When I signed up for my National Board Pre-Candidacy class in the Spring of 2012, taught by my colleague, Alaina Adams, I could not have imagined the incredible opportunities that would come my way. Besides the "status" that comes with the NBCT acronym behind one's name, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. After a brief eight-week introduction, I knew National Board Certification was the next adventure in my teacher journey.
With the support of the Arizona K-12 Center and their Candidate Support Providers (CSPs), I declared candidacy that same year. I was advised to: calendar out my year with self-selected deadlines, solely focus on this process, and communicate to friends and family the sacrifices I would need to make with my time. In Coaching Saturdays, I learned from NBCTs about the NBPTS Standards, The Five Core Propositions, the content of Entries 1-4, and how my writing needed to be "clear, consistent and convincing." At the time, I could not have anticipated the professional and personal relationships I would be gifted along the way, or the places where my students and I could go. Here are my top ten reasons why I would do my National Board Journey all over again...
1. Really Knowing My Students.
Prior to my National Board journey, for years, I had a strong rapport with my students. I built relationships with some of them that have flourished beyond graduation and well into their adult lives. During the year I was a candidate, however, I dug deeper into who they were as readers, writers, learners, and individuals. I took copious notes on their reading levels, interests, their struggles and their successes, what turned them on to learning and what turned them off. I kept a crate with samples of their work hoping that some of those samples would, in turn, be exactly what I needed to analyze for Entry 1. I conferenced with each of them on a daily basis, and I actively listened to what they said. I was open to their suggestions and selected content and strategies based on our conversations and their interests. We watched video together evaluating and analyzing how we could improve our whole-class discussions so that everyone felt "safe" enough to participate. For the first time in my career, I learned to "see" all of my students as individuals, and I wanted to document as much about them as I could.
2. Really Knowing (and Being Honest with) Myself.
Prior to my National Board candidacy year, I considered myself an "expert" teacher. My colleagues often asked me for ideas, and I was the teacher willing to share anything I had success with. While I was open to trying new strategies and modifying my practice to better meet my students' needs, I operated under the assumption that I knew it all. After several failed whole-class video attempts with Socratic Seminar and Philosophical Chairs for Entry 1, I realized I had much to learn. I monopolized whole-class discussions rather than allowing students lead. I interrupted them. I sometimes discounted their ideas and their opinions. And, I was often critical rather than celebratory. Much against what I thought I stood for, I was reluctant to change, but the National Board Process and the AZ K-12 Center coaches humbled me. I opened myself up to a vulnerability I had never experienced before.
Many times during that year, discussions and lessons went astray, my students and I were frustrated beyond belief, and I was an emotional rollercoaster. Being honest with myself about my need to experiment through trial and error, even at the expense of losing valuable instructional time was perhaps the greatest lesson I learned about myself as a professional. I simply didn't know it all. I embraced this realization. I gave up control. On the days when discussions and lessons really gelled, my students led the way. They were empowered and took ownership over their learning, and I embraced the role of facilitator over lecturer.
3. Focused, Professional Reflection.
Before declaring candidacy, I regularly blogged about my practice chronicling success stories about literacy strategies and lessons I taught my students in my Reader/Writer Workshop classroom. Blending the narrative with the informative, I hoped I would reach a wider audience, but the dialogue I hoped for with other professionals was lacking. I wasn't reaching my target audience.
With my National Board writing, I quickly learned what was missing from my blog: focused reflection. Because the NBPTS writing prompts and standards had been created by teachers for teachers and are content-specific, I was able to analyze my practice against what other English/Language Arts teachers believed a professional's practice should look like. Thus providing the very focus that had been missing in my blog posts. I couldn't just write about whatever I wanted. I had to make sure that the strategies, lessons, and student work I was analyzing and reflecting upon adhered to the very professionalism I was aspiring to. The very standards NBCTs before me had created with practitioners like me in mind. In my Coaching Saturdays with the AZ K-12 Center CSPs, I had many opportunities to discuss my practice with fellow candidates and NBCTs who gave me valuable feedback on both my practice and my writing. I found the “wider audience” I’d been missing in my blog--practicing teachers!
