It's the first day of a weeklong February break, yet a small group of Schoharie Valley educators gather in a Richmondville elementary school — talking about students' self-assessments, watching each other's teaching videos and critiquing each other's work to earn National Board Certification.
It's like a cross between a group therapy session, a Weight Watchers meeting, and one of those crucial college study groups that help you get through a tough course.
"I absolutely can't imagine doing this alone," says Cobleskill-Richmondville Teachers Association member Amory Lawler, who is one of more than a dozen educators in a regional support group for national board candidates. "It's enjoyable to be with people who want to 'geek' it out together."
"It gets you out of the day-to-day survival and focuses you on the big picture," says elementary math teacher Kathryn Elder. "Aside from the comradery, we learn so much from each other — questioning, critiquing, sharing tips. Throughout this process I've become a much better judge of what's working and what's not."
"It actually becomes hard to turn it off," Lawler adds. "With everything I do now, I look through the lens of the (national board) core propositions ... I'm constantly evaluating everything I do ... Even with my son at home, I find myself asking, 'Was this a worthwhile exercise?'"
Others around the table nod knowingly.
"I've always had my students do self-assessment, but I never had them design their own rubrics at the beginning of a new unit," says art teacher Mary Jane Lynd. "It's amazing what's happened. It helped them focus on what was most important about the assignment and really gave them ownership."
The Schoharie Valley candidate support group is one of many around the state, where NBCTs offer a variety of supports to educators who are pursuing National Board Certification.
NBC is a voluntary, rigorous, peer-reviewed process for certifying educators in 25 certificate areas. The certification process consists of four components: Content Knowledge; Differentiation in Instruction; Teaching Practice and Learning Environment; and Effective and Reflective Practitioner. Under the newly streamlined process, components can be completed in up to three years, along with three portfolio entries submitted online and one computer-based assessment administered at a local testing center.
The support group approach offers a wide range of help, such as technical advice on how to film and edit your teaching video or how to more effectively ask students open-ended questions.
"It's really hard to watch yourself in that first video," Lawler says. But viewing it as a group, other members can offer all sorts of constructive advice, like how to minimize kids' chair noise, or suggesting you zoom in on that cool bulletin board in the background. Group participants also offer much-needed encouragement and share plenty of laughs and food along the way.
Cobleskill-Richmondville TA President Dawn Townsend, an NBCT herself, says the support group is encouraging more teachers in the rural district to take on the challenge and jump in.
"We wanted to do something in our own region because our candidates had to travel quite a distance to the Albany or Utica area to receive support," says Regina Anderson, who leads the group with fellow NBCTs Kathleen Lumley, Colleen Sheehan and Theresa Billington.
Sheehan notes the new three-year approach is much improved, giving educators more time to reflect deeply and allowing materials to be submitted online. Under the old process, a mountain of documents needed to be packed up in a big box and mailed in.
Townsend says her district superintendent, Carl Mummenthey, and board of education members are extremely supportive, opening school facilities to the support group and arranging release time for candidates to attend NYSUT's regional writing retreats.
"Our administration truly values the high-quality professional development that the NBC process offers," Townsend says. "They recognize that supporting this helps you keep quality teachers. And as our numbers grow, the schools will just keep getting stronger."
The CRTA negotiated a flat 3 percent stipend for educators who achieve National Board Certification. The district also offers up to 30 professional development credits per year to members who participate in the NBC support group.
Group leaders hope to continue to build the program and include more participants from other districts. Annette Romano, co-director of the National Board Council of New York, is also willing to help other NBCTs establish their own in-district support programs.
For more info
To find a national board candidate support group near you or learn more about the certification process, go to www.nbcny.org.