BY CLAUDIA SWISHER
“Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes.” – Bertolt Brecht, German writer
I want to talk about heroes … those people who keep working, keep moving forward, even when they are not sure they’ll succeed; they persevere because they believe in their cause. I want to talk about teachers as heroes.
Oklahoma teachers used to believe they had a solemn agreement with the state Legislature: if teachers would hold themselves accountable to the challenging standards of National Board, the Legislature would provide scholarships and professional development and support as teachers went through the rigorous process.
And, furthermore, when teachers achieved their National Board Certification, these teachers believed the state’s promise that it would provide stipends to these teachers for the life of their certification, as long as the National Board Certified Teachers [NBCTs] taught in a public school, and taught full time in a classroom or library, or a counselor’s office.
2,994 teachers in our state took that challenge, attained certification and expected our state to honor their commitment. We all understood the concept of “availability of funds,” but that seems a hollow argument when the same Legislature awards tax credits to private school donors, when there’s talk of income taxes being cut, and when the State Superintendent of schools chooses not to ask for funds to cover the stipends.
So, back to heroes. Every one of these 2,994 NBCTs is a hero, but let me start with four of my friends, all NBCTs. All in the middle of their careers as educators. The kind of education leaders we will need in Oklahoma in the years to come.
One, a single mother, struggles to make ends meet. On her teacher salary, she actually has qualified for state assistance … a college-educated professional, practicing her craft. Without the NBCT stipend, she needs state assistance to keep her children fed. Her stipend does not go for fancy vacations or luxury items – it pays for necessities my friend can’t afford on her salary. I hear her talk about her inner-city students, youngsters whose families struggle even more than she does. Her devotion to her students shines through her words and her actions. How much longer can she afford to dedicate herself, denying her own children, in order to teach in our state? What will her school do if she decides to leave teaching so she can provide for her children? What does it say about a state that values her contribution so poorly that she is facing this decision at all?
One is married to another teacher. They knew from the beginning that raising a family on two teachers’ salaries would be a challenge, and so my friend went through the NBC process and has been an NBCT for several years. Her stipend helps support her family and gave her family a cushion – only one of them had to teach summer school, only one had to find part time jobs. But now, with the loss of the stipend, her family’s finances have taken a serious hit. It may be that one of them makes the hard decision to leave teaching to earn more money. Both of them are strong teachers, getting stronger every day. But because of the loss of the stipends they may have to decide their future is not in the classroom. If one or both of them leave, there will be a generation of students who will never have the opportunity to learn from these two professionals.
Another friend is also a gifted teacher, one I’ve entrusted with my own family members. She also feels the responsibility to provide for her family, to contribute as much as she can to the finances. When we lost the NBCT stipends, she was lured out of the classroom, into administration, not because she was called, but because she would earn more as a principal. She soon missed the students, the interaction, the excitement of the classroom … we lost a gifted teacher who knew she was an accomplished teacher, but now feels like a complete failure as an administrator. She should never have been placed in the position of having to leave the job she loved, the job at which she excelled, just to make more money. Again, the big losers in this equation will be the students who will never be able to be in my friend’s classroom … and selfishly, I have one more granddaughter I was counting on being with her.
Another young teacher is a man I watched grow up. I saw him as a child, and I taught with him as an adult. He is the sole breadwinner, choosing to allow his wife to stay at home with their children. With the NBCT stipend, they were able to scrape by. Without it, he left teaching altogether. He found another job that pays more, but I know his heart is not happy. I know he yearns to return to the classroom, but he cannot afford it. In order to be the teacher he trained to be, the teacher he was born to be, would demand that his wife go back to work. His family values and his deep commitment to his marriage forced him to leave a profession he loved. The students who did benefit from his time with them are now young adults. My heart breaks for all the young people who need a strong male teacher, one who’s a devoted father and reflective practitioner, and will never have the opportunity to sit in his classroom.
