Finding success and support through a difficult time and becoming a better educator

Photo of NBCT Berenice Heinlein. I am a fourth grade bilingual teacher at Helen C. Peirce School of International Studies. I am Mexican, first-generation immigrant, and proud to work in an inclusive, IB school. When I made the decision in spring of 2020 to apply for National Board Certification, I knew it would be rigorous: two years of hard work, high expectations, and plenty of writing.

I didn’t realize the journey would be both so difficult and so rewarding and I certainly didn’t expect how much life would complicate the process. I still find it hard to believe I achieved my Middle Childhood Generalist National Board Certification despite teaching online through a pandemic, long-COVID organ damage, and a traumatic brain injury all piled on. This wouldn’t have been possible without the support of the CTU Foundation Quest Center’s Nurturing Teacher Leadership (NTL) program, the CTU/CPS partnership, and my school community.

Interested in the challenge and recognition of achieving National Board Certification, I joined the CTU Quest Center’s NTL candidate support program because its very high success rates (94 percent compared to the national average of 71 percent), clear structure, cohort model, and intense pre-candidacy profile process seemed like the surest path to success.

I then got COVID in July 2020 and was taking longer than expected to heal, experiencing fatigue and myocarditis. Not realizing that I had long-COVID, I pushed through. Despite these difficulties, professional development through NTL led to beginning the year stronger than ever. My units were updated and prepared, I collected and distributed materials, set up technology and met with every family in my class to gather data about their children so I could tailor my instruction around their needs, interests, strengths, and challenges.

The school year was unusual with remote teaching, but NTL expectations were high nonetheless. I developed strong relationships with students, families, and other educators by following the professional advice given by NTL during our weekly cohort meetings. My cohort was a wellspring of resources, providing opportunities to learn new strategies, while inspiring me with its knowledge and passion. I was relieved that I joined a program where I felt supported and challenged in what otherwise would have been an isolating year. It was challenging to think about how to provide rigorous and individualized instruction online, so this was the push, and the support, I needed.

Three months into the National Board process, I was deep in my fridge grabbing a snack and, in my enthusiasm, stood straight up, deadlifting my head onto the freezer door right before meeting with my cohort. As soon as I tried to stand up, I was dizzy, confused and crying. I picked myself up, called my NTL mentor in a panic about class that night and was advised to go to the emergency room. I had suffered a traumatic brain injury and whiplash.

For about six months, I slept most of each day, experienced memory loss, chronic migraines, and extreme sensitivity to light and sound. I did weekly occupational therapy and physical therapy. Day-to-day living was almost unbearable and I didn’t know how I would overcome such an overwhelming obstacle to teach, much less complete NBC. I considered withdrawing from candidacy for the year. My mentors, however, believed I could still complete the process successfully and provided me accommodations so I chose to take it one step at a time, attending weekly NTL meetings and continuing to teach.

After my accident, NTL leadership helped me create a plan of action so that I could seek medical support, continue to teach, and work toward National Board Certification. They shared options, helped me with paperwork, and got me in contact with people who could help. With principal support, I created a plan for short-term disability accommodations so that I could teach and write about my teaching for my NBC portfolio while prioritizing my healing. My cohort shared advice from their own experiences with injuries and concussions, and my mentors considered my individual needs with plans and scheduling. In a truly difficult period of my life, I was thankful for so much support.

I often considered dropping out of National Board candidacy and even leaving teaching because I didn’t want to teach if I wasn’t capable of doing well. I only felt comfortable moving forward if I knew I would be delivering high quality instruction to my students. I chose to continue the process because teaching is my joy and passion. Those weekly meetings provided assurance that I was doing my best for students and the support I got from my cohort always moved me toward improvement and success.

Even in such arduous conditions, I sought accountability for myself and support from other passionate educators. Professional colleagues at my school and in NTL contributed to a successful and joyful year for my students. The expectations of NBC and NTL ensured that my students got a solid educational experience despite my health problems. My students were engaged, grew academically as leaders and as learners, and exceeded expectations. For example, they participated in research and writing that supported the preservation of a historical home. Surveys, exams, and my National Board component scores and NBC achievement made me proud to have evidence that my effort and perseverance led to positive learning experiences.

I feel an overwhelming sense of fulfillment when I think about the deep impact that my National Board journey through Nurturing Teacher Leadership had on my students and their education, despite the obstacles I faced. Without it, I might have chosen to step out of not only Board certification, but also teaching, for a moment.

Instead, I deepened my understanding of pedagogy, differentiation, student-centered learning, and culturally relevant teaching, among many other things. The NBC process through NTL inspired me, equipped me, and pushed me to better myself as an educator in a time when I was surviving each day. There will always be good reasons to put off professional ventures like National Board Certification because life is unexpected and messy. However, my experience shows that it is possible with guidance, encouragement, and support. I hope those of you who read my story will feel inspired to go through this process, even if facing adversity.

Berenice Heinlein, NBCT, is a middle childhood generalist at Helen Pierce School of International Studies.