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Bringing it Home to Alabama

Attending a national conference is energizing not only because of the opportunity to learn from some of the leaders in the field, but also because of learning that comes from meeting other attendees. We learn from talking with people diverse places, facing diverse challenges. We learn from the differences, and we learn from seeing that there are similarities as well.

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In a session I attended Wednesday morning, I found myself talking with a fellow English teacher, Delilah Stitt, of P.D. Jackson-Olin High School in Birmingham, Alabama. Stitt is a National Board Certified Teacher, and the new chair of the English Department at her school. As the only NBCT in her department, Stitt is here trying to learn all she can to be a more effective instructional leader in her school.

Jackson-Olin has been through some transitions in the past few years, having merged with Ensley High School in 2006. The blending of students and staff from two high schools into one has naturally presented some challenges, and the school has a new principal as well. Add to these transitional factors the types of issues faced by urban schools around the country, and you can see why Jackson-Olin needs strong leadership to stay on track. For Stitt, this period has also included the transition into her new leadership role. She said that at first much of her learning had to do with the logistics of the job, but now she wants to expand her role to focus more on the constant improvement of teaching and learning. For starters, she has asked her colleagues to study the National Board Standards that apply to high school English instruction, along with the standards published by the National Council of Teachers of English.

I asked Stitt how she came to be the first NBCT in her department. She credited both Birmingham City Schools and Jefferson County for having information and support in this area, and added that she learned by observing the lengthy certification process when one her colleagues in another department was a candidate. It’s worth recognizing that there are five different levels of educational organization that come in to play here: national, state, county, city, and school. And yet, I think Stitt's story is like many others, in demonstrating that the personal connection to the process is important too.

Now, the question that should be asked in Stitt's school, and in schools and educational jurisdictions around the country, is how being an NBCT is going to improve Stitt's ability to teach and lead in her school. Will the students of Jackson-Olin be better off because Stitt has earned this certification and attended this conference?

I asked her that question quite directly, and Stitt is entirely confident in saying that certification will lead to improvement, and that the conference is helping that to providing additional learning and resources. Like many accomplished teachers, she recognizes that the quality of curriculum and instruction is essential to effective classroom management, and she wants her colleagues to focus on refining that quality instruction. Regarding the National Board Standards, Stitt said, “These are quality standards. If you follow them consistently, you will see student gains.” I would expect that the personal touch will make a difference too. While external support from various agencies is vital, it may just be Stitt's influence that provides the final push for some of her colleagues to pursue certification.

Stitt also knows that an effective professional learning community, one that really produces school-wide improvements, will only thrive with teacher buy-in. She insists that in this kind of work with teachers, no one can force the process. Rather, she trusts that her colleagues recognize that “to move forward, you have to do something different.” Stitt's commitment to analyzing and reflecting on educational improvement is exactly the type of thinking encouraged by National Board Certification – in fact, the type of thinking required to achieve certification. As an NBCT, Stitt does have the tools and the framework to make good things happen at Jackson-Olin; after all, their school motto is "Success is the Only Option." Maybe at one of these conferences in the future, I’ll be attending Delilah Stitt's presentation where she’ll be explaining to us all how she did it.

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