There are more heroes in our state we seldom hear about. What about the 10 NBCT candidates in the state who have paid their own way through the NBC process, because the Legislature forced a moratorium on scholarships and training? Ten teachers this year, down from 400 teachers last year. Those 400 enjoyed the financial support of the state with scholarships and training. Now, 10 teachers take this challenge, paying their own way, because they know this is the best learning any teacher can pursue: her own students, her own classroom, and her own practice held up to deep analysis and reflection … his own students, his own classroom, and his own practice examined, questioned, fundamentally changed to create opportunities for student learning. Last year, 400 candidates made that journey together.
This year? Ten. Ten heroes who are willing to go through this most rigorous process to become the teachers they know their students need; 10 teachers totally dedicated to their students.
Those 400 candidates from last year recently learned their scores and many discovered they’d need another year or more to reach the high standards expected of NBCTs. One-hundred, twenty-one of them chose to continue, to work toward National Board Certification, uncertain of their state’s support. They’re doing this for their students, and to challenge themselves to be the best teachers they can be. They know the state has already broken its covenant with current NBCTs, but they move forward, confident they will grow as teachers, even if the state never honors its promises. It takes a special teacher to continue to push for what’s right for his or her students, knowing the work may never be recognized. It takes a hero.
More heroes? I have them. National Board has a program called Take One!, an opportunity for teachers to “try out” the NBC process by completing only one of the four required entries in the portfolio. We have teachers who understand the transformative nature of the NBC process and cannot afford to pay for their entire application. Take One! is a way for teachers to practice the process and apply their score to the entire process. Understood in Take One! is that the candidate will complete the entire process … so the 66 Oklahoma teachers who are participating in Take One! are also working toward NBC with no expectation that the Legislature and State Department of Education will ever acknowledge and reward their efforts. More students who might, in the past, have had NBCTs in their classrooms. Now these teachers cannot afford the huge financial and time commitments without some indication from the state that there will be stipends for their efforts, but they have chosen to participate in the NB process any way they can.
My last hero is a young teacher I met through a program at Southern Nazarene University. Before the moratorium on scholarships, SNU had a thriving graduate program, MACI, Master of Arts in Curriculum and Instruction. This program was specifically designed around National Board’s Five Core Propositions for accomplished teaching. The program guided students through the NBC process, included several NBCTs as adjunct instructors, and provided support for the students who did choose to continue toward NBC. Oklahoma has benefitted from many SNU students who are now NBCTs, practicing their craft in public schools around the state.
I met a young teacher in that program who first heard about National Board when she was a senior in high school. She found the NBPTS website and bookmarked it. She devised her plan toward NBC before she even graduated from high school. She attended college and earned her teaching certificate. She applied to the SNU MACI program because of the connection to NBC. She taught her three years, working on her masters’ degree, waiting for her opportunity to apply for the state-provided scholarship. And then the Legislature placed a moratorium on scholarships, the year before she was first eligible to join the process. Then she saw her Superintendent of Public Instruction single-handedly cut all NBCT stipends, not asking for the funds, yet saying they were not available. My young friend’s plans for her career were dashed. Her faith in her government’s promises broken.
She is one of the 66 Oklahoma teachers now going through Take One! with no expectation of having the NBC program in our state restored: no scholarship, no professional development, no candidate support. She will, if we can keep her in the profession, touch thousands of students’ lives in a positive way during her career. But I have to wonder if seeing her goals and dreams shattered by politicians may drive her out of the state, out of the classroom, out of the profession.
Because of the political decisions of our Legislature and State Superintendent of Public Instruction, teachers are disillusioned, desperate, and looking for other ways to support their families. They will leave the profession, or they will leave Oklahoma.
Oklahoma is in sore need of heroes. The state policymakers seem to have turned their backs on the teacher-heroes whose stories I’ve shared. Our children see these heroes every day in their classrooms. But how much longer can Oklahoma count on these heroes continuing to sacrifice for our children? And why, exactly, do the sacrifices fall on the educators of our state?
– The author teaches at Norman North High School and is a National Board Certified Teacher