Sunday, October 12, 2014

National Board Matters: Michale's Story

I am honored to share the story of one of my colleagues, a friend and fellow NBCT. Michale Gentry and I invented a new kind of candidate support when she was going through the process. We had to travel to Dallas for a conference and she volunteered to drive so I could read her entries and respond. We got a lot of reading and talking done in that car. We still giggle about that.

Michale is a valued family friend, teacher to my two oldest granddaughters. She is a teacher leader. She is exactly the kind of accomplished career teacher who should be revered in our state.

She is brilliant (I can say that; she wouldn't), passionate, committed to her profession and her students. Always striving to learn more so she can work even more magic in her classroom. Making connections most of us cannot see until she explains.

I love this piece because Michale is practicing in the here-and-now, while being grounded in that one-room schoolhouse of her grandmothers, as she reaches into the future with her own grandchildren.

This is one story, of one NBCT who fulfilled her part of the covenant with the state of Oklahoma...a covenant broken by our policy makers.

Here is the story of a teacher who has been entangled by your recent decisions regarding educational policy in Oklahoma, specifically the reinterpretation of HB1660. I want to give you a “face”’ for how your decisions have impacted my professional and personal life; but, in no way do I think MY story is any more important or relevant than that of any other teacher who has been impacted by these decisions regarding National Board Certification. Rather, I hope you will take the time to read all our stories and see a trend that illuminates the importance for an enlightened and fair system to truly recruit and retain the “best and brightest” teachers for Oklahoma’s future.

Michale’s Story
I am a veteran teacher of 22 years. I earned a masters degree and additional certifications in educational administration as well as middle school language arts. I have worked primarily in the elementary school setting. I also spent some time in the university setting as an ELL teacher and a project coordinator, where I was allowed to truly “see” a big picture of education and begin to understand the implications of policy on practice.  

I considered other career options periodically due to my concerns for a secure financial future; but, I always returned my mind and body to the classroom because it was where I felt I could build a career I loved. Teaching provides me an opportunity to be compassionate, creative, academic and to feel I am making an important impact through relationships with people in my community. I have always loved working with kids and feel my gifts and passions are in creating lessons and units that not only meet state objectives but also inspire my learners to connect with the world in authentic ways as problem solvers and empowered citizens. I love learning and collaborating with other educators and have built my practice and sense of self on that premise. I will always be a learner. I had leaders who modeled this and supported my efficacy and autonomy as a teacher. I thought this was the way.

I have continued my own education formally and informally, involved myself in the community and networked with others across the nation and internationally through travel and technology.  My relationships with young people and families have been the driving force for my need to continue to learn and grow as a teacher, so I could always better my practice and myself.  Being a parent and coming from a family of farmers, small business entrepreneurs, social workers, teachers, artists and scientists provided me a comprehensive framework to embrace education as my life work.

When I began my journey as a teacher, it was largely because I was inspired by my grandmother, a career teacher in her hometown of Durant, Oklahoma.  Wanda Pyrum is well known in the southeast region. As a matter of fact, my grandmother taught in one of our state’s last one-room school houses in Lone Oak, where she was also the bus driver and principal.  My grandfather also taught there, drove a bus (their personal station wagons) and installed all the indoor plumbing.  He soon went on to a more lucrative career (one that matched his talents) as a master carpenter/builder.  His teaching evolved to mentoring as he trained many young apprentices, including family members in the Lake Texoma area.  

My grandmother devoted her life to young people, her church, her family and her friends. She was a master at quietly facilitating learning opportunities and encouraging her students to take challenges to better themselves. She did this as she mentored me into teaching. She was sought by administration to lead parent classes and spent evenings teaching ELL classes when her community saw a rise in need.  

Although my Nonnie is currently suffering from Alzheimer’s and her memory is quickly fading, she still can speak of those years of teaching at Lone Oak with vivid details and poignant anecdotes of people she cared for and who cared for her. Phone calls and letters pour in every year around the holidays retracing memories and offering thanks to her for her kindness and impact on their lives. The community my grandmother contributed to raised many successful business people, artists, engineers and families who are now raising their extended families, many right here in our state.  I would say that is quite an investment in Oklahoma values.

My grandmother knew that learning environment was, and continues to be, the most important ingredient to inspire and thus, educate others.  When we visit and take her out on the town, it never fails that someone stops us to ask her how she’s doing, to give her a hug, and to tell her how much they appreciate her.

These stories warm my heart but I am afraid my fate as a teacher is taking quite a different turn here in Oklahoma. The cognitive dissonance around legislation has been dizzying at best. When I think about the Oklahoma teacher shortage, I can’t help but wonder why those in power refuse to see the value of National Board Certified Teachers and of people who are invested in teaching as a career.

