Anna West Proving her mettle
For Anna West, a biology teacher at DuSable High, earning the profession’s highest honor is inextricably connected to the lowest point in her professional life.
“We were going through reconstitution,” she says, recalling the School Board’s 1997 crackdown on seven low-performing high schools. “It was saying, ‘You are a lousy teacher, and that’s why this school is so lousy.’ That was one of the worst years of my teaching experience.”
That year, some 188 teachers were dismissed from the seven schools. At the same time, central office tapped West and three other well-regarded teachers for the maiden CPS voyage into National Board certification.
“I had no idea what it was,” she recalls, but she jumped at the chance to prove her mettle—and dispel notions that failing schools had no good teachers. “I know I work hard. I know I do the best I can and this will prove it,” she told herself then.
At the time, West was the facilitator of a small school-within-a-school that focused on medical technology. She worked closely with students and collaboratively with teachers. Such personal relationships often got results. Some students test scores would jump four grade levels in a single year, she says.
Still, even the improved scores were often not high enough to meet promotion standards. When DuSable was reconstituted, small schools were scrapped. “This kind of stuff is very frustrating,” West sighs.
Applying for National Board was a welcome change. “The thing I like about National Board is you’re not competing with anyone,” West says. “National Board measures what you are doing in the classroom to let you see where you stand.”
West went through the process on her own. At the time, there were no local programs to provide support, and her principal, Charles Mingo, had never helped a teacher go through it. “My principal was for it, but he had no idea what I needed,” she recalls.
Two teachers from Robbins, who had applied unsuccessfully and were resubmitting parts of their applications, read and critiqued West’s essays. “The ones who have not succeeded can sometimes be a great resource, because they realize what they didn’t do,” West notes.
In 1998, West was standing tall, having achieved National Board Certification in high school science on her first try. Now in her 35th year of teaching, West, 58, is mentoring current National Board candidates and has been trained as a portfolio evaluator.
Having reached the pinnacle in her career, West is now in a position to help other teachers get there. “I was able to be a better mentor because I knew what they were looking for and how it would be assessed,” she says.
For instance, candidates often write essays that lack sufficient evidence of good teaching skills. West has stepped in to observe a candidate’s class and sees “all these wonderful things they’re doing that aren’t on paper. That’s why you need a mentor, to help pull that out of you.
“After you’re through, it’s fun. While you’re going through, it’s hell,” she says. “It’s a growth process.”
Jennifer Morrison Finding room to grow
At age 29, Jennifer Morrison has already built an impressive teaching résumé. In her six years as an English teacher at Jones Academic Magnet, she’s been nominated for three teaching awards, and was a Golden Apple finalist. This summer she was training new teachers at Dominican University. As far as she was concerned, she knew all there was to know about teaching.
Applying for National Board Certification last year taught her otherwise.
When she showed up last August at the Quest Center’s introductory workshop, Morrison figured she would easily earn that credential as well. “I walked in thinking I was the bee’s knees,” she recalls. “I am fun, I am creative, I have energy.”
Then a teacher who had gone through the process told Morrison and other candidates how much it had changed his teaching. “I was like, ‘What? How is this possible? I’m already good.’ ”
But she soon learned she could get better.
“I have a complete awareness of my teaching,” she says. Through constant reflection and continued use of best practices, Morrison says she is now more deliberate in choosing classroom activities. Previously, a lesson that appeared to be “fun” was reason enough to try it, she says. Not any more. “Now I have to justify it. Does it align with best practice?”
National Board also taught Morrison a couple new things, like how to get high school parents more involved in lessons. “I perceived parental involvement in the most traditional sense,” she says. “I’ll call them, I’ll see them at parent conferences, maybe I’ll need a chaperone.”
As a result, one National Board question asking how parents were involved in her classroom threw her for a loop. “What are you talking about?” she remembers thinking. “In my curriculum? How am I gonna get parents involved?”
Nonetheless, she rolled up her sleeves and retooled her lessons to include parents. For one assignment, Morrison told students to get their parents to tell a personal story, such as how they met or what their childhood was like. Students wrote up their parents’ tales, revised them after Morrison reviewed them, then set writing goals for themselves.
“That went over like gangbusters” with other teachers, she says. “My whole department used it.”
She also developed a detailed survey to find out what parents wanted her to know about their child, and set up email accounts to keep in touch with them throughout the year. Survey responses helped gave Morrison a heads up on what to expect. She recalls one parent’s comments: “My daughter’s too intense. She can’t relax, and she’ll have a nervous breakdown if she isn’t approached carefully.”
