Why national board certification was important for this black educator.

Photo of NBCT Rasha Farmer. Being a National Board Certified Teacher (NBCT) means that my students are receiving the best education possible as determined by peers nationally who were certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, and who assessed the quality of my practice and content knowledge over two years. I learned this past December that other NBCTs across the country with the English Language Arts NBC certificate determined that I met high and rigorous standards for teaching my classes, 100 percent of whom were students of color. I am now proudly one of the 38.5 percent of CPS NBCTs of color; and am one of the 44 percent of NBCTs of Color in the 2022 CTU/CPS cohort. Woo-Hoo! 

There are not many teachers who are National Board Certified (just a bit over 133,000 nationally) and this number drops drastically when looking at teachers of color. So I was determined to become one of those most highly accomplished teachers and increase the ranks of Black NBCTs. I felt that as a Black teacher serving Black and Brown students I wanted to be the best that I could be not for myself but for my students. I also wanted to be a role model for other Black educators who are planning their professional futures. Let me tell you my story and how having support as a National board certification (NBC) candidate from the Chicago Teachers Union Foundation Quest Center’s Nurturing Teacher Leadership (NTL) program helped me achieve my NBCT goals. You will learn how NTL helped guide my practice in order to achieve this peer reviewed certificate by using a cohort model led by NBCT facilitators in each certificate area. I hope other teachers of color will follow in my footsteps until CPS NBCTs match the number of Teachers of Color in our system, and then, one day, mirror the number of students of color. 


There are many reasons I considered sitting for National Board Certification (salary raise, annual pensionable stipend, leadership opportunities, improved practice, further graduate credits, recognition, job opportunities, and increasing the number of NBCTs of Color). The primary reason was that I knew it would make me a better teacher for my students. And so, three years ago, I attended an informational session for the CTU/CPS National Board candidate support program Nurturing Teacher Leadership (NTL). While the videos we watched about the NBC process from a teacher’s perspective were very informative, I was a bit intimidated. I don’t remember seeing many CPS National Board Certified Teachers who looked like me and had achieved the Adolescent and Young Adult English Language Arts certificate while teaching older students in an alternative setting, such as I did. And yet I knew I could be one of those highly accomplished teachers even with my difficult students.

I left that first meeting with the confidence that I could become just as accomplished as the teachers in the videos I’d seen: teachers who could get their more challenging students to respond to their instruction, delve deeply into the content they were studying, and participate in group conversations in a way I hadn’t been able to do in my practice. While I projected seeing myself in one of those videos one day, I wasn’t there yet. Yet I knew I would be one day.  I wanted to attain National Board Certification. I just needed some support.  Fortunately for educators in Chicago, we can take advantage of the district/union partnership program of professional development and candidate support through the Chicago Teachers Union Foundation’s Quest Center which boasts the very high 94 percent achievement rate. 


So my NTL journey began after that first meeting by writing a candidate ‘Profile of Professional Practice.’  In this document, pre-candidates had to describe their differentiation and grouping techniques, demonstrate the degree to which they provided equity for their diverse students, examine their content knowledge, note the involvement they had with families and other colleagues, apply their philosophy of teaching to their instructional style, and reflect on their current practices and discuss changes they might need to make in order for their students to achieve at a higher level, among other things. Creating this pre-candidate profile began to prepare me for the self-examination and writing that I would eventually have to complete as part of the National Board portfolio I would submit to the certification assessors. 

My candidate profile gave the NTL leadership team a sense of my writing style as well as an indication of what my writing (and pedagogical) challenges were — so they could design what support I needed during the NBC process. Everything they did was determined to move me toward success with my students and meet my goal to achieve National Board Certification. Developing this profile was also important because it was used to match me with my mentor team and place me within the correct cohort. 

One of the things I learned from reflecting on and writing this Profile of Professional Practice even before my actual candidacy began, was that I needed to work on my assessment practices. I had simply been using testing results to measure student growth but had not been using varying assessment protocols and their results effectively to also inform my practice in a way that led to student learning. Fortunately, the NTL mentor team discovered my assessment challenges in my Profile as well. 

