Finding Joy in the Journey: What I Learned from the NBCT Process

There’s a brand new cohort of NBCTs, and I am one of them. My own journey began two years ago when I decided that one of my professional goals was to become a National Board Certified Teacher. Here’s my story.

The National Board of Professional Teaching Standards recently released their scores for this year’s newest cohort of certified teachers. My own journey began two years ago when I decided that one of my professional goals was to become a National Board Certified Teacher. That experience culminated in one simple message flashing across the top of my browser screen.

I felt a rush of relief and elation: I will not be plunged back into the extremely challenging process of compiling evidence, analyzing my teaching decisions moment-by-moment, and justifying every detail of my practice. I can proudly declare myself part of a group of highly accomplished teachers who I’ve admired from afar for years. I have cleared the hurdle that I set. I have accomplished this huge career goal. I shout “Hurrah!” in my head as I accept a huge bear hug from my congratulatory husband.

As I view the detailed break-down of my scores later, that initial elation gives way to other emotions. Out of four portfolio submissions, I pass three, and of those I pass, I score far less than perfectly. Out of six testing sections, I pass 5, and not with flying colors. I passed with congratulations but also with ample feedback for improvement.

In other words, SURPRISE, I’m not a perfect teacher.

I hope you laugh at the ridiculous irony of stating something so obvious; however, I state it nonetheless. I’m a perfectionist, an A-student, and a 4.0 striver. I struggle with vulnerability, sharing my weaknesses, or admitting a failure. Although I accept constructive criticism well enough (tough skin and all), I’m not great at accepting criticism without also letting it completely shadow any accompanying success.  And I fear failure more than I like to admit.

When receiving feedback that “You may wish to provide clearer evidence of your ability to engage in reflective thinking about students and your instructional practice” and “You may wish to provide clearer evidence that you are able to create a stimulating and productive learning environment,” I feel myself bristle defensively and think: What?! I’m a master of a stimulating and productive learning environment!I’m an extremely capable reflective practitioner!

Oh wait…maybe I’m not.

After my wave of defensiveness passes, I begin reflecting on how I feel, why those defenses rose up, and what I still have to learn in this certification process. The journey, it seems, has rounded a turn, but is far from over. The learning process continues.

Even though I pass portfolio 4, I receive two pieces of feedback: (1)You may wish to provide more consistent and convincing evidence that communications with families are interactive and focused on substantive teaching and relevant issues for their students learning. (2)You may wish to provide more consistent and convincing evidence that you treat parents and other interested adults as partners in the students learning.

Pushing down the emotional impulse to defend, I tell myself to reflect on the truth of those statements. I’ve admitted to my administrator that partnering with families was not in my wheelhouse of strengths. However, I also acknowledge to myself that I’ve grown in this area. In the past two years, I have intentionally focused on making more parent phone calls even when my default is to avoid them. I’ve invited parents into my classroom in multiple ways, and I’ve been more intentional about sending positive feedback home rather than just negative. I’ve asked parents for help in supporting their son or daughter.

So this feedback from the National Board of Professional Standards, although constructive, affirms that although I may not yet be consistent in my abilities to partner with families, I’ve grown. Had I compiled this portfolio two years ago, I may not have passed. And since I was forced to provide evidence for this standard last year, I know I’ve improved even more at the start of this current school year.

Status? Growing, with room for improvement.

Don’t I ask my students to be happy with this message all the time?  Don’t I provide this mixed bag of feedback on the majority of my student assessments? Why then is my own default to see only the negative feedback and diminish the positive?

Wow. This just got real. It can be so difficult to practice what I preach. When you put your heart, soul, sweat, and tears into something, it’s not easy to accept that you could still get better. Yet, as a self-professed “life-long learner” who hopes to encourage the same in my students, I MUST find the joy in the journey. Learning IS the journey. Each destination along the way is merely a turning point for a new challenge, a new opportunity, a new direction. This achievement initiates a pause for tremendous celebration as well as further reflection.

Even on my highest-scored portfolio, I am provided with only two pieces of feedback, and both of them are constructive criticism. I find myself thinking: “Yes, I’m sure I could have done that more perfectly, but since I did really well in this area, where’s the feedback for THAT? I want to know specifically where and how I am being successful!”

Again, I reflect on what this response teaches me about my own classroom and students. How often do I skip over the positive feedback I could offer and instead hone in on a few areas that could improve? In the time crunch of the everyday frenetic pace of teaching and learning, when do I miss the opportunity to specifically outline successes to encourage my students? When can I offer a clean slate of congratulations, completely leaving off the “but” that so easily follows?

Overall, the process of earning this certification has been one that not only taught me how to be a better teacher, but also a better mentor, role model, community-member, and learner. It has forced me to confront my own advice from the flip side and control my default messaging that has a tendency to be more damaging than productive. Finally, it has allowed me to engage in the hard work of deep and honest reflection, knowing that this process never ends because—especially in this profession—there is no way to be perfect. Instead, there is only better, improved, more successful, and accomplished.

To be honest, this ever-present challenge is the reason teaching is not simply a career, but more accurately my chosen lifestyle. I wake up thinking about teaching and learning; I close my eyes puzzling through how I will approach it differently in the new day. For all the stress, the frustration, the waiting, the worry, and the difficult looks in a clear mirror, this process has been one of the most valuable of my career.

I invite you to delve into it when you are ready–wait, even before you feel ready, I invite you to take the plunge. I ask you to honor those who have achieved this as well as those who bravely continue to pursue it. They are courageous, dedicated professionals who deserve our encouragement and praise. Those continuing in this process are putting into action the ubiquitous descriptor: life-long learner.

In every time of reflection, there is also a time of celebration. Let’s take the opportunity to celebrate with those who achieved, encourage those who advanced, and come alongside those who have just agreed to enter the process. Celebrate the profession and the incredible professionals in it!

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