In some cases, Morrison’s efforts have forged new connections between parents and their children. One teenage boy had more respect for his parents after hearing the full story of their struggle to move to the United States. A parent told Morrison she was impressed by how well her son wrote. “I’ve never really read his writing before,” the parent told her.
Morrison, like her students and their parents, made a new connection as well. “I never felt parents were my adversaries, but before [National Board], I never felt so much that parents were my partners.”
Karen Jennings Teaching beyond tests
Lane Tech chemistry teacher Karen Jennings credits National Board for pulling her out of a rut. “I had gotten lazy in the last couple of years,” she reflects.
Jennings was hardly slacking off—she was a member of the LSC, chair of the science department and a student teacher mentor—but her own classes were getting short shrift.
Pressure to improve Lane’s scores on the Chicago Academic Standards Exams (CASE) was no help. She found herself using worksheets for classroom assignments, rather than the more time-consuming, hands-on lessons she prefers.
Jennings had heard about National Board Certification, but a full court press by a couple of science colleagues who had signed up themselves persuaded her to apply. “I had tons of peer pressure,” she says. “But it was a good thing, because the peer pressure turned out to be a support group. I was at the quitting point in February, [but they] wouldn’t let me quit.”
Ironically, testing and assessment became a focal point for Jennings during the year she spent as a National Board candidate. “National Board showed me that…learning cannot be determined by those little bubble-in tests,” she says. Instead, Jennings learned how to develop open-ended assessment tools that force students to explain their reasoning.
At first, Jennings’ teenaged students did not appreciate her new methods. “When they ask, ‘Why does this happen?’ I say, ‘What do you think?’ The kids always look at me like, ‘Why aren’t you giving us the answer? Just tell me what’s on the test, and I’ll do it.'”
Despite the grumbling, many of those students are coming back for more. About 50 have enrolled in Jennings’ environmental science class—an elective new to the schedule this fall. Topics will range from air quality to toxic waste to forensic chemistry. The class will be “totally inquiry-based,” and students will study academic research and do hands-on experiments. “I’m totally basing it on the stuff I learned from National Board,” she says.
Teresa Huggins Not a quitter
Three years ago, Quest Center director Allen Bearden recruited Teresa Huggins to shoot for National Board Certification. Her enthusiasm for teaching and openness to new ideas won the respect of colleagues and observers. But she fell short on her first try, becoming the only applicant among eight from her Quest Center support group who failed to make it. “My God, I felt terrible,” recalls Huggins, a 5th-grade teacher at Carroll-Rosenwald Elementary in Ashburn.
Huggins’ experience is not unusual for African-American teachers seeking National Board Certification. Last year, the first-try pass rate for all candidates was 57 percent. Among white candidates, the first-time pass rate was 62 percent; for Hispanics, 46 percent; and for African- Americans, 19 percent.
“It has never been found to be anything in the assessment,” says Ann Harman, director of research for the National Board. “Now we are focusing on how do we support candidates, especially African American candidates, to help them through the process more successfully.”
Had such a safety net been in place when Huggins first applied, it might have made a difference. Two African-American teachers who started the process with her group dropped out before completing, she notes. “That was really on my mind,” she says.
Still, Huggins gave it another shot a year later. National Board allows unsuccessful candidates to bank high-scoring entries and resubmit only those entries they need to improve. She had three chances beyond her initial effort to get it right. (Beginning this year, candidates will have only two.)
Huggins rewrote one portfolio essay and answered one question from a timed exam, also known as the assessment center. This time she fell short by a heartbreaking two points.
Huggins was ready to give up. “That’s enough of this,” she told herself. “I’m not doing this again.”
But then she received a letter from her 11-year-old daughter, Tremaine. “Dear Mommy, I’m glad you kept going,” she wrote. “I don’t know anyone as determined as you were. …But as Mrs. Troy [Tremaine’s 4th-grade teacher] always says, you learn from your mistakes.”
So last year, Huggins wrote yet another essay and answered two questions from the assessment center. Huggins is most uncertain of how she did on the assessment center tests. Unlike portfolio entries, which spell out what to do in excruciating detail, assessment center test questions are kept secret. “You don’t really know what to expect until you get there,” Huggins says. “That sense of unknown is kind of scary. It’s a lot of pressure.”
Next month, Huggins will find out if she made the cut. If she misses again, she is determined to give it a final shot. “We’re always telling the kids, ‘Don’t give up, keep trying.’ You have to model that behavior.”