Giving up vacations for certification

Jan. 26, 2006, midnight | By Jordan Fein | 18 years ago

Several teachers at Blair have passed the demanding process of certification

Last winter break, social studies teacher David West had bought plane tickets to pre-Katrina New Orleans and was looking forward to taking his wife on a romantic anniversary trip. But, instead of relaxing to authentic jazz in the French Quarter, West found himself living every student's and teacher's nightmare: spending the treasured time away from school cooped up at home writing and studying.

West is one of seven current Blair teachers who have completed the rigorous process of becoming a National Board certified teacher. This title, according to Karen Garr, coordinator of the Southeast Regional Office of the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS), is the "highest possible distinction" for public and private school teachers. But the salary benefit, recognition and personal satisfaction of certification don't come easily. Applicants must endure months of writing, videotaping, arranging for letters of recommendation and studying for examinations. Blair's certified teachers were willing to pay the price.

A daunting task

English teacher Carole Tomayko, who was certified in 2001, knew the time-consuming process would dominate six months of her life. The Board makes it clear that novice or unmotivated teachers need not apply. But Tomayko, who has taught at Blair for 20 years, is neither inexperienced nor unenthusiastic. After successfully applying to have her $2,300 eligibility fee paid by the county, Tomayko declared that she had "no excuse not to" become certified.

Five years ago, history teacher Robert Gibb committed himself to becoming certified. "I needed to enrich my teaching, learn something new," he says. Gibb, who juggled raising a child and coaching Blair sports teams, knew the grueling process would force him to put the rest of his life on the back burner. Still, he did not fully grasp the magnitude of the task until he had read the 200-plus pages of application instructions detailed by the Board.

"It's a pain"

The Board was founded in 1987 to certify teachers, to set standards for experienced teaching professionals and to lead reform of American education, according to the NBPTS web site. Board Media Manager James Minnichelo states that the 24 certificates available encompass 95 percent of the subject matter taught in U.S. schools.

For West, who estimates that he spent over 200 hours on his portfolio, the most challenging task was videotaping himself in the classroom. He had used his honors class in the first of two required videos and attempted to tape his English for Speakers of Other Languages students debating the concepts of capitalism and communism in small groups. While West knew the students were trying their hardest, they still had difficulty speaking in a second language on a complicated subject. This, combined with the technical difficulties of videotaping, made it a taxing process for both West and the students.

For Tomayko, spending 10 to 15 hours a week on the portfolio over a period of six months was an "organizational challenge of the greatest magnitude." However, she appreciates the recognition gained from being certified, and the $4,000 annual salary bonus from the state and county doesn't hurt, either.

Writing over 100 pages of essays for the portfolio was difficult enough for most of Blair's certified teachers, but for Spanish teacher Sabrina Keenan, whose first language is Spanish, the essays were so challenging that she had to take a week of paid leave to complete them. Although Keenan was reluctant to take this time away from teaching her students, she feels becoming certified was worth it, because she is now better able to improve foreign language education at Blair. Keenan has noticed that administrators now take her more seriously when she highlights problems with the Spanish curriculum.

Certification appealed to Gibb for different reasons. He emphasizes that the process made him reflect on his teaching from a different perspective and gave him new ideas for classroom assignments. However, Gibb does not mince words when describing the rigor of the process. "It's a pain," he says.

In order to finish his application, Gibb holed up at a University of Maryland library with his laptop for his entire spring break. He even pulled an all-nighter, working until 5 a.m. the day the portfolio was due and rushing it to the mail when the post office opened three hours later.

Tomayko was the only certified teacher who went on vacation during the six-month application period. Unfortunately, she was forced to spend her time in the mountains of Bedford, Pennsylvania - you guessed it - working on her portfolio.

Role models

But certified teachers are distinguished by more than their time commitments: Studies have shown that their students consistently score higher on cumulative tests. A March 2004 report by the University of Washington and Urban Institute entitled "Can Teacher Quality be Effectively Assessed?" revealed that students of nationally certified teachers improved seven to 15 percent more on year-end standardized tests than students of teachers who were not nationally certified. Additionally, Garr states that certified teachers often act as role models outside of the classroom.

West is one such example. Before becoming certified, he was a member of the Student Assistance Committee, which works to help students struggling with drugs and alcohol get their lives back on track. Just as he was mentioning his involvement in the committee in his portfolio, West saw the committee begin to dissolve because of a lack of teacher interest. He moved to resuscitate the committee. "Nobody was going to step up, so I figured I might as well do it," West says. Because of his leadership, he says, the committee has been able to prevent failing students with alcohol and drug problems from dropping out of school many times last year.

After all of West's hard work on the portfolio and in the classroom and community, he was finally able use his New Orleans plane tickets to take a well-deserved vacation last summer. For the first time in six months, he could truly relax and enjoy his satisfaction at having completed the arduous certification process.

Jordan Fein. Jordan Fein is a magnet senior (woot!) who is enamored of politics and journalism. He is very politically active and enjoys talking politics with whomever is willing. Politics, politics, politics. He is looking forward to his second year of writing on Silver Chips and especially … More »

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