I’m on Spring Break right now, which means that I’m alternately digging holes in a garden, watching TV, and working on my National Board portfolio (I know how to live!). As I’ve gotten into the weeds with this thing I have a few observations:
First, the portfolio itself is a total bear. I thought I had really done the bulk of the work because I’d taught the lessons and gathered the evidence I’d use to submit and write about. And for two out of the three Components I’m submitting, I’d already written the 12-13 page commentaries. But what I had not accounted for are the FORMS. There are about seven thousand forms to be formatted, cross-referenced, properly labelled, and converted to PDFs before they get uploaded into an e-portfolio system. And before I even approach that stage in the process, I have to pull screenshots of Google Drive files, convert them to .jpeg’s, import them into Google Docs, download those to PDFs, compile them all into single files, etc., etc., etc….and never mind that the instructions and naming conventions for this stuff appear differently in three different places on the National Board website. All of this has led me to the conclusion that: one must be a good teacher, yes, to apply and receive National Board Certification. But more than that, one must have an inhuman level of patience and attention to detail (oh! also good teacher qualities!) (oh! and extra points for you if your computer dates to the good-old-mid-Obama-administration days of 2011! Try updating Preview on that antique system, whydoncha!).
Second, administrative headaches aside, this process is totally invaluable in terms of professional development. When I first started teaching I had a Master’s in my subject area and next to no classroom experience. My first Principal vehemently asserted that one could not just step into teaching, and that teaching in fact was something that one had to learn and practice. I did not really understand how true that was. I knew about History; clearly, I could teach it! False. Teaching is more craft than anything else, as it forces the teacher to imagine, execute, reevaluate, redesign, and iterate. Teaching is not really something one can learn how to do in the abstract, rather, one has to try things out, fail repeatedly, learn from failure, and try again. It simply takes time to get any good at. The National Board process asks the teacher to provide evidence that she actively engages in this iterative process. The requirements are not that the teacher succeed in delivering a perfect lesson every day, but rather that she take seriously the requirements of careful trial, error/success, and reflection. Because the portfolio is evidence-based, one can’t rely on content knowledge or a fancy degree or number of years in the classroom or any other proxy for “good teaching.” Instead, the teacher has to show documentation of her actual teaching practice.
Third, collecting all of this evidence has taught me a few things about what it means to teach. First, looking closely at student work is the maybe only way to figure out whether or not I’m effective in the classroom. Otherwise, I might be able to tell if they’re paying attention while I’m talking, or whether they laugh at my jokes (they’d better), but I can’t really tell if they’ve grown with regards to a certain goal or objective. Second, and related, teaching is about relationship-building above all. In order for my students and colleagues to feel comfortable with my evaluation of student work, they need to trust that I am capable and professional, and also that I’m interested in the success of the students above all. Third, “differentiation” is just good teaching, but it takes some doing in order to figure out what it actually means in practice (because it’s not necessarily designing 25 different lessons, one for each kid in the class). Differentiation means making curriculum accessible for a variety of learners, and allowing those learners to demonstrate their understanding in a variety of ways. When I first started teaching I was so nervous and stressed out that I tended to see my students as just a mass of people whose mission in life was to challenge my ability to get through a school day (seriously—ask any first-year teacher and they’ll likely say the same thing). Now that I’m a more comfortable with the job, it’s so obvious that each one of those kids is such a unique little snowflake (sincerely!) that of course they’re not going to all be able to read a giant textbook chapter at the same rate, and that even if they do, they might not really understand it. And if they do understand it, they might not all demonstrate that understanding in the form of a five-paragraph essay, just like I’d be total crap at demonstrating my understanding in the form of a pop ballad. What I mean is, my students are individuals, and I ought to treat them as such in the classroom.
I have to recommend this process to any teacher who has entered her third year of teaching and is therefore eligible. I also have to recommend the Stanford support group, as I don’t know how I would have made it through all the byzantine requirements of the National Board without that resource.
Well, anyway. I’ve been away from this blog for a long time—it’s been a hectic semester. I moved to San Francisco, I started commuting, I started teaching a new class, blah blah blah. But I will write soon about how our Truth and Reconciliation Series has gone, and about an exciting new venture re: planning radical (in the sense of being far-out and hip) history curriculum! Happy spring to everyone!