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W.W.A.T.?

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My favorite The Master Teacher pamphlet is purple: Volume 37, Number 17, entitled “Five Questioning Techniques to Strengthen Your Teaching.” What’s that? Not familiar with the homespun flyers that change ink color but not layout each week, and are stuffed into teachers’ mailboxes at many schools in lieu of actual face-to-face professional development? They come from Leadership Lane in the heart of Kansas, according to the publisher's address, and what I like about them is that the ideas and strategies are guaranteed to work, as certified by a seal, depicted complete with rivets, on the front cover. Also the “Points to Ponder...” can be pondered “privately... or with colleagues.” Sometimes I do it by myself.

True professional development requires more than the passive transmission of homilies into mail slots by a checklist-oriented administrator. That’s what makes board certification worth doing, to me. It requires substantive, sustained observation of and reflection about my practice, and strongly encourages collaboration along the way. As I promised last post, and following the advice of the Master Teacher (“[An application question] asks students to solve a lifelike problem that requires the identification of the issue and the selection and use of appropriate information and skills...”), I will now ask, W.W.A.T.? That’s “What Would Alfie (Kohn) Think?” In other words, what might the modern-day Deweyian have to say about NBPTS?

1. Standards are bad. Alfie's stump speech, as reported in my last post, established that. And there are, no getting around it, twelve of them involved in the NBPTS certification process. That the word itself would raise his hackles is not speculation. I cornered Alfie before his speech and asked him what he thought about the process. When I used the word "standards" in explaining it, he cringed. If he were to read these standards, however, I don't think he'd find much to object to. They are somehow both axiomatic and vague in a way that insulates them from a progressive attack. (An editorial assault might be another matter.)

2. 275 is bad. The "magic number" that testees must achieve, through a combined score of the portfolio and the assessment center performance, would probably bother Alfie. Is there really a qualitative difference between the teacher who gets a 274 and one who gets a 276, he might reasonably ask? Like all grading systems that attempt to quantify complex and largely subjective endeavors, this one is open to the charge of being arbitrary. And in fact, a woman who sat near me at the conference, new to FCPS but not a new teacher (in fact, already board-certified), told me about a former colleague of hers who dropped out of the board certification process but was, she thought, one of the best teachers she'd ever met.

3. Portfolios are good. Alfie likes deep thought. He also values, it's safe to say, meaningful self-reflection. In a gradeless or near-gradeless class, kids learn because they're engaged, stimulated and challenged. When a teacher is scrutinizing his practice in the way that portfolio entries require, he is also engaged, stimulated and challenged. The portfolio isn’t “gradeless,” per se, but the grade is a distant and not an immediate goal. What occupies the practitioner on a day to day basis is the teaching itself, a “task” that is wonderfully nuanced and worthy of study. Alfie encourages richly complex, open-ended tasks for students as opposed to bubble-test, seek and destroy missions centered on the rote mastery of unrelated factoids. There is nothing bubble-testy about critiquing a slice of classroom life.

4. Do-overs are good. This is not a zero sum game. If you win, I don't necessarily lose. We both have to reach the magic number, it's true, but if we don't, we have three years to do so. While some teachers are understandably disheartened when they don't pass the first time (and this sort of official withholding of approval would definitely be on Alfie's bad list), if they can somehow pick themselves, brush themselves off, and resubmit or retest all over again, they can pass the next time. In fact, they only need to redo the parts they missed; credit is retained, for example, for satisfactory portfolio entries, even if the test center results don’t meet muster. The second-timer has a good chance to succeed by focusing only on what they missed, particularly if they seek feedback from experienced colleagues. So, while "being board-certified" smacks undeniably of gold stars and the sort of extrinsic motivation that Alfie abhors, nevertheless the process fosters genuine collaboration among professionals.