They then designed and provided me just the professional development and mentor support I needed over the next two years for me to improve my assessment practices by using assessment results and data analysis to inform my teaching practices (several of which I had to improve) which then led to more student learning.  NTL realizes how much time their pre-candidates spend writing this profile. This is why all candidates earn 30 ISBE PD hours for just writing the profile before they even begin full-on candidacy. This was 30 hours I earned toward renewing my ISBE teaching license before the actual NTL classes even started. I then became part of cohort 23 for the 2020-2022 cohort. Then the REAL work began. 

Making the decision

We began Summer Institute that August with the ‘rules of the road’: Class would be four times a month, three Thursday evening sessions plus full-day class one Saturday a month; deadlines on homework; videotaping our teaching; and being willing to change practices. I wondered how I was going to do this as a working parent. I thought about dropping out. I was already on Lane 5 of the CPS salary scale so I didn’t need the Master’s degree or the many Lane Placement hours my colleagues were earning.  When I had these thoughts, I remembered that more than 2400 other CPS teachers had completed the NTL process and achieved their ultimate goal: becoming a better teacher and earning National Board Certification. I revisited my quest of increasing the number of NBCTs of Color both in my district and nationally. So I accepted the fact of what I needed to do, and I followed the NTL mantra of Trust the Process.

Summer Institute

During Summer Institute, there were sessions about responding to the culture of my students and engaging the students so they would respond more effectively to the lessons I present. I attended sessions that helped me realize how to use inquiry and culturally responsive teaching (to name a few) that helped me change my personal classroom practices. It was so great to have this professional development that I didn’t have to pay for. I was able to go back to my classroom that fall and structure my lessons to include more student inquiry and change how I had grouped students for years. While I was uncomfortable using certain strategies that were deemed “Best Practice” for the students I taught, both the student inquiry methods and grouping practices benefitted my English Language Arts classroom as my students learned to transition from me being the leader to them taking on the role as leaders of their own learning. They were also becoming less challenging students as they took more investment in and control of their learning.  

Cohort support 

I worked for two years during weekly class sessions (and between sessions) with a cohort of the most amazing teachers in my content area from across the district. While at times the process seemed overwhelming, I had the support of my colleagues and mentor team and, not only did they share standards-driven strategies, they were peer reviewers for pieces of my portfolio. We all exchanged ideas in cohort meetings that improved each of our instructional practices. It is especially great that all NTL cohort groups are certificate specific and facilitated by a mentor who is intimately familiar with the NTL process, is National Board Certified in that certificate area, and coached and guided us to reaching our common goal. Their experience and guidance ensured that the cohort members who ‘Trusted the Process’ would almost all achieve National Board Certification (in fact, all candidates in my English Language Arts cohort did achieve). 

For me, it was most beneficial that during class our cohort explored Best Practices that would work for us individually with our particular students. For example, we brainstormed ways to make our lessons fit for our specific students during the implementation of Skyline. When Skyline was rolled out by CPS, several of us were finding it challenging to keep the students engaged — the texts were some the students didn’t like or the pacing was faster than we were used to. Working with my cohort, I was able to learn ways to scaffold the text so my students could be successful with the tasks they needed to complete. The people in my cohort became like a second family to me. They even supported me through personal challenges — like two deaths in my family. 

Professional development

Honestly, NTL has been the best professional development I’ve had since I have been working in Chicago Public Schools. Typical CPS PD has most often consisted of the district bringing in a speaker who didn’t connect to me as a Black woman, my English Language Arts content, or my urban young adolescent students. But NTL was different. Its professional development discussed real topics that impacted my work and kept my attention, such as how to engage CPS students in lower performing schools. As I moved forward in NTL, I began to see that my students needed to have four different versions of the same worksheet because having only one version wasn’t equitable for all of the students in my class. There were too many varying and different needs, challenges, abilities, styles, ways of learning, and prior knowledge. 

For example, there were students who were English Language Learners, others needing learning accommodations, a few students who had missed 50 percent of class and a significant number of students that were visual learners. So in order to be fair, I needed to have at least four different kinds of assessments to measure mastery of all their various modes and indications of learning. All of the reading, studying and discussions within the cohort directly related to my shift in thinking about my students and how to really know what and if they learned what I had taught. This change in my practice — moving to skill demonstration and away from test mastery —  allowed my students to grow as learners (and allowed me to grow as their teacher).

