There’s a good chance nearly all of them will succeed. The Quest Center’s support program for National Board candidates— Nurturing Teacher Leadership—boasts a 93 percent success rate. Since the program was launched in 1997, 14 of 15 teachers have reached the summit.
Quest is widely regarded as the most effective local support program available for National Board Certification candidates. “They really are the Cadillac of most programs that I know of,” says Nancy Schwartz, a regional liaison for the National Board. “It’s very structured, and provides tremendous resources. It takes away the mystery of the process.”
Indeed, the time commitment alone is intense. From September through March, candidates meet three hours every week, and six hours on the first Saturday of the month. Most sessions follow a strict regimen: 60 minutes of group discussion on a set topic related to teaching, then the rest of the time for smaller working groups to prepare portfolio entries.
The Quest Center’s program is distinguished by its use of National Board-certified teachers as mentors and small-group facilitators. They read candidate entries and provide feedback, sharing their own experiences going through the process.
“National Board certification is not our major goal—it’s actually our third goal,” says program founder Lynn Cherkasky-Davis. Though she herself is not National Board-certified, she served on the organization’s board of directors for six years. “Our main goal is to provide professional development. Our secondary goal is to grow teacher leaders.”
A push to expand the Quest program has been tempered by concerns that the quality of support it offers candidates may suffer as a result. The challenge is “keeping the quality, growing the quality,” says Cherkasky-Davis. Though the size of the candidate pool jumped from 10 in 2000 to 26 in 2001, Quest won’t take more candidates than its pool of mentors and facilitators can nurture carefully.
Quest teaches teachers how to look at themselves critically and how to tailor instruction to individual student needs. Very few candidates know how to analyze their own teaching, Cherkasky-Davis notes. The yearlong program begins shortly before school starts.
For a week in August 2000, a group of 26 National Board candidates met at the Quest Center for the first time. Their first task: to select one of 19 National Board certificates to pursue. (An additional four certificates will be offered by 2003.)
Choosing is relatively simple for some. A high school English teacher, for instance, would apply for a certificate in Adolescence and Young Adulthood English Language Arts.
However, the process can get tricky for teachers who work with several grades or who teach more than one subject. National Board requires that more than half of a teacher’s students fall into the ages covered by the certificate. A “middle childhood generalist” teaches students aged 7 to 12 years old; an “early adolescent generalist” works with 11- to 13-year-olds. Sixth-grade teachers would fall in either category.
In September, the group begins compiling their portfolios, which include six, 10- to 12-page personal essays on how to teach large and small groups, how to assess student progress and how to work collaboratively with colleagues and parents. Each essay must be supported by evidence—lesson plans, samples of student work, classroom videotapes—that proves candidates actually did what they say they did. (Beginning this fall, National Board has simplified portfolio requirements. Candidates are now required to write only four essays and provide supporting evidence.)
Quest candidates begin with the essays about collaborative work. Later they will move on to the more difficult essays: how to teach a large concept to a group of students with varying ability. Or how to use small groups to help students learn from one another. National Board requires candidates to submit a 20-minute unedited video with each of these essays.
A good 20-minute tape requires shooting hours of classroom footage in order to capture a teacher and class at their best. Oftentimes, an off-hand student comment caught on tape can doom an entire lesson. Jennifer Morrison had to scrap a tape of an otherwise spirited discussion in her English class because one boy’s quiet aside—”I’m so bored”—was audible.
Despite the hassle, candidate John Nieciak is sold on taping. “[Video] helps you go back to that experience, assess and then respond to it,” he says. “I’ve shared these videos with students, and they’ve seen things they’d like to do differently. Kids can do self-assessments, too.”
On a Saturday morning in February, candidates are gathered in a sterile conference room to watch a short video on questioning techniques. Afterward, candidates will share their own classroom tapes with their peers and get feedback.
But first, candidate Suzanne Martinez, a technology teacher at Pasteur Elementary, has a few pointers. “When you copy the tape, crank up the volume on your VCR,” she advises an upper-grade math teacher. National Board instructions warn that inaudible tapes will be disqualified.
Later that day, Lawrence Elementary science teacher Venita McDonald learns she made that very mistake. A group of candidates who, like McDonald, work with early adolescents, is watching her video of a physics lesson. On the tape, a small group of students is measuring how long it takes a ball bearing to travel through different configurations of plastic tubing.
“We have a loop here—is that going to change anything?” McDonald asks them on the tape. “Should we straighten it out?” Students lengthen the tube, but their comments are inaudible.
“[The students] looked like they were engaged, but you couldn’t hear what they were saying,” notes facilitator Jean Becker when the tape ends.
McDonald’s tape is rejected, but she and the other candidates have a revelation—they’ve been doing most of the talking. “In those early videos, we were all up in front too much, doing too much of the talking,” candidate John Stewart observes.
“[Students] have to do the talking,” McDonald realizes.
They begin brainstorming ways that students can visually present what they’ve learned. “When they were doing data, I had a hard time hearing,” says Nieciak. Perhaps the students can make charts, he suggests.
“You know, you’re right,” McDonald replies, “But how would I do it in the video? On the board, or a transparency?”
“Don’t make it too complicated,” Becker says.
Picking up on the morning lesson on questioning techniques, Nieciak has another idea. “Ask the kids how they know something.”
On a Tuesday in late February, Cherkasky-Davis takes a minute to answer questions before playing a video lecture.
Language arts teacher Sandra Cap wants to know how her work will be assessed. “When [National Board evaluators] read your entries, do they read the whole thing?”
In addition to more than 60 pages of essays and 40 minutes of supporting video tape, entries can include up to 30 pages of students work and other supporting documents, such as lesson plans or letters verifying a teacher’s accomplishments.
