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How I Got Over (Becoming NBCT)

José Vilson, NBCT |

It started from a chance meeting in North Carolina.

The Center for Teaching Quality had invited me to be part of a large coalition of educators writing about the future of the teaching profession. It was aptly titled Teaching 2030: What We Must Do For Our Students and Our Public Schools – Now and In The Future. Before this immersive experience, I spoke mostly from a New York City perspective, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s individualistic, corporate-style management of public schools reigned, and trickled down to most of the adults involved. The genius of CTQ is and always will be the teachers they brought together to discuss teaching from a macro-policy perspective.

As a young teacher learning how to navigate that CTQ space, I noticed one glaring, common thread: they were all National Board Certified Teachers (NBCTs).

Folks like Renee Moore, John Holland, and Shannon C’de Baca spoke of the profession in a way that helped them speak of their roles from the classroom with precision and clarity for educators and non-educators alike. While they didn’t expound too much on the benefits of becoming NBCT, they certainly knew that they had a good thing with them that they could carry wherever they went. Some had done the process once and failed until they finally got it. Others got it the very first time and had a chance to renew since. All of them speak to the arduous, hefty and reflective process that had given their colleagues a boost in their morale and professionalism. In the wake of No Child Left Behind, these symbols and certificates mattered.

The National Board process offers testimony to the care and diligence of the people who go through the process, even if they don’t make it.

For a New Yorker, I didn’t feel like it mattered much. Being an NBCT wasn’t a thing, and New York City has a way of insulating their teachers from the rest of the state and the country. For example, our school system has Big Apple Awards, an honor bestowed annually to some of our best and brightest teachers. Yet, since the turn of the century, not one State Teacher of the Year has been awarded to a New York City teacher. Even as we’ve had multiple NBCTs among us since the turn of the century, I hadn’t heard much buzz about it locally until 2011.

So why do it? Why would I go through the process thrice, twice failing?

For one, the benefits obviously provide an extra incentive for people who may be on the fence. In New York, that usually means an extra salary step and a grant to help get us started on the application process. But, as anyone who’s been paying attention knows, money is not the incentive for the work teachers do daily. Benefits help us do the work with less outside stressors (that’s important), but it doesn’t fundamentally change the work we do. The NBCT process is supposed to make participants into more reflective practitioners, and demonstrate evidence of that shift, so the benefits may not be the first item many of us mention, new or veteran.

What drives us is the growth of the profession. As a Black / Latino male educator, I represent only 3% of the teaching profession. As someone who gets the opportunity to share my voice nationally, I am deeply humbled to represent that 3% of folks who don’t get to share, whose voices get ignored, and whose professionalism often comes into question. Since so many teachers of color are in schools that script their lessons, militarize their students, and strip autonomy, the NBCT label represents a lever for equity and opportunity for me and so many others. The idea that an organization has allowed for the best and brightest among them to develop standards for their own careers and evaluate their peers on rubrics they created represents an ideal. This grassroots thinking cultivates voice in a way that allows for educators like me to have ownership that we don’t have in our own schools.

Evaluations and their frameworks change regularly, and so do the evaluators and their intentions. The teaching profession needs as many venues for pushback as possible. The National Board standards reflect that unlike many other education reform groups. Unlike value-added measures and growth reports, the NBCT process collects the stories and actions that teachers directly affect to make student learning happen. The focus is less on one best practice and more about the broad set of decisions and ideas that teachers have that contribute directly to student learning.

Now that I’ve become NBCT, I not only represent the 3% of male teachers of color, I also represent a paradigm that inverts the belief in the sole great teacher hero, pushing the collective teaching profession to speak more forcefully about what we must do for us, by us, and about us. 

José Luis Vilson is a math educator for a middle school in the Inwood / Washington Heights neighborhood of New York, NY. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Syracuse University and a master’s degree in mathematics education from the City College of New York. He’s also a committed writer, activist, web designer, and father. He is a National Board Certified Teacher in Math - Early Adolescence.

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