Overall, I think Alfie would probably not put his riveted seal of approval on the quest for NBPTS gold, but neither would he condemn every aspect of it. He would certainly recognize the process is better than what exists in test-stressed schools where the passing out of pamphlets masquerades as professional development. Remarkably, at the end of the day there is one thing on which The Master Teacher, Alfie Kohn and I can all agree: teachers talking about their teaching is a good thing.

7 Comments

Emmet-

I wanted to wish you luck as you go through the process. You're extremely lucky, in that you have this prepartory session time & info. I'm a NBCT, certified November 04, and I can tell you that it's a long, tough process - but, it's also a very rewarding process. Even if you don't pass, you'll find out a lot about yourself as a teacher.

(And as a side note, my husband Gary graduated from your high school in Spring 1991. I wonder if you were there then??)

-Cathy

When I "failed" National Board (i.e., I didn't certify the first time) even though I was honored as my District's Teacher of the Year and everyone in my NBPTS support group had me picked as the shoe in, I felt "punished" as Kohn would say. It was through the process of failure that I realized that I was a "degree seeker" - seeking outside validation. When I made the choice not to re-submit, I was free to simply be the best teacher that I could be - though much more reflective having completed the process. Integrity of the process is the most important thing to remember when putting together your portfolio. Do you own it? Reflecting on my submitted portfolio, my "failure" was because I have a difficult time putting into words what I do naturally and as such part of me was missing from my portfolio submission. Today, I am more comfortable with the idea of being a career teacher who is not finsihed nor obsessed with "moving up" into administration, even though I hold the credential. Best of luck to you on the "journey" that is NBPTS. It is well worth the trip.

Emmet --

Rock on! I went through the NBC process and received my certification in '03. As a 25-year veteran, I have to say it was one of the best things I have ever done for myself as a teacher. It allows you to think about YOUR teaching, YOUR students and how to best apply all we have learned and are learning. Isn't that what it is all about? Now, I encourage others to pursue it and help those who are in the process. Yes, the whole bottom line "standard" craze and the bottom line mentality that drives it is hard to reconcile with the gestalt of fostering the growth of a child. Yet, "back in the day" we had "behavioral objectives," so whatever you call them, we have to have some sort of rationale and purpose for what we do and why we do it the way we do. That is what NBC validates -- purposeful and powerful teaching!!

This afternoon, as I took a break from typing Portfolio Entry #2 AGAIN, I stumbled across this blog! How refreshing! This was just the "good laugh" and "kick in the ***" I needed! I am a "retake candidate" (so nice of them to come up with a politcally correct term for "failure"). I am also currently pursuing a Master's Degree in Educational Media and Instructional Technology. One of my professors assigned "What does it mean to be well educated" by Alfie Kohn. I enjoyed your review of NBPTS through Alfie's eyes. I was very discouraged when I failed, but I was determined to jump through the hoops to earn the 12% pay raise my state promises once you produce the "golden seal" of NBCT. Will I be teaching any differently? No, except for the video camera taking up the corner of my room. I'm not so sure that I agree with those who promise that you learn so much about yourself as a teacher through this process. I've learned that if money wasn't an option, I'd be content with the votes of my students for "Teacher of the Year". Of course, student votes don't count! Good luck and best wishes! Becky

When you say Kohn would object to this kind of certification, I'm not sure he would. I agree with pretty much everything Kohn says about schools, but, in my view at least, setting standards and assessing individuals based on those standards is useful for certifying that someone is capable at doing a job. I'm not sure Kohn would object to assessing students in college where they are earning degrees in specific fields. (You wouldn’t want a doctor who has never passed a medical test. If Kohn would object, I think he would at least recognize that some method of ensuring the competency of doctors, lawyers, or any skilled labor is needed at this point in our societies evolution, at least.)

Until students have picked what field they want to go into, though, assessment just doesn't make sense. Why are we trying to see if this future public relations specialist, or this future chef is competent at doing Algebra II problems? It doesn't make sense to me, and that's, from what I can tell, is why Alfie objects so much to working towards standards and using assessment in high schools.

Anyway, that's my two cents on the subject. Good luck with your career!

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