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Certifiably Good

After two decades of teaching, she decided it was time to prove she was one of the best

By Laura Reasoner Jones
Sunday, May 13, 2001; Page W18

I am a preschool special education teacher with two advanced degrees, 22 years of teaching experience and a desire never to be bored. I go to the homes of Fairfax County preschoolers who are developmentally delayed and teach them, using the toys, books, games and Playmobil and craft materials that perpetually fill the back seat and trunk of my little white Ford Escort. It's like living in a Zany Brainy. I consult with preschool directors and do parent workshops. I wear silly watches and earrings. It's fun and I love it.

Good teaching is difficult to measure. It is almost impossible to define, let alone quantify. But the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards has been doing just that since 1987. Its mission is "to establish high and rigorous standards for what accomplished teachers should know and be able to do." That sounded like a good mission to me, and a good challenge, so last school year, I decided to join the first group of special education teachers to attempt to achieve National Board Certification in Exceptional Needs.

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Why would anyone with two busy teenagers and a wonderful husband spend a year to get recognized as a nationally certified master teacher? I don't really know. Mentors in the Fairfax school system, who had been certified in previous years and other areas, warned us about the heavy load involved and advised us to try and plan a "stress-free" year. I think the certification attracted me because I'm tired of the bad press teachers constantly get. I was educated in public schools, I send my children to public schools, and I teach in a public school system. I guess it was just time to stand up and declare my pride in my work and my workplace.

September 16, 1999 I begin the mandatory five-week seminar for all 52 Fairfax County National Board Certification candidates. We divide up according to area of certification and receive alternating warnings and pep talks about the process: "Overwhelming." "Time-consuming." "Mind-blowing." I feel nervous about the time commitment. The special education candidates form two support groups, with the more task-oriented (obsessive-compulsive) gravitating together. I will fit into it fine: My husband has bought me a 10-foot worktable, a lamp and a set of colored highlighters.

The seminar leaders warn us in ominous tones about The Box, the huge carton that will be sent to us by the certification board and stocked full of explicit instructions, standards and materials. Count everything, they tell us, and put The Box away in a safe place. Apparently the first group of teachers to certify had used The Box to cart around their materials, papers and videos for the whole preparation period. At the end, when they were to mail in their completed portfolios for scoring, they turned to the last page in the instruction booklet to read, "Return all materials in the original box." Never has so much duct tape been used by so few teachers.

October 1 I have such an interesting group of children this year. Usually teachers like me see children with mild to moderate speech/language impairments or mild motor development delays. This year I have three children with rare genetic syndromes, two with learning disabilities, two with significant orthopedic impairments, five with severe language and processing problems, and only two with speech delays. As usual, the boys far outnumber the girls this year, by 12 to two.

December 1 The Box arrives! Blue and red, 12 inches by 20 inches by 4 inches, heavy with papers and a tote bag. Inside are 400 pages of explicit instructions about every step of the process, mailing bags, inventory sheets and a 108-page book of standards describing the exemplary special education teacher. I'm wondering as I read, "Do I meet these standards? Can I?"

December 6 My hoped-for stress-free year begins to crumble. During a routine visit to Johns Hopkins for monitoring of a genetic skin condition, my daughter Julie learns she has four suspect moles that must be biopsied. Although it is hard to admit, I know that I am a better special education teacher because my two daughters have "issues." My older daughter, Christie, has learning disabilities and attention deficit disorder.

December 8 The Box is due back by June 5, 2000. My support group meeting produces a calendar showing a careful timetable for producing our portfolio entries: two videos with written analysis and reflection; two documented collaborations with families and professionals; and two child-specific entries related to assessment and academics. Each assignment has very specific requirements as to page length, typographical font and content.

December 10 Working in homes can be a minefield of political correctness. I start videotaping one of my 4-year-olds. Videos of actual teaching sessions are a key component of two of the portfolio entries, and all candidates are required to submit them. As the camera is running, I find myself holding my breath not to answer back when the father interrupts the lesson, correcting his young son's use of the word "Indian."

