By Mike Marsee
It was a long road for Jennifer Caldwell, but it was well worth the trip.
Caldwell spent 10 hours on the road and more than she wanted to pay for a hotel room, all to be part of the recognition event for the newest class of Kentucky teachers who have been certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS).
Caldwell, a literacy teacher in the Fulton Independent schools, is the first teacher from her district to earn National Board certification. She wasn’t about to miss out on the celebration.
“I live about five hours away and I waited too late to get a hotel, but I absolutely wanted to be here,” Caldwell said. “My certification put our district on the National Board registry. It’s important for our teachers to know that you need to keep pursuing and improving.”
Caldwell is one of 18 Kentucky educators who became National Board Certified Teachers (NBCTs) last year. They and 101 newly renewed National Board teachers were recognized Thursday in a ceremony at the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History in Frankfort, where education officials, legislators and others celebrated their achievement.
“It does feel special,” Caldwell said. “It was wonderful just being with other National Board-certified teachers. Sometimes teachers feel overworked and underappreciated, and I felt like this was my day. This was my opportunity to be recognized.”
Certification by the National Board signifies that teachers have developed and demonstrated the advanced knowledge, skills and practices required of an outstanding educator.
“It’s not simply checking off a bunch of things; it’s a mirror,” Kentucky Education Commissioner Stephen Pruitt said. “Mirrors are scary, but you have the courage to be willing to say, ‘I want to be better,’ the courage to look in that mirror.”
The 18 teachers who were certified last year bring Kentucky closer to the goal set by the General Assembly in 2000 of having at least one National Board-certified teacher in every Kentucky school by 2020.
“It’s really exciting that now we’ve met that goal,” Caldwell said of her schools.
In addition to Caldwell, this year’s class includes two teachers from Daviess County, each of whom are the first National Board-certified teachers in their school.
There are also four newly certified teachers from Floyd County, a relatively large number for a district of its size, and five from Jefferson County, which ranks as one of the top 30 school districts in the state in the number of National Board certified teachers.
Kentucky ranks sixth in the nation in the percentage of teachers who are National Board certified at 7.92 percent, and ninth nationally in the total number of NBCTs with 3,292.
And there are more on the way. Kentucky currently has 980 candidates for certification, placing the state fifth nationally in total candidates and is hovering near second place nationally in the total percentage of teachers who are candidates.
In fact, it has become easier for teachers to become National Board certified now that the NBPTS has fully implemented revisions to its certification process that make it both more flexible and more affordable.
The revisions give teachers more time to complete the certification process – up to three years instead of one – and reduces the total cost to teachers.
“We’re really excited about the new process,” said Suzanne Farmer, the director of the Kentucky Network to Transform Teaching (KyNT3). “It’s important to us as an issue of equity … and we do have a lot of teachers who are in the pipeline who could impact that goal.”
KyNT3 offers a reimbursement incentive to candidates from schools that don’t yet have a National Board-certified teacher. She said more than 200 candidates qualified for that incentive last year, many more will this year, and the window for accepting new candidates this year is still open.
Kentucky also shows strong statewide support for National Board certification by giving NBCTs a $2,000 salary bonus for the life of their certificate. Upon completion of the certification process, those teachers holding Rank II certificates are eligible to apply for Rank I certification and to serve as mentors for National Board candidates.
Caldwell comes from a small district with only 374 students. She has spent her entire 23-year teaching career there.
“Jennifer has been a leader for both students and teachers in our district for many years,” said DeAnna Miller, the Fulton Independent schools’ supervisor of instruction. “She shows us what good instruction looks like on a daily basis and is the perfect mentor for other teachers to follow on this distinctive professional pathway.”
She currently teaches literacy in grades 3-6, splitting her time between Carr Elementary School and Fulton High School.
“I expect a lot from my students and I feel like I should expect a lot from myself, too,” Caldwell said.
She said that’s one thing that led her to pursue National Board certification.
“I wanted to become a better leader and do more sharing and collaborating,” she said. “You can teach an old dog new tricks.”
Caldwell said she also did it in part for her daughters, one of whom is an education major.
“I want them to know that being a lifelong learner is important,” she said.
Caldwell said she had a handful of NBCT mentors who helped her along the way. One of them was a good friend, Holly Bloodworth, the 2014 Kentucky Teacher of the Year from Murray Independent schools and the president of the Kentucky NBCT Network who hails from Caldwell’s hometown of South Fulton, Tenn.
“I’ve known her all my life, and she was a big, big help,” Caldwell said. “It was a collaboration of ideas, networking, pulling our ideas together. She encouraged me, too, to keep going when it seemed like it might have been too rough.
“It would have been extremely hard by myself. It was nice to have someone leading me along and giving me good advice and guiding me.”
Bloodworth said her work with the National Board at the state level led her to identify schools in her area without National Board-certified teachers. When she considered Fulton, she realized Caldwell would make a strong candidate and nudged her friend toward the process.
“I was able to be in her classroom some and even team-teach a little bit, so it really was fun to talk about what was going on and to watch her grow as a teacher – and to grow myself. When you mentor someone, you really learn so much because you’re reading the kinds of things they’re doing and having high-level discussions,” Bloodworth said.
Caldwell said she would be happy to serve as a mentor for other teachers as they go through the certification process, particularly to help them avoid some of the pitfalls that slowed her progress along the road.
“I went about a lot of it backward because I was the first in my district,” she said. “I feel like I could save someone so much time.”