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.