4. Building My Professional Network.
As part of my scholarship requirements with the AZ K-12 Center, I was required to attend 3 Coaching Saturdays. These 8-hour sessions allowed me to work with fellow candidates and an NBCT in my content area who was assigned to work with a small group of candidates. I shared my writing with CSPs who provided invaluable feedback guiding me back to the very writing prompts, standards, and rubrics a panel of my peers would assess me against. Equally important, I shared my practice and resources with fellow candidates from other school districts around my home state, and I learned about their practices and resources as well. Because I had so little experience in working with teachers from across my state, I relished in these opportunities. I adopted some of their ideas and suggestions into my practice, which transformed the way I think about planning, student interactions, technology, and assessment. In sharing contact information from these sessions, I have built professional relationships with teachers from all over Arizona, the AZ K-12 staff, and their directors--relationships that remind me that I am a professional who is valued and respected.
5. Stretching My Practice.
In my candidacy year, I served as the freshmen Professional Learning Community (PLC) leader for 9th grade English instructors. With the implementation of the Common Core State Standards, I knew we needed some fresh ideas to better serve our students and elevate our practice. I pitched the idea of completing a book study for Kelly Gallagher’s Deeper Reading and adopted several of his strategies into my instruction and convinced my colleagues to do the same.
That year, we also adopted his Article of the Week assignment into our practice, which led to more focused reading instruction, significant gains in our reading test scores, and deeper reflection about reading instruction. The adoption of this assignment and the strategies learned from our book study moved me out of my “comfort zone”, stretching my practice beyond anything I imagined. Embarking upon my National Board journey reminded me about the importance of routinely reflecting upon my practice to better meet the needs of my students, to keep the conversation with my colleagues “fresh”, and to analyze why one strategy or lesson shines while another bombs. Because of my leadership and success with the Article of the Week assignment (and my NBCT status), I have presented this work to teachers across my district as well as a group of colleagues with the Central Arizona Writing Project. The National Board process gave me the confidence to seek Professional Development opportunities as both a presenter and a participant--opportunities I likely would not have applied for or been invited to without stretching my practice.
6. The Opportunity for Peer Review.
In my twelve years as a public high school English teacher, my professional writing had never been reviewed by a panel of peers. Not once. Until this process, I never considered having a group of colleagues review my writing for professional publication much less submit a proposal to be a presenter at a state or national conference. While the idea of having a group of NBCTs in my content area review my writing scared the hell out of me, I knew that I had to “trust the process.”
Through this work, I placed my trust in my English/Language Arts colleagues: teachers who had once been candidates; teachers who had, themselves, gone through peer review; and teachers who achieved. Why wouldn’t I trust them with my writing? Every time I analyzed my writing against the rubrics, I reminded myself: The NBCTs who will score my writing are like-minded English teachers who want the best learning experiences for their students. I have to “show” them what happens in my classroom with my students, and I have to clearly convince them I have what it takes to be an NBCT. When I thought of them as someone like myself, I realized very early on, I was really convincing myself I deserved this status. And, if I could convince myself that I deserved this recognition, I could convince anyone.
7. Professional Development Opportunities.
The morning I received the email from NBPTS congratulating me for "achieving" certification in Adolescent Young Adulthood/English Language Arts (AYA/ELA), I was alone in a hotel room in Boston where I was attending the 2013 NCTE Annual Convention. Reading that email, alone, was bittersweet as my family was on the other side of the country and my colleague, Kat Thoms, had already left for her morning session.
Had I not gone through this process, I would not have asked my Assistant Principal about attending PD outside of my school district. I simply did not think I was worth the investment. How wrong I was. I began submitting paperwork for local PD opportunities in Arizona, applied to and was accepted into the Central Arizona Writing Project, and submitted travel requests to attend national conferences including the NCTE Annual Convention and the NBPTS Teaching & Learning 2014. Going through the National Board process convinced me that I was, indeed, a professional who was worth the investment. And, I deserved to attend conferences regardless of where they were held, damn it! I deserved to learn with and from colleagues all over the country. I deserved to travel to cities I had never set foot in. I deserved to be a life-long learner at my district's expense! I firmly believe my continued growth as a professional is directly related to having achieved my NBCT status and the confidence that comes with this title. While a few of my requests have been denied, I am grateful to work in a district where funding is available for continued Professional Development that sometimes comes with the added bonus of traveling. I am also incredibly grateful for the stipend my district provides NBCTs.
