Whatever happened to ... the top teacher who flunked the test?

March 2, 2011

Three years ago, I was an English teacher at the vaunted Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County. But I wanted more — specifically an advanced professional honor known as “National Board Certification” that would have earned me 60 grand in bonuses over the next decade of my teaching career.

A cornerstone of my application was a canoe-building project with 10th-graders to explore primitive technology. But after a year’s worth of effort — a process I wrote about in a 2008 Post Magazine article — I failed to receive a passing score. I didn’t know it at the time, but the canoe I had been crafting would carry me out of the classroom for good.

Before that happened, though, I gave the application another try. As it turned out, I had received decent marks on three of the four required portfolios, for which I had to tape classroom lessons and analyze student work. But I had bombed the one about the canoe. That part was supposed to show what I did outside the classroom to support student achievement. I made a strategic decision to scuttle that project, instead choosing to write about being an instructor of graduate-level courses for teachers and my blog about life in the classroom for Teacher Magazine online.

Just before Thanksgiving 2009, I logged on to my computer, butterflies dancing in my belly. When I clicked open my “Natty Board” scores, my forehead hit the desk, and tears came to my eyes. I had done it. The new entry scored a 3.5. After a two-year quest, I had acquired four new letters to add to my professional résumé: NBCT, National Board Certified Teacher.

Ironically, at that point I was no longer a public school English teacher. I had left T.J. that summer to become dean of students at a private school in Falls Church. After 15 years of jumping through hoops in an effort to up my income, I came to the realization that I didn’t want to keep climbing the public salary ladder rung by rung.

To be fair, my decision to move to a private school had as much to do with professional independence as it did with salary. Halfway through my career, I didn’t want to be an Indian anymore: I wanted to be chief. My current role has given me lots of hands-on experience in running a school, along with a sense of agency I never felt as a public school teacher.

Even though I didn’t stick around to collect the money, the process of applying for the National Board Certification has influenced the way I think about teaching and learning. And that 400-pound log canoe? It found a home in King William, Va., at a school that teaches Native American kids about their heritage. Priceless.

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