Because I work in homes, I cannot tell this father to leave us alone. Unlike teachers who work in classrooms, I am a guest of the families. I have to teach around washing machine repairmen, crying infants, PTA membership phone calls. I work as a team with parents, but I only have one hour a week to meet goals and objectives and I want parents to trust that I am using all of our time wisely. Sessions like the interrupted video are frustrating because they use time.

December 17 I finish my second video and review it several times, laughing out loud when I hear my student say sadly, as he assembles a toy train, "The train is broken because the passengers are dead." I love kids at this age! It is so great when they start really using language and making leaps in logic that, while not always correct, are funny and memorable. One little boy used to talk about the "a-nuts" that fell off the tree. And one little girl this year told me that in Spain, where she used to live, "the three wild kings" bring the presents to the children at Christmas.

January 12, 2000 I work around snow days, late openings and phone messages reminding me that I am late returning the video camera I borrowed from the school system and still need. I call, write and e-mail co-workers, supervisors and parents with whom I've worked over the past five years to ask for written verification of our collaborative work.

But I spend most of January obsessing about Entry Four. This entry asks me to pose two questions about a child and attempt to answer them. This is so unclear to me -- what do they mean by pose two questions? -- that I bring it up at every support group meeting. The other special ed teacher candidates laugh kindly, but I don't think they see how hard it is.

February 6 The low point. I write and revise, and write and revise. I send the entries for reading to an adviser and revise again. I feel myself starting to panic. I think about quitting, but know that the county wouldn't pay the $2,000 application fee again. I read the standards again and again, trying to make them stick in my head. I even review the section called "Suggestions for Reading the Standards." One passage in particular I find daunting: "It is essential to understand, at the outset, that the written commentary of your teaching is the final visible result of a great deal of less visible labor." I think I am a good teacher. My students make positive significant change by the end of the year. So why is it so hard to describe what I do? One of the "suggestions": "Many candidates are modest -- in fact so much that they view their practices as ordinary." That is so true. Although I plan carefully and individualize each lesson with very specific goals in mind, part of me thinks, "Doesn't everyone do this?" I don't know. We special ed teachers talk about things at the administrative office, and share ideas, materials and techniques, but we never see one another work. This is an isolating process to complete and I am in an isolated job.

March 18 For Entry Four I have chosen a little girl with Turner's syndrome, which, among other things, makes processing and spatial problems difficult and anxiety-causing. The problem is that I have many questions about the preschooler, and how can I choose only two? I spend a Saturday morning at the Education Library of the Fairfax County Public Schools skimming articles about the syndrome, and come out uninspired. I stop at the Herndon public library to see what it has, and there it is: a paper that suggests a behavioral technique to help children with Turner's syndrome tackle math and spatial problems more easily. After four months of agony, I feel almost euphoric, for me but especially for my student.

April 16 I spend spring vacation writing up Entry Four. I'm feeling really energized now and I share that with the members of my support group. They're all in the throes of Entry Four, too, but none of them have yet found the right two questions.

April 27 Using the information gleaned through my research at the Herndon library, I try a new technique with my young student designed to distract her from her anxiety, and it works! For the first time she no longer refuses to do simple pattern problems and puzzles. Her mother, who works with me to teach her daughter, looks at me with shining eyes and says, "Brilliant!" It wasn't, but I feel fantastic.

May 14 Crunch time. I collect the remainder of my parent letters. I am amazed at the depth of some of the relationships I have developed with families. We have suffered and succeeded together. I have been the teacher who supports a family when their only child is diagnosed with autism. I have been the person who walks in after the father has beaten the mother. I have been the person who interprets the letter from the county announcing a cut in food stamps. And I have been at the kitchen table when the child's mother learns that her own father has died. I am immersed in these families.

May 25 The June deadline is looming and my whole group is trying to mail before Memorial Day. I photocopy, scan pictures, label every page according to very specific directions, and then drag The Box out, pack it, recheck it and have my husband recheck it. Finally, it goes in the mail. Nearly a year's work. Eight pounds (four ounces more than my first child). I am reluctant to let it leave my hands at the post office. It is thrown onto the conveyor belt, disappearing with a loud thud into the postal void.