8. Standing on stage with President Obama.
In early January, I received an email invitation where I would listen to President Obama speak at Central High School. I was so surprised by this email, I inquired as to how I’d been selected. Shortly after, I received this reply: “The names of NBCTs were placed in a drawing and your name was selected.” I was elated! On the day of his speech, a fellow NBCT, another colleague and I stood in line where a White House Staffer handed us a Golden Ticket allowing us to stand onstage behind President Obama as he gave his speech on housing. While White House Staffers advised us not to take pictures or video while the President was onstage, the opportunity to see him speak in-person is something I will never forget.
When I returned to campus the next day, I shared this experience with my students and colleagues who expressed pride in having seen me on the national nightly news. One of our subs, a retired history teacher who occasionally sits at my lunch table even printed an 8 x 10 picture of President Obama and I smiling! Weeks later, my students and colleagues still beam about having seen me on television. When I pursued my dream of becoming a teacher, I never could have imagined such this once in a lifetime opportunity!
9. Advocating for the Teaching Profession
In certifying, the AZ K-12 Center invited me to accept the role as a Candidate Support Provider (CSP). In this role, each month, I provide the very type of support I received as a candidate to new candidates embarking upon their National Board journeys. I get to reconnect with colleagues who certified with me and some of the very CSPs who were once my "coaches". In supporting candidates, I learn about the amazing experiences students and teachers share in other ELA classrooms throughout my state. In a state that is not historically edu-friendly, their narratives give me hope and inspire me to share my story with others.
In conversations where my profession is mentioned, I share the stories of my students. I share the stories of my colleagues. I share my story. As a National Board Certified Teacher, I know I must advocate for my profession. Because I am a Teacher Leader, I must be the "voice" of my students and my colleagues. I volunteer my time garnering support for pro-education candidates and edu-friendly propositions and bills. I canvass neighborhoods, work phone banks, and build relationships with community members and politicians. I take my role as a professional seriously. I now have the confidence, expertise, and reputation to influence policy and decision-making that effect what takes place in my classroom. I know I cannot rely on others to jump into the trenches for me. I cannot stand idle even when favorable edu-legislation is passed, or edu-friendly candidates are elected. At any moment, the political climate can shift. This is why I use my teacher "voice" every time my profession is questioned, misrepresented, or misunderstood. My story is my advocacy.
10. Recruiting Others into Declaring Candidacy
Years ago, Alaina Adams tapped my shoulder. Someone before Alaina tapped her shoulder. Now, it is my turn to tap someone's shoulder, and I have. I have tapped the shoulders of people like my colleagues: Kat Thoms, Katy Horgan, Moon Johnson and friends like Jillian Eddings. I have likely inadvertently tapped the shoulders of complete strangers through my tweets and Facebook posts. And, I will continue tapping teachers' shoulders until National Board Certification is the norm. Like many of my fellow NBCTs, it only takes a spark to ignite the process. Alaina was my spark. This work is that important. I know I must continue inviting others into this work so we can share our stories, celebrate our accomplishments, advocate for our students (and ourselves) and elevate our profession. Our students deserve nothing less than NBCTs working with them each day. We, as teachers, deserve to work with colleagues who inspire us and elevate our practice beyond what we thought possible.
It has taken me over 18 months to blog about my practice again. Declaring candidacy and certifying was the best professional development decision of my career, but it drained my writing mojo. I have thought about writing this post for months, but I simply didn't have the energy. I made excuses. I blew it off. A conversation with a colleague curious about the National Board Process and my journey sparked the idea for this post. A few Saturdays ago, I volunteered my time with the AZ K-12 Center coaching this year's "candidates". They inspire me. Volunteering my time with my fellow NBCTs inspires me. They remind me this conversation may have been interrupted for several months, but it never ends...
This post is dedicated to Kathy Wiebke, Arizona's first National Board Certified Teacher (1995). Her professionalism, vision, and advocacy for the teaching profession have helped place more than 1,000 NBCTs in front of Arizona's students.
This post is also dedicated to my students. Their stories deserve to be heard.