and this has been a big turnaround for me. I’m feeling inspired to keep doing what I’m doing.”
Gleason, who started her career at Roosevelt, shares her colleague’s positive outlook.
“The story around failing schools is always around failing teachers,” said Gleason. “There are a lot of amazing things that are going on, yet all that folks talk about is the students test scores, which tell us very little about what the student has learned.”
“National Board Certification is the right kind of focus on academic growth and achievement of students,” Gleason added. “Having the school, the district and the union supporting us in this was really powerful for both the teachers and the students—and way more powerful than meaningless test scores.”