Jennifer Burgin is a great model for her students, especially when it comes to her story about getting board certified. “I failed my first time, and people said, ‘What? You?’ But we’re jagged learners, just like our kids, so I banked what I did well, and I redid what I clearly misunderstood. I’m very different now, especially having had to do it twice,” adds the Virginia-based teacher. “I write differently. I look at things differently. I’m a little more to the point and a little less fluffy.”
Burgin, who earned her Middle Childhood Generalist certification in 2012 while teaching third grade (she now teaches kindergarten), is one of 112,000 American teachers who have earned National Board Certification, a voluntary advanced teaching credential that goes beyond state licensure. Certification is available in 25 areas spanning 16 disciplines, from PreK to 12th grade; two of the most common are Early Childhood Generalist and Middle Childhood Generalist.
Java Robinson, who was certified in Maryland in 2012, feels changed by her journey as well. “I’m a lot more reflective. I’m more in tune with my students. My goals are more in-depth.”
The process is designed to recognize and reinforce accomplished teaching, though both the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) and board-certified teachers (NBCTs) are quick to point out that certification is not required for excellence.
“There are many great teachers out there who are not board-certified,” says Robinson, who now teaches second grade. “The certification says, ‘You’re already an accomplished teacher, so let’s let everybody know.’”
Is board certification the right choice for you? Consider these pros and cons.
Pros of Certification
✔ Laser Focus on Skills
Certification helps you figure out how to become a better teacher—and you can apply your new skills immediately. “I’d done a lot of professional development prior to certification, but none of it was really focused on me,” says Stacey Hicks, who earned her Middle Childhood certificate in 2013. “The certification process allowed me to dig into what I do and why I do it.”
Hicks, a third-grade Arizona teacher at the time she pursued certification, frequently had her students work together in groups. She thought she’d done a great job facilitating interactions—until she watched a video recording of one of her lessons. (Recording and reflecting on videos of classroom interactions is a required part of National Board Certification.)
“I realized I never gave students instruction on how to thoughtfully agree or disagree during discussions,” says Hicks, who is now the director of outreach and engagement with NBPTS. “So I researched and then gave them sentence stems to show they hear what someone is saying, and to give their feedback on top of that.”
Because the certification process requires teachers to spend a lot of time thinking and writing about their students, says Burgin, it leads to more focused, intentional teaching.
“I used to say things like, ‘I feel that my students need more review with fractions,’” she says. “Now, I think, My students can identify fractions. They’re having difficulty comparing them. I need to do more explicit practice with comparing, particularly with these four children.”
✔ Expanded Career Opportunities
National Board Certification may inspire you—and give you the credentials you need—to influence education at the state or national level.
“Certification has opened up so many different opportunities for me,” Robinson says. “I’d always been centered at the school level. Since becoming board-certified, I’ve begun working on the national level. I’m not just affecting students in my classroom—I’m affecting students all over the country!”
Though she was previously terrified of public speaking, Robinson was so transformed by the process that she agreed to share her story with local educators. That talk led to many others, and Robinson now works with Maryland’s Montgomery County Education Association and the National Education Association, as well as with National Board Jump Start, an initiative to help teachers kick off the certification process.
✔ More Money (Maybe)
Some states and districts provide stipends to certified teachers. In Washington state, NBCTs can earn up to $10,000 more per year. In Alabama, there is a $5,000 per year stipend. Maryland used to provide $2,000, and local counties tacked on another $2,000. The state now pays a stipend of $1,000 to $2,000, depending on whether it’s a comprehensive-needs school.
In other parts of the United States, financial incentives come via the district, if at all. “In my district, we bargained for a stipend,” says Danielle Brown, an Arizona teacher who earned her early childhood certification while teaching kindergarten in Fort Huachuca, Arizona. “But you could go to districts five or 10 miles away and there wasn’t a stipend.”
Cons of Certification
✘ The Time Crunch
Certification takes time and energy. “There were a lot of Saturday study-date nights when a friend and I would go somewhere to work, and a lot of reading,” says Burgin.
Family support is key. Burgin counted on her fiancé to prepare meals many nights. Hicks’s husband, a fellow teacher, took on more childcare. “The bad part is the guilt you feel from taking the time” away from family, Hicks says.
To alleviate some of the stress, the National Board allows candidates up to three years to complete the four components of certification. (Previously, candidates had only one year.)
✘ Not Universally Recognized
In some states, National Board Certification supersedes all other certifications. Other states do not consider it evidence of qualification. Ann Marie Corgill has held certification as a Middle Childhood Generalist since 2000, but when she began teaching fifth grade at the request of her then principal, the state of Alabama told her she’d need to obtain additional state certification because hers only covered primary school through grade three.
“One would assume if I hold national certification in Middle Childhood Education, I’d be considered highly qualified to teach children in middle childhood. In Alabama, unfortunately, that was not the case,” says Corgill, who resigned instead of spending additional time and money on another state certification. She currently teaches first grade in Hoover, Alabama.
✘ The Cost Factor
The total cost of certification is $1,900; that’s $475 for each of the four required components. Candidates can pay for and submit each component separately.
Some states and districts help with fees. Arlington Public Schools covered the cost of Burgin’s certification. Without their help, she says, “I don’t think I could have afforded it.” Ask your district and colleagues if financial help is available. (You can use the In Your State tool; click on your state to learn more about fee support and reimbursement.)
Most who have completed certification say the effort and expense is worth it. “I don’t regret it at all,” Burgin says. “It was extremely challenging, but extremely rewarding.”
Photo: Courtesy of Jennifer Burgin