Variety is the Spice of Accomplished Teaching

August 4, 2016

While attending the National Board Leaders’ Academy in Las Vegas in early July, I found myself sitting with a distinguished group of educators as we enjoyed a lunch of New Orleans styled selections (being a native Louisianan, I dubbed the meal a respectable homage to Cajun cuisine). During the meal, we talked about the common passion that we all shared—accomplished teaching to provide an excellent education for all students. As we talked, I noted that our calling to teach and pursue National Board Certification was much like a gumbo. Looking around, I was pleasantly struck by the diversity of ages and ethnicities in the room. As an African-American male English teacher, I felt proud to be among such an august assembly of dedicated professional educators.

Continuing with my analogy, I shared that a gumbo is as unique as the cook who prepares it, and it truly reflects the personality of the chef. To be a true gumbo, there are basic components that all of the variations on the stew share, but the uniqueness lies in the details. All gumbos start with a roux (pronounced “roo”, the “x” is silent)—a gravy that forms the base—that is a non-negotiable start to any self-respecting chef’s soup. This is akin to how the Five Core Propositions form the base of all of the subject certifications for National Board Certification. Every NBCT—just as every gumbo—must start with this roux.

But a roux alone does not a gumbo make. With just the roux, you are only getting started, even if it is in itself tasty and perfectly seasoned. The propositions are five strong statements of what should provide the foundations for all good teaching, but alone without any meat or spice—or thoughts and ideas put into action—they are just well-seasoned words on paper.

The next ingredient is the meat—and this is when the gumbo takes shape. There are many different types of meat to put into a gumbo, and they reflect the chef’s preferences. Some chefs prefer a seafood gumbo, with shrimp, crawfish, oysters, blue crab claws, fish, alligator; while others prefer chicken, sausage, duck, or any other protein. At the National Board,  there are 25 area standards. Each certification area has its own set of standards that distinguishes one area from the other. It is not just National Board Certification, but National Board Certification in Adolescent/Young Adult English Language Arts or Early Childhood Generalist. The meat is the most noticeable distinguishing factor of a well-made gumbo.

The 25 certificate areas are unique in that they are a specific certification, but all 25 share the roux that makes them hallmarks of accomplished teaching; whether it’s a seafood, chicken-duck-sausage, or ‘gator and crab stew, it’s all gumbo!

Still, the gumbo is not quite complete. Your roux provided an excellent and tasty base, and the meat designated the gumbo into a sub-category, but now comes the spice that gives the gumbo its own flavor. The spice that chefs choose gives each gumbo its uniqueness. Some prefer a spicy affair that singes the hairs on your head, while others prefer a mild but savory concoction that enhances the flavors of the meats within.

When completing the components to attain certification, teachers must provide evidence of the core propositions and the certificate area standards in their classrooms. All certifications share the same five core propositions, and the individual certificate areas use the standards unique to that area, but the evidence that teachers provide is unique to each teacher. Hundreds of teachers can attain AYA-ELA certification, but each one will have different evidence to support their adherence to the standards. The spice makes it unique!

Accomplished teachers have much in common – the standards and the Five Core Propositions bind more than 112,000 National Board Certified Teachers. But we bring our own spice to the table!

As the son of two classroom teachers, and the grandson of a school bus driver, I feel that I am part of an honorable lineage. Education has always been highly-valued and regarded in my family. With my extended family of NBCTs, I feel that I am making them all proud by adding my own spice to this gumbo of accomplished teaching and I revel in the fact that I can help bring other chefs into the kitchen to discover their own unique flavors. Bon appetit!

Walter Brown, Sr., NBCT

Walter is a third generation educator—both of his parents were public school teachers and his grandfather was a school bus driver—who carries the passion and respect for education in his DNA. He attained National Board Certification in English/Language Arts while teaching at Fair Park High School in Shreveport, LA in 2001. Since then, he has worked with programs in New Orleans (prior to Hurricane Katrina) and his home parish of Caddo to recruit and support teachers in at-risk schools to pursue National Board Certification. In 2015, he worked with several colleagues and the Louisiana Association of Educators (NEA affiliate) to start the Louisiana NBCT Network and advocates for his state’s reinstatement of  its support of National Board Certified Teachers. He serves Caddo Paris as the Secondary ELA Supervisor and is the proud father of five children. He is also pursuing his doctorate in Educational Leadership.