Cherkasky-Davis assures Cap that assessors read all of the essays and view the videos, then re-read the essays, referring to relevant supporting documents when necessary.
Cherkasky-Davis is ready to move on. The video lecturer is a familiar one: author Alfie Kohn, an outspoken critic of standardized testing and traditional classroom management. Today’s topic is how to reduce competition and encourage cooperation among students.
The candidates have seen so many Kohn videos, they groan upon hearing he’s the star of today’s show. Still, they give him grudging respect. “I have changed a lot of my ways because of him,” admits gym teacher Elsie Kindle.
By early March, some candidates have written drafts of their reflective essays and are nor getting feedback from each other and their National Board-certified mentor. Cherkasky-Davis passes along a few tips, too.
Candidate Michelle Timble says her writing has improved over successive edits, but it’s been a humbling experience to get there. “At first I was like, ‘Oh, if somebody didn’t get that, they must be stupid,’ ” she says. “Now I’m the stupid one, because everybody’s telling me, ‘No, I don’t get that.'”
Timble says she plans to incorporate more writing into her math instruction to deepen students’ understanding of concepts. “They can do the skill but they can’t write about it,” she observes. “If they can’t write about it, they haven’t internalized it.” One idea she considers is having students keep dialogue journals, where they share what they’ve learned in math with other students.
Timble and her sister, Debbie King, have been teaching in the same CPS schools for five years. “It’s so good that we’re both in this,” King tells Cherkasky-Davis. “I call her 12 times an hour. If she weren’t in it, I’d be calling you.”
It’s nearly the last Tuesday evening meeting, and the deadline is drawing near. Tempers are running short, and tension is running high. One candidate walks out in frustration when a mentor is busy with another teacher.
Stewart gets up for a second round at the dinner buffet. He appears to be more relaxed than any of his peers. “I’m not,” he insists. “I took today off. I’ve been working since 6:30 a.m.”
A group of candidates applying for certificates as middle childhood generalists are feeling the stress. A half-eaten pile of Fannie May chocolate bars rests on their table, waiting to be polished off. “I’m gonna vomit or pass out or something,” says Timble, who is wrestling with one of her essays.
“So eat some more chocolate, why don’t you?” says King. Both sisters laugh as Timble helps herself to more candy.
The last Saturday in March—the target date for packing and mailing portfolios—is here. Only five candidates actually meet the deadline. The rest are still compiling materials to submit and putting them in the order prescribed by National Board guidelines.
“I don’t get all the forms,” says a frustrated Timble. “They all say the same s—t to me.”
Stewart goes over to help her make sense of the instructions. “This is the release form, and it goes here,” he says, showing her where the form belongs. Candidates lay out each entry’s paperwork along tables or the floor before assembling them into a packet to be placed inside of a coded envelope. The envelopes are then stacked in a precise order and placed inside “the box,” an official mailing container that arrived earlier with packing instructions.
Quest’s early target date allows candidates a two-week cushion to make the National Board’s April 16 deadline. Most have their portfolio boxes ready and mail them out over the next week or so. One candidate waits until the last minute and has to fly to the collection site in San Antonio, Texas, to make it in time.
Today, as Lillian DeGand heads out for the post office, she has a bit of advice for next year’s candidates: “Start early!”
“That’s what we tell everybody every year, but they don’t listen,” says Cherkasky-Davis.
“Start early and work like a madman,” says DeGand.
The portfolios are done and they’ve been shipped. In early May, Quest throws a party to celebrate.
Spouses, children, other relatives, and even a couple of principals turn out at the Holiday Inn Mart Plaza to congratulate the group. During the festivities, two candidates take the floor to share their experiences.
“I used to do a lot of things out of intuition,” Nieciak tells the audience. “Now, things are a lot more purposeful in my classroom. I can articulate why I do the things I do.
Elementary teacher Patricia Baggett-Hopkins echoes the sentiment. “I have rejuvenated myself as a teacher. I didn’t know it was going to be such a powerful experience.”
But candidates have another level to scale.
A daylong set of written tests—called the assessment center—begins this week and continues through early July. Candidates must make an appointment to take the timed exam. Though the precise contents are kept secret, questions can range from planning interdisciplinary lessons to using student work to plan lessons that address individual weaknesses. Since April, Quest candidates have been setting their own study schedules and keeping in touch with mentors for ongoing support.
It’s June, and King and Baggett-Hopkins arrive at Timble’s home to study. King pulls out a manila envelope containing study questions written by their mentor. Inside, there are three samples of student papers on rocks and soil. The teachers must determine what the students already know and what each student does not yet grasp about the topic, and then devise group lessons that would serve all three.
“All three needed to know how rocks are formed,” observes Baggett-Hopkins. They toss out ideas on how to simulate rock and soil formation, like pushing a block of ice across a pan of dirt to simulate a glacier.
While some candidates continue to study in groups, others go it alone. Over spring break, Morrison carted a stack of academic journals recommended by National Board to Jamaica for beach reading. “Each article was between 30 and 60 pages,” she says.
A new school year is underway, and the 22 candidates who survived last years journey are anxiously waiting for their results. Final word on whether they reach the summit—National Board Certification—is expected to arrive in late November.
The cycle began again this fall with 24 candidates, eight of whom came from Quest’s precandidacy program for applicants who weren’t quite ready for the full climb last year. Retired principal Alice Keane led a group of 16 teachers through the biweekly program, designed to give them a taste of the real thing.
Some decided to delay their candidacy a second year. “That really speaks to their motivation,” says Keane. “Not every teacher is ready for the certification process.”
Still, Keane says the best teaching practices held up by National Board are worth every teacher’s notice. “The large majority of teachers would benefit from knowing the standards and trying to meet them,” she says.