National Board Candidacy: A Personal and District Priority

September 12, 2016

In 19 years of teaching, I have sought out, chosen and participated in more than 500 hours of professional development. As I think about all of those decisions, the choice to pursue National Board Certification was the most important. Now, 12 years after my initial certification, it continues to have the greatest impact above all other experiences combined.

Here’s why:

In school, I was one of those students who always wanted to answer every question asked so that everyone knew that I knew the answer.

As a teacher, this same tendency manifests itself, only slightly differently. For instance, I wrote meticulous lesson plans. As if I were following some magic formula for success, I always structured them exactly the same way, and I was encouraged to continue in this manner year after year. My evaluations were always perfect – just like those lessons. I was heaped with praise for my ability to scaffold a lesson, write appropriate objectives, and create a variety of assessments. As I look back, was I really a good teacher? Or had I just learned to play the game and write down everything I knew administrators wanted to read?

Earning National Board certification humbled me in a way that brought about a crucial realization: in teaching, there are no “right” methods or “perfect” answers.  I faced the inescapable truth of the impact that I was  – or was not – having on actual students’ learning. For the first time, I had to make an honest evaluation of the choices that I made with students and acknowledge the evidence that clearly identified the successes or failures of my classroom instruction.

As I dove into the National Board Standards, I quickly realized that when I wrote a lesson plan, I never started with the students as the priority, but, rather, the information I wanted them to learn. I was so determined to deliver the plan, I left no room to recognize the needs of the students who sat before me.  As I began to articulate my practice by answering the questions asked in the certification process, I found myself in tearful regret as I thought of all the lost opportunities.  How could I teach them when I didn’t know them?

Of course I considered the data that accompanied my students, so I knew their reading and math abilities, their learning style, but knowing students has to go deeper than that. Knowing them meant meaningful conversations about who they are, what they liked and were interested in knowing – much more than just a score or data point.

National Board certification is the gift I gave to myself and to my students. It has bonded me to my profession, it has centered my practice, and it has invited me to really know my students. The pursuit of National Board certification was the fire that tempered my teaching practice, giving me malleability and durability as I grew to meet the challenges that my students brought to the classroom every day.  

If pursuing National Board Certification had this transformative power for me, I wanted every teacher to share in this opportunity. I knew how National Board certification could make good teachers excellent ones and how much that would mean to my already distinguished school district. Despite the obvious value, a teacher development program on the level of National Board certification is arguably too costly and time-intensive to merit organized district support, despite our larger size. As a result, however, teachers in my district who made the choice to pursue certification felt isolated and unsupported.

So, I went to work. As I was introduced to the Kentucky Teacher Leadership Framework, I became a self-identified teacher leader. I worked to reintroduce a district program designed to support candidates because the teachers in my district deserved something that could have an authentic impact on their professional practice. To achieve this goal, I researched the potential impact of Board certification on our district and built positive and productive relationships with district administration.

What I found didn’t surprise me. I looked at leading researchers from across the country and over and over I read phrases like, “NBCTs outperform other teachers,” “NBCTs rank higher,” and “NBCTs were significantly more effective.”  Through my own designed and implemented survey, I learned that the teachers in my district wanted meaningful professional development. To quote one survey response, “I need to know what I am doing in the classroom is making a difference.”   This and other comments from that survey fueled my desire to bring a National Board support system to the teachers in my district.

I knew I couldn’t pitch my idea without a model in place, so I got to work examining root causes and connecting them to the benefits of certification. Through the use of driver diagrams and the science of change ideas, I designed and then shared my idea for a district supported National Board Academy with our Board of Education.  I designed the Academy to include five candidates who would participate in 18 hours of mentoring, divided out over the 10-month school year. The district would fund the cost of one component for these candidates.  The pitch included more than research and predictions about the potential outcomes of the academy; it included my own journey through the National Board process and how it has made all the difference in how I teach.

The vote was unanimous in support of a district -funded National Board Academy.

Teaching in juvenile detention, I credit my certification with my ability to analyze and reflect on my practice in such a way that I make real connections with students and identify their needs. Now, I am able to better engage them in their own learning so they see that success in school is possible. I have the skills to best serve these students and will choose to continue to teach in this alternative setting, a setting that traditionally sees a high rate of teacher turnover.

Every National Board Certified Teacher has a similar story to tell, but it is more than a story, it is the reality of the impact an accomplished teacher has on student learning, no matter the educational setting. Once achieved, certification continues to affect a teacher’s growth mindset, and that is what I want to bring to my school district. 

Crystal Culp, NBCT

A U.S. Air Force veteran, Crystal Culp has 19 years of teaching experience, all in alternative education. In 2004, she was the first teacher nationwide to earn National Board certification while teaching in a juvenile detention facility, and renewed that certification in 2014. She works to ensure that other National Board candidates receive the support they need for successful certification, currently serving as a KEA regional coordinator for candidate support services. In 2012, Crystal was named the Kentucky Educational Collaborative for State Agency Children’s Teacher of the Year. In 2016, she was named KEA Teacher of the Year. She is currently serving on the Kentucky Department of Education Commissioner’s Teacher Advisory Committee.