Some Good News on the Teaching Front… I Think

I found out on Saturday that I passed my National Board Certification for high school math. (Cue mini-celebration.)

It’s one of those certifications that takes a while to complete, sometimes a few years. For me, it involved taking six short math exams in a variety of subjects, videotaping two of my classes and analyzing the bejesus out of them, collecting evidence of my students improving their skills over time, and writing four long essays justifying my existence as a math teacher (slash-human-being). I submitted my portfolio last April after several months of working on it and got the results this weekend.

So what does it mean?

Outside of a paltry $1,000/year stipend from my district over the next ten years — an amount that was significantly reduced in our last contract to where it is now — and nothing from the state since Illinois doesn’t have any money for silly things like education, it means some educators think I’m not awful at what I do. That’s nice. It’s one of those things that sounds great on paper but really doesn’t tell you too much about me or what goes on in my classroom.

I’ve heard other teachers call it one of the best professional development experiences they’ve ever had… I’m not sure I buy that. It was a lot of busy work for me. It didn’t force me to reflect on my profession any more than I usually do and it didn’t really change what I do in the classroom. It forced me to frame what I do in the classroom in a way the graders wanted to see — with certain “buzzwords,” with an eye toward improved test scores (as if that’s all that matters in education), and with a complete disregard for anything I do for my students that doesn’t involve higher test scores. (To be sure, teachers should help improve their students’ scores, but that alone doesn’t make anyone a great teacher.)

There was a lot of exaggerating involved, too. Did obtaining my Masters Degree really help my students? Did presenting at some math conferences and attending other workshops somehow lead to their better understanding of math? Indirectly, maybe. But not really. Still, that’s what I wrote about. I didn’t have much of a choice.

The things that have actually made me a better teacher — interacting with math colleagues via social media, reading and learning from blogs written by math teachers, coming up with projects to get kids more excited about the subject — weren’t things the National Board people wanted to hear about. There might be good reason for that; you can’t quantify that sort of impact and that makes it hard to assess. But it means I had to overemphasize some of the other things I do in my profession as if those things have a greater impact on my students’ learning. I guarantee if you ask my students what makes me a good teacher, their answers would include almost nothing I wrote about in my portfolio.

A lot of teachers who don’t pass the boards are phenomenal teachers and a lot of teachers who do pass them aren’t necessarily the best in their profession. Everyone knows who the good teachers are at any given school and their certifications and advanced degrees have nothing to do with it.

That’s not to diminish the achievement, for me or for anyone else. Seriously, congratulations to everyone who passed. I’m sure I’ll be adding a line to my resume and school-email-signature-line, too. But it just doesn’t feel like I earned something that truly tells people whether I’m the sort of teacher whose classroom they’d want to be in. It just tells everyone that I played the National Board game really well, jumped over whatever hurdles they put in my way, and submitted a decent portfolio.

It didn’t make me a better teacher and I don’t feel any more accomplished now that I have a few more letters after my name. It doesn’t mean I won’t keep trying to improve. It doesn’t mean I don’t want my kids’ test scores to get better. But if this is supposed to be the highest-caliber certification a teacher can get, it’s not surprising that our country’s education system is in such bad shape.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.


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