Julie Erlinger has no fond memories of the notoriously rigorous process of National Board Certified Teachers preparation. She had to videotape some of her Urbana High School English classes and watch herself teach.
And then watch the videos again – and again and again.
What the 19-year teaching veteran saw in the repeated viewings surprised her, with moments of "I'll never do that again" and moments of "Hey, that worked pretty well."
The harsh exercise of critiquing her own teaching extensively over the course of two years was worth the long hours after school working toward her national certification, she said.
National Board Certified Teacher credentials – granted by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards – has come to mean a teacher committed to doing better at teaching students, as well as frequently a pay bump, greater flexibility in job searches and other opportunities.
Marcy Vancil, an Urbana elementary teacher, completed the process nearly a decade ago, in the first wave of teachers since the certification process began in 1994. When she began, fewer than a dozen Illinois teachers had the national credentials.
This year, 511 Illinois teachers earned national credentials, Erlinger among them. Illinois ranked fourth in the country in new NBCTs, according to a Dec. 3 press release announcing the newly certified teachers.
Now Vancil is in charge of NBCT training, mentoring and recruitment for most of East Central Illinois.
"What you know about your students will guide your instruction," Vancil said. "This is a study in your own room about what you're doing, so the application is always there."
It was the encouragement of other NBCTs like Vancil that convinced Karinsa Moline, the music teacher at South Side Elementary School in Champaign, that she could also do it.
"I had fabulous mentors. That made all the difference in the world," said Moline, who received her certification this fall.
Moline said the certification process helped her broaden her teaching strategies.
"They're huge on teaching to all the different learning styles. They really want you to analyze how and why you're doing every little thing," she said.
For example, when teaching students to read treble clef music pitches, she has them count the lines and spaces on a staff using their hands and fingers to represent the music staff (to appeal to kinesthetic learners), play games using bean bags as notes on a giant music staff (for visual learners) and sing pitches while pointing to them in the music (for auditory learners).
"It's probably one of the best things I've ever done in my life," Moline said. "I love teaching, and I love it even more now."
In several studies, including a 2004 study by the University of Washington and the Urban Institute, teachers with the certification proved "more effective at raising student achievement."
"I see over and over people going through the process thinking about their students in dramatically different ways," Vancil said, "looking more deeply at who their students are, what their strengths are, what their gaps are."
She said getting nationally certified has made her more adaptable.
"I'm much more willing, if something is not going well, to throw it all out and do something different," she said.
Erlinger, like other NBCTs, did four portfolios – each a series of lesson plans the teacher designs and then must measure how they worked by evidence of student progress and teacher reflection – as well as six timed tests on teaching as it relates to that teacher's subject area.
Vancil said spending 400 hours or more on the certification is "not that unusual."
Amy Blomberg, a literacy support specialist for Westview and Carrie Busey elementary schools in Champaign, also was certified this fall.
"They just push you to think harder and harder and harder. It's nothing surface-level," Blomberg said of the process, adding that teachers must be able to explain why they chose a particular lesson and how they used different teaching strategies to reach all their students.
"It changes the way you look at kids, the way you look at the way you instruct them," she said. "It just makes you more aware of what you're doing and why you're doing it, and really meeting the individual needs of each kid."
With the focus on testing and assessment in education, Blomberg said the certification process helps teachers delve deeper into the numbers and use them to tailor their teaching better to their students.
"It's not just numbers," Blomberg said. "It's valuable information about how that student learns and what he knows. It's information you're going to use to help meet the needs of these kids and develop instruction. I think that's the most critical piece of my job."
Rena Pate, a first-grade teacher at Southwest Elementary School in Danville, received the certification in 2004.
She worked on teaching her students to work in groups and to entrust them with both responsibility and opportunities for creativity, like in a science project in which each student designed his or her own experiment illustrating evaporation.
After completing her certification, Pate said, going back and finishing a master's degree was a lot easier – much of her master's program was based on the NBCT process.
The certification also brought study abroad options and invites to join teaching groups. "The opportunities it opens up for you after you finish this process are incredible," she said. As well, Pate said, after 19 years of teaching, it was good to rethink her methods.
The certification can also come with material rewards.
The Illinois State Board of Education grants NBCTs $3,000 a year during their 10-year certification period. Some school districts add stipends on top of that.
Urbana school district gives its NBCTs a $2,000 stipend annually during the certification period. Pate said she gets an additional $500 a year from the Danville school district. In Champaign, board-certified teachers receive a $1,500 stipend.
Erlinger said the process challenged her to become more thoughtful about her students and how she teaches them.
"Teachers have many, many demands on them," she said. "I learned that it's really important to take that time to reflect."
Pate said becoming nationally certified changed her view of her own and her students' abilities.
"When you raise your expectations, the kids will work toward them," she said. "It challenged me, and it taught me to challenge the kids."