Memorial Day Weekend I take a breath. All of my students have good placements for kindergarten. I can turn back to my own family. My older daughter, Christie, has survived another year of college, and she has a good job for the summer. Julie, on the other hand, has an F in Junior ROTC for one quarter because she refused to wear her uniform every Thursday. Where was I those mornings? We are also preparing for her to have two more unusual moles removed. This is so hard -- every mole could be melanoma -- and she's only 15.

June 25 I have been spending most nights and weekends making notes to take with me into a final six-hour assessment test for the national certificate. As in December, the report on Julie's most recent biopsies comes back "abnormal," but not melanoma, and I send her to Ocean City with a friend's family and a suitcase of sunscreen so that I can study.

July 6 Wearing a good luck shirt, I arrive at my testing site at George Mason University at 7:20 a.m., and I am one of only four teachers being tested for the national certificate at this site. The other cubicles are full of college students taking LSATs and GREs.

I spend six hours in front of a computer, typing in responses to prompts on the screen, and using almost none of my carefully prepared notes. I write about behavior management, self-advocacy, socialization and family relationships. I walk out of the test convinced I have failed. I wrote from the heart and I did my best. But what if my heart wasn't good enough?

August 29 The new school year begins.

I have heard nothing yet about my certification and how I did. I continue to read the e-mail listserv for candidates in my field. The latest buzz is that there are about 1,000 of us, but very few scorers, so test results may be delayed.

September 21 I meet with Julie's counselor and teachers to develop a plan so that she won't be penalized for missing school to have biopsies. I am struck again by the compassion these teachers have for their students. Why do teachers get such bad press? It makes me angry.

October 4 Teachers and friends begin to ask if I have gotten my results. They don't know exactly what I did, but they know I worked hard. The buzz from the listserv seems to settle on scores coming in late November, which is confirmed when the national board Web site posts a message saying that scores will be mailed not before November 28, and successful candidates will be listed on the Web site "not before November 30." More waiting.

November 29 I start checking the Web site at 8 p.m., but there's nothing.

November 30 I make the morning rounds of students and come home around lunchtime to check the Web site again. It takes a while, but finally a list pops up. As I scroll down I see three friends from the support group. But I can't find my name. All that work! I start to cry. Then I realize -- it's not in alphabetical order, it's listed by town of residence! And there I am under Herndon, Va.: Laura Reasoner Jones. I keep crying. I am dazed.

I click off and call my husband. He says, "Did you print it?" No, of course not! I try to sign on again on but the Web site has crashed: teacher lunch hours across the country. Maybe I didn't see my name after all.

December 1 After a sleepless night, I sign back on at 5:30 a.m. and print the Virginia list. Of the eight special education candidates I know, six of us have made it. The scores arrive in the mail after school, listing a scaled score for each of the 10 entries. Wow! I have done surprisingly well, way above the 275 points needed to certify, with perfect scores on two entries from the six-hour test. It's like expecting a 900 on the SATs and getting a 1450. But am I happy with these great scores? Well, mostly. But one entry is terrible -- collaboration with professionals. My 25 pages of documentation and signed verifications weren't good enough. After three days, I start to sleep again.

December 19 Winter vacation is here. I think about what has happened this year. I am a different person, much more assertive, particularly about the high caliber of the teachers I see and know. I don't sit quietly anymore when someone criticizes the public schools. I think about my students in a different, more analytical way, and I communicate more clearly and directly with their parents and preschool teachers. I plan and teach more effectively. And I don't waste time.

Before I attempted the certification process, I felt that I was the only one who thought I did a good job; now I know others think so, too. I know that not every teacher will be willing to go through this rigorous process. And while it doesn't -- can't -- measure everyone's strengths, the process of spending a year intensely analyzing and reflecting upon all aspects of one's practice is an enlightening experience.

In search of greater accountability from schools and better teaching, the public demands higher test scores and legislative action. Getting more teachers to pursue the rigors of National Board Certification may be the better way to go.

Laura Reasoner Jones has taught in Fairfax County for 13 years.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company
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