Every school district wants a teacher like Mark Ingerson. He loves the history he teaches at Salem High School, eagerly prepares his southwestern Virginia students for the state tests, helps train other teachers and has won awards.
Yet at age 31, his base salary is only $39,000 a year. With a wife and young daughter, he used to assume he would have to leave the classroom and become an administrator to give his family the kind of life he thinks they deserve.
Then, in the fall, he received news that might be the key to keeping him with students for the rest of his career. After several months of teaching exercises, report-writing and exams, he was certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards as a national board-certified teacher. Unlike the other honors he has received, this one came with cash -- an extra $7,500 this year, followed by annual $5,000 bonuses for the next nine years.
He said his wife, Sharon, used to say, "Why do you work so hard? It's not like other professions, where you get paid more if you do a better job." He told her his effort would pay off, and "literally, it has now," he said.
More than 40,000 teachers in 50 states and the District have received national certification, a grueling process that requires $2,300 to apply, takes hundreds of hours and has more than a 50 percent failure rate for first-time applicants. With more than 30 states and the District giving bonuses or higher salaries to those who succeed, it is the single most powerful merit pay system in public education today, educators say.
A rival group, the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence, is designing its own award, putting more emphasis on classroom results and thus increasing the likelihood of more teachers getting elevated status and more money. As states and school systems become more accustomed to this way of advancing careers, experts say, the teaching profession may evolve into something more like law and medicine, in which the most effective and energetic practitioners often make the most money.
Although the bonuses are welcome -- Ingerson plans to spend his on furniture -- they do not appear to be as important to many as the improved status signified by a valued title whose authority is buttressed with a big check, according to interviews with nationally certified teachers.
"Money is a proxy for respect in our society," said Gary Galluzzo, professor of education at George Mason University and a former executive vice president of the Arlington-based board that grants the national certificates.
Patrick Ledesma, a technology specialist at Holmes Middle School in Fairfax County, said he wanted to remodel his home, with its original 1970s fixtures, and spent his bonus on that. But what he likes most about the certificate, he said, is that it opens "a career path that doesn't involve leaving the classroom." He plans to grow professionally "through opportunities such as mentoring, curriculum development, team leadership."
Linda T. Hoekstra, who teaches third- and fourth-graders at Columbia Elementary School in Fairfax County, proudly listed the many forms of recognition that have come from the certification: an adjunct professorship at George Mason University, a radio spot during national education week, magazine interviews, speeches to other teachers, coaching and mentoring work, service on a teacher advisory board and praise from parents.
"I had a strong desire to achieve it because it is the gold medal of the teaching world," she said.
And there is, some certificate-holders said, the particularly delicious pleasure, bordering on revenge, of proving the worth of their ideas and classroom techniques to people who once may have dismissed them.
Claudia Bezaka, a French instructor at Woodrow Wilson Senior High School in the District, acknowledged that the one-time lump sum of $5,000 awarded by the city school system is not as much as what certified teachers in Maryland and Virginia receive. But she can still enjoy the feeling of vindication. "The seasoned teachers in my field who questioned me and dismissed my techniques, my alternative teaching strategies and style, can no longer deny my efficacy as a language instructor," she said.
Ingerson said he feels the same thrill. Some teachers dismissed his techniques, heavy on rhymes, pictures, songs and skits, as just playing around, not really teaching. One told him upfront that he was not going to attend an Ingerson-led training session because "I see your dog-and-pony show every day." Since he received the certificate, Ingerson said, "what can they say now?"
The certificate program began a decade ago and has taken hold slowly. Jolynn Tarwater, who teaches third-graders at Fallsmead Elementary School in Montgomery County, will receive $2,000 from the state this year and $2,000 from her school system. Now, she said, the state and school system are "finally beginning to recognize us, but only after years of frustration of feeling 'just a teacher.' "
Some teachers say they seek the certificate not only for respect and money but also to prove to themselves that their methods are valid and effective. "I felt that I was a very good teacher who takes pride in understanding the pedagogy of teaching, and I wanted affirmation of my abilities from a rigorous evaluation process," said Fred Lampazzi, director of the Biotechnology Laboratory at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County.
Initial studies indicate that certified teachers produce higher achievement in their students. If more research verifies that, the bonuses may spread, since states such as Florida, North Carolina and California, which offer the biggest bonuses, get the most certified teachers.
Videotaping one's own lesson, working up reports on methodology and other parts of the certification process not only show teachers how well they are doing but also make them better, several teachers said. Even those who fail to pass the tests say it was worth the effort.
What makes Ingerson happiest, he said, is knowing that with the bonus money -- and the other money-making opportunities that come with recognized skills -- "I will teach for a long time."
"It's funny," he said. "When I was in grad school, I really thought I'd go into administration. I couldn't care less now. I love the classroom too much."