Where previously, assessment and completion had been a struggle for my students, I was seeing increased success in completion and engagement due to the use of alternative assessment methods I learned in my NTL professional development sessions. For example, I had learned to have students use group assessment where in the past I would have given them an individual assessment. This allowed students to demonstrate their skill mastery while not feeling pressure to perform as they had in the past, a practice which had caused some of their challenging behaviors. My growth and student learning all came full circle from the time the NTL leadership team and I had both discovered my challenges with assessment while in the pre-candidacy profile completion process.

Portfolio development

Then there were the drafts of my portfolio writing which I submitted to the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) in the spring of my second year of candidacy. Goodness! It seemed as if there would be no end to the writing I needed to do in order to demonstrate my teaching proficiency and indicate how well I mastered the NBPTS standards. I had to write about everything from why and how I structured my classroom learning environment the way I did, to how the students’ home lives impacted their learning, to the rationale behind everything I put in my lesson plans, to a deep analysis of specific student growth and a reflection on videos of my various teaching practices. 

The homework I completed as part of the NTL process prepared me for this writing by creating surveys for my students and their parents, journaling about my lessons, analyzing student work samples, and using repeated viewings of my videotaped practice to improve the next iteration of my teaching. The most important writing that NTL prepared me for was to write about the rationale for everyday decisions I made. They taught me how to really reflect on every decision that I made in my classroom. Once I submitted my assignments to my mentors, they became my cognitive coaches and asked an infinite amount of questions about what I thought I had made clear and what I was sure indicated I had mastered the NBPTS standards. 

I learned a lot about revision as part of the writing process (lessons I would use with my ELA students). Again I had to remember to Trust the Process and believe that my mentors were leading me toward achievement. Just when the writing seemed insurmountable, magic happened, and with the support of the whole NTL team, I pulled together a portfolio that was ready to be submitted to the NBPTS assessors. Throughout the whole portfolio development process, my lead NTL mentor supported me through my teaching, writing, videotaping, and studying for content based assessments. He, an NBCT of Color himself, was always available via email or phone. 

What is great about NTL is that candidates receive an additional portfolio reader toward the end of the process. While one’s primary mentor has gotten to know their candidate’s practice, challenges, writing and writing style so intimately, the second reader knows the candidate on a less personal level and they do not know the candidate as a teacher or writer. I am so glad that NTL has this Second Reader protocol. They read one’s product as if they were an assessor, unknown to the candidate. That is when after one and a half years, my second mentor caught an error that would have delayed my portfolio submission, if not completely disqualified or failed me!  

She discovered that there was a flaw in my video. I hadn’t followed one small instruction that had to do with a rule about the number of students that were allowed to be in that type of a lesson. Needless to say that thinking I was going to have to delay my submission after a year and a half of work scared me since I couldn’t submit that particular video for scoring and it was too late for me to shoot a new video, as I had moved on from the unit I was featuring in my portfolio. I did not have the time to re-teach and re-write what would have to accompany a new video. But by working with the entire group at NTL, we were able to come to a solution that worked within the National Board’s rules. I was able to submit my portfolio by using a different video from my personal library that I had shot earlier which still met the requirement parameters and also the goals of my teaching for that unit. 

It was a solution I hadn’t thought of, and would not have thought of on my own, without the support of NTL. I trusted that having multiple eyes looking at my portfolio work would be the key to my success. And I knew that I was working with people who had seen every situation! And because of the support of NTL, I was able to turn around my work and get it done and submitted for scoring. Having a group of people that supported me through the National Board process made completing the work easier. And you know the result. I am a National Board Certified Teacher. (And the first CPS stipend has already been distributed.) 

If you are interested in National Board Certification

If you are looking to be the best educator for your students that you can be, then consider sitting for National Board Certification and join the Nurturing Teacher Leadership program to support you. You will surely get the individualized support you need to achieve National Board Certification. For any CPS teachers who are straddling the fence on whether this opportunity is for you and your career and want to talk with me or one of my colleagues, or for those who are in at least their third year of teaching and know they want to attend the next recruitment meeting, please reach out to the program leaders at www.ctuf.org/NTL.

Then soon, you can join me in saying that you are an NBCT!

Rasha Farmer, NBCT, is an Early Adolescent English Language Arts teacher.