When I pursued National Boards, I had a young baby and I was worried about how I would afford a quality, home day-care environment for him while I was teaching.  My stipend from National Boards allowed me to do that. That money went to another Oklahoma family who was dedicated to providing quality care for young people. What I didn’t anticipate was the depth of reflection and learning that came from this very personalized learning experience of going through the National Board process. I found mentors.  My students knew what I was working on and helped me. We even came back together and celebrated when I discovered I certified the following year.  

My principal, librarian, teaching assistant, ELO coordinator, colleagues, family and parents of my students were invested in the process with me because they knew I was trying to be better.  The focus on my classroom, my learners, my curriculum, standards, new technology and goals all challenged me to see myself no longer as a teacher but as an educator. I grew as a professional in so many ways. I wrote grants for my school and sought opportunities to share my learning. I grew from the challenge and it served as a base for many years of growth. Everything became filtered through a new, authentically broader lens.

When the stipend was cut, it was both an emotional and financial blow.  It was no coincidence when the state department cut other programs once implemented for teachers like me, who wanted to continue our growth and learning through sharing with others. I continued to read, study and examine policy and research, not just in our state but nationally and internationally. I networked, I attended meetings looking for answers to why we were making the changes we were making in my profession. I worked on my own practice. I questioned myself, which is what National Board and my work at the University of Oklahoma trained me to do; to not only identify MY problem but the bigger issues, and what I could contribute towards a solution.  I was willing to take my share of the blame when the “Shame Game” of high stakes testing took full grip and I worked hard to make adjustments where I could in not only my practice but also my perspective.

When I was notified that I was eligible to re-certify with National Boards and be extended the stipend (as was the practice for renewed NBCTs and speech pathologists), I thought perhaps things were starting to turn and that teachers like me would be valued for our contributions in our state. This little bit of faith made me believe that SOMEONE was listening somewhere, and maybe we were making some strides as a state to move toward a vision to embrace teaching as a true profession. I wanted to believe that.

I don’t believe that in a state like ours, the money from the stipend attached to National Boards was ever “extra” income for most teachers. I am pretty sure it is not being filtered into Swiss bank accounts.  I know it wasn’t in my family. It allowed us to pay for child care and later for car repairs, clothing and other necessary essentials that supports the economy right here in our city and state. It gave my family a little bit of breathing room in our budget.

I took to heart the challenge to re-certify this past school year. With the help of our regional coordinator, I met another teacher who was going through the same process and we became fast friends, colleagues and fellow travelers on this journey to learn new technology and requirements, and to push each other through the disequilibrium that comes with such a rigorous process of reflection and growth about one’s teaching.

I wanted to put together a portfolio that met all the required elements but that also had personal meaning and shared my sense of both accomplishment and authentic striving.  I outlined my journey in four areas of my professional growth: Teaching and Learning with Technology; Literacy Instruction as “The Literal Link;”  Master Teacher and Math Academy; and Project Based Learning.  The process was, at times, grueling.  But it was challenging and it helped me reflect on where I was as a professional, why I made the decisions I did within my context, how I addressed student needs and what I learned from the entire process that would shape my next steps and goals.  It was reflective, it was honest and it was focused on growth--my own, and my students’. I paid the $1,250.00 to participate out of my dwindling family savings and even as I pushed “submit” on my portfolio last May, I was thinking about what I would do differently, what I was going to do next. THAT is what National Boards is all about.

I WAS anxiously awaiting my results (which should be any day now.)  Now, it doesn’t much matter. The OSDE has reinterpreted the law in a way that will not attempt to retain my talent or that of my new friend, a gifted, young teacher and mother in Sulphur, Oklahoma. I see now that my efforts and contributions as a teacher are not with the new plan. I can’t imagine how many other teachers are reeling at this news. I guess this will make it easier to grow other programs that reward uninformed teachers to serve as volunteers and thus, create a need for more tightly scripted lessons and synchronized corporate reform.  Too bad THAT is not in stride with my vision of being an educated citizen.  My son said, “This whole thing is like ordering a meal and then refusing to pay once you have been served.”  I love his insight.

My grandchildren will have a very different perspective on teaching and the impact of a teacher in their home state and now, so do I.  It’s in your hands.  I can only hope at this point that you will  do the right thing--not just for me and my family--but for the many, many dedicated teachers like me and my new friend in Sulphur. I also think about the ones we will need in the future. The flaws in this process regarding the legalities of the decisions for NBCT have been pointed out by others. This is a legal, moral and ethical disgrace to teachers in our state. I am not a lawyer or a legislator, but I am a teacher and I know this much.

I offer you my story. Please write a happy ending.  I have kids to teach and I just don’t need the distraction. My final conclusion to my own story is this- the SYSTEM is broken.  I am not. 

And my grandparents, the ones who farmed this land and raised many young--well, they taught me this….Integrity ALWAYS wins.

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