This is the second in a seven-part series on National Board Certification Standards for teachers.

“Teachers are committed to students and their learning” (NBPTS Core Proposition #1).

True to its core beliefs, NBPTS is celebrating its 25th anniversary by engaging in some hard reflection and making important (some would argue, overdue) changes in some of its processes and products. But the heart of National Board Certification remains the Standards, and those Standards are still the best statement by our profession of what it means to be a highly accomplished teacher.

Like all of the 25 certification areas for National Boards, special education teachers have their own carefully developed set of standards (the Exceptional Needs Standards) against which their teaching practice will be measured.

Standards are developed and revised by a committee of 12-15 members who are broadly representative of accomplished professionals in their field. A majority of the committee members are teachers regularly engaged in teaching students in the field and developmental level in question.  [emphasis mine] Other members include experts in academic content, child development, teacher educators, researchers, and other professionals in the relevant field. Standards are disseminated widely for public comment and subsequently revised as necessary before adoption by the NBPTS Board of Directors.  (

I’ll be sharing more about the fascinating standards development and review process later in this series, but I want to stress here that these standards are developed primarily by teachers for teachers. On the review committee for the Exceptional Needs standards, for example, 8 of the 12 members were practicing and distinguished special education teachers from around the country.Similarly, a majority of the NBPTS Board of Directors who adopt the standards are as required in our bylaws, National Board Certified Teachers.

So according to the NB standards, what does it mean to be a highly accomplished special education teacher?

For one, it means being an effective advocate for your students. As stated in the standard document:

Teachers understand the special pressures and frustrations that some students with exceptional needs experience and the significant physical, emotional, and cognitive challenges unique to their exceptionalities….As advocates for students, accomplished teachers base decisions on students’ needs, even when those decisions are difficult to implement or contrary to popular opinions.Teachers recognize that their professional responsibility includes defending students when students cannot defend themselves.

In developing the standards for the Exceptional Needs certification, the review committee wrestled with how to develop discrete standards (there are 12 for this certificate), while acknowledging that in actual practice, the skills identified in the standards are highly integrated and overlapping.

Because teachers of exceptional needs children have to be able to work with students ranging in age from birth to 21, they have to demonstrate ability to do that work in a variety of settings. They also have to be able show evidence of how they turn those various settings into safe and positive learning environments for their students.

My TLN colleague and TEACHING 2030 co-author, Laurie Wasserman, is a National Board Certified special education teacher in Massachusetts. Her description of what the National Board Standards and process is typical of what we have heard from NBCTs over the years:

  • Going through the NB process developed my ability to become a reflective practitioner. As I observe my students who struggle with learning challenges, poverty, speaking another language, and just the day to day difficulties of being ‘tweens, it has helped me to understand how best to help them, and be the best educator I can be for them.
  • As a special needs middle school teacher who now works in a general education classroom for the majority of her day, the NB process developed in me the strength in myself to share ideas and teaching strategies with fellow educators.

The standards are not only valuable for measuring what a teacher has already accomplished in her/his career, but also as challenging goals for new teachers and teacher candidates.

Reading the standards document gave me a renewed respect for the depth and breadth of professional knowledge my colleagues in special education must have in order to do their jobs well. As a mother of two special needs children, I have had positive and negative experiences with my children’s teachers. Some were clearly more genuinely convinced that my children could learn and excel; while others, though kind, betrayed a debilitating paternalism.

The teacher who knows and can do what these standards describe is the teacher I want working with my children everyday. What about you?

Share this post: