Every day Stafford Township fourth-grade teacher Daniel Breslow plans to work with his students in small groups. He develops lessons that are inquiry-based, encouraging students to ask questions.
If a student doesn’t perform well, he thinks about how he might approach the topic, or the student, differently.
Since earning certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, or NBPTS, two years ago, Breslow said he just spends more time thinking about how he teaches and how he can teach better.
“Reflection is such a big part of it,” he said of the certification process. “I think about how can I meet the needs of every student.”
Considered a gold standard of teaching, national board certification is a demanding process that can take as long as three years to complete. Currently, only 242 of approximately 110,000 teachers in New Jersey have achieved the certification, ranking the state 39th in the nation.
Why more teachers don’t get it appears to be a combination of politics, pay and public relations.
New Jersey does not require national certification, and except in a handful of districts, teachers do not earn more for achieving it, unlike pay increases they get for earning master’s degrees. Many teachers don’t really know what the NBPTS is.
New Jersey Education Association spokesman Steve Wollmer said a few districts have negotiated pay increases for national board certification, but it is not common.
“It is a pretty prestigious level to reach,” he said. “But having a master’s degree is more ingrained in the culture here.”
Advocates hope that as the national core content standards and teacher evaluations are implemented in the state, more districts and teachers will also see the value of national certification, which focuses not just on subject matter, but on how well it is taught and how well students learn.
“In today’s discussion about teacher effectiveness, districts are looking for a way to evaluate teachers,” said MaryAnn Joseph, a board-certified teacher who coordinates support services for aspiring NBPTS-certified teachers through the Educational Resource and Information Center in Mullica Hill, Gloucester County. “Every teacher-evaluation program is consistent with National Board standards.”
Developed in 1987 following a national Carnegie forum on 21st century teaching, there are now more than 102,000 NBPTS-certified teachers in the United States. Patrick Ledesma, director of Research and Knowledge Management at NBPTS in Arlington, Va., said some states have policies that support teachers and encourage them to pursue certification.
Florida and North Carolina have offered financial incentives of as much as $10,000, and those two states have about a third of all certified teachers nationwide.
The certification process costs about $3,000, and some grant funds through the state Department of Education can cover about half the cost. But deciding to become nationally certified in New Jersey is a largely personal decision. Every teacher interviewed talked about how time-consuming and difficult the process was — but also how rewarding.
“It was probably the best professional development I’ve ever done,” said Mark Haviland, a social studies teacher at the Belhaven Middle School in Linwood who was certified in 2006. “It was a bit overwhelming, but it really makes you think about why and how you are teaching. It gave me a lot of confidence. I’ve gotten better at evaluating students and giving them feedback.”
Teachers complete 10 assessments, which include videotaped lessons of themselves teaching and tests of their own content knowledge. They submit a packet to the NBPTS and have as many as three years to pass all sections.
Joseph said only about half of all applicants receive certification in their first year, and about 75 percent earn it within the three-year period. It must be renewed every 10 years.
Keith Hodgson, a music teacher at Mainland Regional High School in Linwood, decided to get certified in 2003 after being asked to serve on a panel that developed the music certificate.
“That changed my career,” he said. “It’s about teaching every child, not a group or a class.”
Teachers are required to have at least three years’ experience before they can apply. Hodgson said even almost a decade later, he still uses what he learned every day, reflecting on his lessons.
Stafford Township included a financial incentive to encourage teachers to attempt the process, and of about 15 who expressed interest, six have been certified. Some dropped out, deciding it was too demanding and time-consuming.
Susan Kilgallon, who teaches a science lab to third- and fourth-graders at the McKinley School, remembers taking her newborn daughter with her to the library to study while she was on maternity leave.
“It was difficult, but it’s also motivating,” she said while teaching a class on phases of the moon that required students to use the scientific method. “I use what I learned every day now. I know what I want to do, and what I don’t want to do. I look at the science standards more closely.”
Maria Stout and Hope Scherlin teach individual students and small groups as reading-intervention teachers, but said the process was still intense.
“It has changed how I communicate with the classroom teachers,” Stout said. “Everything I do has a purpose.”
Scherlin said the importance of parental and community involvement made an impression on her, and she focuses on how she can bring parents in as part of the learning process.
“It’s about adapting your teaching to meet each student’s needs,” she said.
Kindergarten teacher Stacey Suydam, who was certified in November, said she has a much better understanding of her goals.
“It’s like taking a giant magnifying glass to what you do,” she said. “I still get down on the floor with the kids. But now I really understand why I’m doing it. Kindergarten doesn’t always get a lot of respect. But this is the beginning of teaching for children. It sets them up for life. Teaching them to be a good person starts here. This helped me think about the big picture of education.”
Contact Diane D’Amico: