How getting this voluntary academic credential helped expand one teacher's professional and personal horizons.

As my hand shoots up, I look around the room. It is 1995, and I've just become the first teacher in the state of Arizona to apply for the new voluntary system of national certification.

Administered by two dozen organizations with representatives serving on the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, certification signifies that the holder has met the highest standards established for the teaching profession. To qualify, candidates undergo a rigorous yearlong process in which they must ruthlessly assess their own effectiveness as educators, develop an extensive portfolio to demonstrate that their teaching style meets stringent requirements, and pass a series of written exams reflecting various aspects of their work.

In 1995, there is no financial benefit to certification. Indeed, the application process alone costs $1,000. And this particular certification is so new, it has barely begun to earn the notice and respect of the professionals to whom it is targeted. But just now I'm not thinking about money or glory — I want to push myself to be a better teacher. Besides, someone has to get the ball rolling.

Helping Hands

Luckily, my school system picks up the $1,500 certification tab; even today, teachers often wind up paying half or their own. (Today the fee comes to $2,300.)

In December I receive my portfolio instructions. I pore over them, devouring every word. As I peruse the standards, my initial reaction is, "Oh, I can do this. No problem!" Then reality clicks in, and I realize I've got lots of documenting, videotaping, and writing ahead of me. My principal, Tacy Ashby, pats me on the arm, tells me she knows I can do it, and promises I will have the support of the entire school. I nearly cry with gratitude.

Analyzing and reflecting on my practice is not easy. Who likes to admit one's shortcomings, especially for the record? Nevertheless, I come to see areas in which I have been less than successful. In particular, I don't seem to be very good at integrating the arts into my curriculum; there just never seems to be enough time, and other priorities get in the way. But as a result of this analysis I make a renewed effort in my classroom. For our social studies unit on Westward expansion, I bring in prints by legendary artist Frederic Remington, and I share Aaron Copland's magnificent score for the ballet Rodeo.

Soon I find that I'm questioning all aspects of my teaching style. I engage in spirited discussions with colleagues, become more critical of what I read in professional journals, challenge myself to reach every student in my class, every day. After each incredibly busy day, I return home, my head filled with standards, ideas, newly charged lesson plans.

In this manner I discover something remarkable happening: I'm becoming more excited about what I do for a living. I'm developing a refreshed commitment to my students. I'm becoming a better teacher.

I'm also feeling extremely grateful toward my fellow teachers, who never fail to offer help when they can. Some even give up their prep periods to assist me with my videotapes. This part of the process requires me to create one tape showing how I teach children to engage in higher-level thinking, and another tape that demonstrates how I create a classroom community to foster learning. My generous colleagues take turns running the camera and join me afterward to help analyze the raw footage.

The Best You Can Do

Despite the zeal with which I am pursuing my goal, I don't feel very confident when I return to my classroom after taking the final written exam for certification. My students, who have necessarily been a part of this journey every step of the way, are curious. One boy asks, "How well did you do?" Not wanting to be too candid, I reply, "It was very difficult." Another child pipes up, "Yeah, but, how well did you do?" Realizing that I must be honest, I admit that the test was very difficult: "It was probably one of the hardest things I have ever done. I don't think I did very well."

A silence falls. The children can't believe their teacher might have flunked something. Finally, one young girl asks me, "Did you do your best?" Taken aback, I tell her that of course I did my best. Her response? "Well, then, that is all that matters. After all, that's what you tell us every day." As the rest of the class nods in agreement, I feel a rush of pride and affection for my kids. Indeed, doing my best is all that matters. It's more important than even the certification itself.

Finally, December 2, 1996. An envelope arrives from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. I can't bear to open it myself, so I immediately hand it to a co-teacher and friend, who crosses her fingers, smiles at me, and opens the envelope. The first word she reads is "Congratulations." At first I'm numb. Then it hits me. I've done it. I've become the first teacher from the state of Arizona to earn National Board certification.

Worth Every Moment

Today there are 17 certificates of national merit available, ranging from Early Childhood/Generalist to Early Adolescence and Young Adulthood/Exceptional Needs. Increasingly, federal, state, and local funds are being made available to help teachers earn these honors. And throughout the teaching profession, being National Board certified has come to signify a valuable mark of accomplishment, worthy of respect.

Earning my certification not only made me a better teacher, it made me a better person. Today I am much more reflective about everything I do, and I'm always open to learning new things.

Was the long process leading to certification worth it? Yes. National Board certification is not about passing something or obtaining a scrap of paper. It's about achieving the highest standards set by a profession with the highest calling — that of teaching our children.