Passive to Active, Philosophy to Action, Novice to NBCT

May 25, 2016

For many years, I’ve worked both formally and informally with teachers pursuing National Board Certification. I coach them on their written commentaries, probing their thinking to bring to the surface key details that establish clear, consistent and convincing connections between their practice and their impact on student learning.

Now, in my current role as a mentor for new teachers in my district, I’m starting to see how the thinking I encourage in candidates is exactly the kind of thinking I want to ensure my first-year-teachers develop as regular practice, from the very start of their career. Before I talk about that, though, what sort of thinking is it exactly that I’m striving to cultivate in my National Board candidates? That is best answered by examining the feedback I offer them as they build their portfolios.

As a high school English teacher, I push my students to establish their writing voice through dynamic stylistic choices. However, when candidates are writing in the reflective and analytical modes National Board candidacy demands, I coach them to think less about style and more about substance. In that vein I find that most of my feedback calls on teachers to write more carefully about intentional causation, and about action versus philosophy.

Often, when I read early drafts of candidates’ commentaries, I am given vivid pictures of events that just seem to “happen” in a classroom. Learning occurs. Lessons match the goals. I can practically close my eyes and hear the energetic student voices fill the room, see the colorful student work adorning the walls. And, since teachers are often the last to herald their own achievements, commentaries include generous servings of passive voice, and few moments where the teacher truly asserts their impact on learning. This tendency toward the passive is why I always push my candidates toward this essential reflective syntax, even at the expense of voice and sentence fluency: “Because I saw X in student performance, I chose to enact instructional move Y in order to cause the desired effect Z.”

Yes, student learning can happen on its own (which is what writing in passive voice implies is happening), but that’s not how it works in the classroom of an accomplished teacher. In the classroom of an accomplished teacher, the teacher is constantly gathering data and information about students, making choices based on that information, and monitoring for a specific desired effect from that instructional choice. This causation is what I encourage candidates to highlight in their analysis of classroom video and their examination of student work. I urge them to own their choices, articulate what inspired those choices, and analyze the effects of those choices, both intended and unintended, for better or worse.

Many times, I encourage candidates to communicate
the way we ask our students to communicate: show us, don’t tell us.

The second type of feedback I find myself giving quite often is for candidates to distinguish between statements of philosophy and statements of action. Any teacher in this country can write “I believe that differentiation is important,” or “academic vocabulary is the foundation of literacy,” or “the ability to articulate one’s thinking is a key to learning.” Holding these philosophies is not what makes an accomplished teacher. The ability to demonstrate that these noble philosophies translate into effective action is what makes an accomplished teacher. Many times, I encourage candidates to communicate the way we ask our students to communicate: show us, don’t tell us. Instead of telling a philosophy about the importance of differentiation, show the specific practices that reveal this philosophy manifesting with real kids in the real classroom.

Now in my role as a new-teacher mentor in my district, I’m enjoying the opportunity to plant those same seeds of critical thinking with my early-career colleagues. Often, first year teachers facing the intense complexity of the work don’t automatically see the string of causation from their actions toward a desired effect – and many early-service teachers are still developing their awareness of what the desired effects of their actions actually are.

When I can help new teachers trace that causal channel of “Because I saw X, I decided to enact Y in order to cause Z,” I am nurturing the habit of reflective practice that will benefit those teachers and their students, year after year. When I can help new teachers draw those noble philosophies down from nebulous abstraction into concrete classroom actions, they become increasingly capable of realizing the ideals that draw so many of us into this profession in the first place.

The kind of accomplished teaching that National Board candidacy helps to identify is often assumed to require several years of deliberate practice and development. However, the path toward the standards of practice associated with National Board Certification can begin at the very start of a teacher’s career, and students will only benefit from such seeds being sown so early.

Mark Gardner, NBCT

Mark Gardner is a National Board Certified High School English Teacher living and working in a transition suburban-rural school district in southwest Washington state. After teaching full time in the classroom for ten years, and three years in a hybrid teaching/teacher-leadership role, he transitioned into a full-time role designing and launching his district’s K-12 New Teacher Induction and Mentorship program. In the 2016-17 school year, he will also be serving as the president of his local teachers’ association. Mark writes for the group blog Stories from School ( which is sponsored by Washington state’s Center for Strengthening the Teaching Profession (CSTP). Mark works within his own district to develop sustainable teacher leadership pathways and professional development. Follow Mark on twitter: @mdwyg.