Certifiably Certifiable (On Professionalism and Certificates)

Rafranz Davis’ reflective post today on her rejection from Google certification got me thinking about the past year in which I’ve been in the midst of three types of certifications of my own: Math for America, National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, and my book, This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education.

Math for America (not to be confused with Teach for America or Master of Fine Arts) is a program dedicating to the recruitment and retention of math teachers. They have all sorts of levels and programs, but, for math teachers, it’s another way to create a community with other math teachers and enhance their own classroom practice. And NBPTS doesn’t really need explaining, but it’s worth mentioning that, up until recently, few teachers I knew from New York cared much for becoming National Board certified for reasons I don’t quite understand. My book was a passion project turned bombshell, and, even though I’ve written a lot, including Teaching 2030, my published book would pick up my writer credential one notch up.

I started my MfA application about in March of last year. Long story short: I completed the app, but ETS messed up my test registration so I didn’t make it to the next round. Devastated, I said, “I really don’t need this. I have enough plaudits, right?” In the middle of my anguish, Haymarket Books e-mails me to tell me that my manuscript would be part of its Spring 2014 catalogue, and yelled “I DONE DID IT!” I also didn’t know that, even after having 55 thousand words, the actual writing / re-writing / editing process had just begun. Sometime in October of last year, a few months after signing off on my publisher, I also decided to start the National Board process, because the city and my union had helped make a clearer path towards National Board.

And I was also prompted to jump on the MfA wagon again.

So if you’re keeping track at home, I was doing MfA, NBPTS, and my book at the same damn time, in shifts, along with being a father, teacher, partner, etc. If you’re asking when I had the time, the answer is: I didn’t. And frankly, I didn’t care. Putting my money where my mouth was mattered more than sleep. In an age where teachers have to fight (in more ways than one) to be considered professional, I have a feeling I’m far from the only one who loses sleep trying to do the best job possible.

As April (the month for the math state exams) approached, I finally took my own math exam for MfA, started the spontaneous book promotion for my book release the following month, and started to do the heavier writing for my writing. In the last week of April, my last recommendation letter was submitted for MfA. The next week, my book was released, selling a thousand copies in the first week. The next week, with about a few minutes to go, my full application, including videos and essays, were electronically submitted for the National Board.

For what? How does having an MfA, NBCT, or a widely-released book make me better than a teacher who can’t or won’t do any of these pieces? It doesn’t. Then again, perhaps the challenge isn’t so much about competing with others, but yourself, and the preconceived notions that teachers don’t feel like they have to get better, or won’t demonstrate efforts towards excellence.

Of course, the incentives help, too. These things, regardless of what we say, do help us. The grants, the pats on the back, the awards give us a certain recognition that opens doors. That’s how prestige works. Yet, I always think of so many of my colleagues who’ve gone through either NBCT and / or other processes and tell me how much better they’ve become for having done that.

Professionalism is funny that way.

  • ReneeMoore

    Certifying Yourself

    And I thought my life schedule was crazy busy….

    I like that you include writing your book as a form of certification. I did multiple certifications in the same year: National Boards, State Teacher of the Year (which here is truly a process), Milken (which I actually didn’t “do” but it was based on what I had done professionally), and my own ongoing classroom research project which was in high gear at that point.

    Some of these processes did in fact make me a better teacher–National Boards and especially my classroom research because in those I was looking at and changing my practice as I did the processes. Some of them provided much needed affirmations or clarifications of what I thought I was doing in the classroom. Our teacher evaluation process then was pretty worthless as far as giving me real information on where my strengths and weaknesses were in the craft of teaching.Of course, I believe EVERY teacher’s goal should be to become Board Certified, just like every doctor, nurse, accountant, or hair dresser I know.

    Certifications also helped me help others around me begin to understand some of what I do. My husband, who has actually seen me teach, was nevertheless stunned when he looked at my NBPTS portfolio with me and realized the breadth and complexity of what I do every day. Same for the students and parents who helped me with my classroom research on Culturally Engaged Instruction. One parent said, “I knew you did a lot of things for the children in your class, but I thought it was just because you were being nice.” Meaning, she didn’t know there was a lot of theory, philosophy, thought, and planning behind what often looked like spontaneous response.

    For all those reasons, and others, I’m glad I did certifications, and plan to do more.

  • SusanGraham

    Why bother?

    A certificate doesn’t make a better teacher, but it can verify the knowledge and skills of a teacher. What matters more is that a quality certification process provides a framework for self assessment and reflection. 

    There are other benefits: Having a timeline gives “permission” to set aside the time and energy to address professional growth.

    Objective, external evaluation provides credibility with parties beyond those who are personally acquainted with a teacher’s expertise.

    Certification opens doors to leadership roles that can help shape policy,  preparation, professional development that can have impact far beyond one’s own classroom, school, or district. 

    There are fabulous teachers who to focus their energy on the students and setting around them and some of them look with askance at colleagues who pursue additional certifications and roles becuase they question their commitment to the students in their classroom. And there are those who believe that their classroomcentric colleagues are limiting themselves and their profession. And there are life issues that impact when and how one invests one’s self.  But there is room for both and it shouldn’t be an either/or mindset.