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High Standards

Last spring, first-grade teacher Leah Dolan gathered essays, student work samples and other aspects of her application to be a nationally board-certified teacher. Dolan missed the passing mark by 11 points, and is re-doing parts of her application.  (jim thompson/journal)
Last spring, first-grade teacher Leah Dolan gathered essays, student work samples and other aspects of her application to be a nationally board-certified teacher. Dolan missed the passing mark by 11 points, and is re-doing parts of her application. (jim thompson/journal)
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Leah Dolan is a high-achieving woman, unaccustomed to failure. So when she found out she hadn’t received her national board certification in teaching, the first-grade teacher was shocked and humbled.

“I’ve never failed at anything I’ve done,” she said. “I’ve never not accomplished, and this is the first blow. That was really hard.”

National board certification is a grueling process, which requires teachers to submit evidence that their teaching is excellent. That evidence includes classroom video, samples of student work and essays explaining how they approach different aspects of their jobs, like teaching literacy. They also must take a test, which requires them to write an essay on the spot about how they would approach a given teaching scenario.

Dolan, who teaches at Corrales Elementary, allowed the Journal to follow her through the application process last year, as she attended small group meetings with other teachers, taped her lessons and compiled her essays. Dolan, who is 32 and has been a teacher for eight years, spent at least 30 hours per month on her application, and found out shortly before Thanksgiving that she had missed the passing mark by 11 points. A score of 275 or higher is required to receive certified status.

The nationwide passing rate for the national board process is about 40 percent on the first attempt. Teachers then have two years to redo portions of their application. Teachers who receive the certification in New Mexico get an annual bump in pay of about $5,000, depending on how much money is allocated to education in a given year.

Nationwide, 4,980 teachers were certified this year, including those who successfully redid parts of their applications this year. In New Mexico, 93 teachers were certified this year, bringing the statewide total to 769. Of those 93, 52 were in Albuquerque Public Schools.

Dolan is already a Tier 3 teacher under New Mexico’s three-tier licensure system, which means she earns about $50,000 per year. She will make a second attempt to get her certification, but she doesn’t have to redo the entire process. Teachers making a second try can bank their higher section scores and redo only the sections on which they faltered. Dolan will redo her literacy development section, which she said is painful because she has always considered teaching literacy one of her strengths.

She is now wrestling with the question of whether her literacy teaching is actually lacking, or whether she did a poor job explaining her practices in her essay.

“Some people’s explanation is that sometimes, not all the time, you do worst in the entry that you’re strongest in because it’s just second nature to you and you have a hard time expressing it,” Dolan said. “I would love to hope that was the reason, because I honestly always thought I was a very strong literacy teacher. But my hopes are that now I’m really going to analyze how I instruct in literacy and find those holes and improve upon it.”

Dolan said one of her key missteps may have been focusing too much on writing instead of broadening literacy to also include reading, speaking and listening. She said she looked at sample entries from those who taught older elementary students and therefore focused more on writing. She said she may have followed their example too closely, instead of thinking about what literacy means for first-graders.

Despite the massive time commitment and the disappointment, Dolan maintained the process has been the best professional training she has ever received, and said earning her master’s degree was a “cakewalk” compared to the national boards process. She said it has forced her to think about her lessons and carefully consider whether they truly help students learn grade-level standards.

Dolan will retake two sections of the test, along with resubmitting her literacy entry. Each essay or test section costs $350, bringing Dolan’s total cost to $1,050 for the second round. She paid $1,500 out of pocket on the first attempt, even after receiving a state subsidy and a scholarship.

She said friends from other professions have marveled at how much money she has to invest in pursuit of a raise.

But there is also a huge time commitment. Dolan has two young sons, 2 and 4, who saw less of their mother during the first application process.

“I looked through my camera – I had no pictures of the boys, no documentation of any of their lives from September to March,” Dolan said.

She said when she sat down with her oldest son to tell him she had not been certified and was about to get busy again, he talked to her exactly the way she and her husband talk to him.

“He said, ‘Well, are you going to try harder this time?'” Dolan said.

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