Teacher succeeds on 3rd try

Veteran teacher Destiny Cooper often tells her students not to be discouraged by failure — they can always try again.

Even so, it was sobering two years ago when Cooper, unaccustomed to failure, was the one who needed reassuring.

Her failure occurred when she sought certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards but fell short.

“It put me in their shoes,” said Cooper, an English teacher in her fifth year at McKinley High School in Baton Rouge.

The certification offered through the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards is highly regarded, but tough to achieve — with less than half of teachers earning it on their first try. Teachers need at least three years on the job before they will be considered for certification.

Cooper spent much of the 2009-10 school year working on her certification quest, including composing four reflection papers based on lessons she’d given, videotaping two of them and then completing a six-part, sit-down exam. The amount of time candidates spend in the application process averages about 400 hours, according to National Board surveys.

Cooper, a native of Houma, said she wanted the certification since she graduated from LSU 11 years ago. She said she remembers reading the principles the National Board espouses and thinking the organization had clearly identified what constitutes good teaching.

“I’m always trying to get to the next level and that is the top, except maybe getting a Ph.D,” she said.

A finalist three years ago for teacher of the year in East Baton Rouge Parish, Cooper thought she was ready to apply for certification.

She wasn’t.

She found that she wasn’t doing enough to prepare students to debate subjects on their own. She also reworked her lectures so that students now help devise the questions they will be discussing during the next day’s lecture.

Watching the videos of her lectures now, she winces a bit.

“Sometimes, I bore myself,” she said with a laugh.

Finally, on the third try she passed and was notified in late November.

“It was worth every bit of stress and every bit of everything,” Cooper said. “It really forced me to look at what I do.”

Fewer teachers are choosing to go down the same path.

Cooper was one of 54 teachers in Louisiana who earned National Board certification in 2012. That’s a third of the 148 teachers who earned National Board certification in 2010, the year Cooper made her first try.

Nationally, the trend is similar. A total of 4,930 teachers earned the certification in 2012, a little more than half as many as earned the certification in 2010.

East Baton Rouge Parish has seen a similar decline. Eleven teachers earned the distinction this year, the most in the state by far and one more than initially reported when the National Board released the 2012 results Jan. 7. Two years ago, 20 teachers earned National Board certification.

Cooper said she’s not surprised that interest has declined.

She noted that during the first year, the school district covered the $2,500 application fee, but in subsequent years, she had to pay the cost of retaking portions of the National Board application.

The school system also eliminated a $3,500 stipend for those in the district who earned the National Board certification. The school system, though, still pays the $5,000 state-mandated stipend, which is a cost the state shifted to the districts in 2010 after shouldering the expense for a decade.

“The tune changed just like that,” Cooper said about the state’s and the district’s support for teachers trying to get the certification.

A possible factor is that Louisiana is focusing much of its school improvement efforts less on past measures such as training, certification and experience and more on a revamped but laborious and still evolving teacher evaluation system known as Compass.

Compass relies heavily on standardized test scores as well as more subjective student learning targets worked out between the teacher and administrators. Teachers who don’t perform well on the evaluations can lose pay, tenure and perhaps their jobs.

“Compass sucks up a lot of time,” Cooper said.

She said she considers the National Board certification program a coherent, workable improvement process whereas Compass, so far, focuses to much on “minutiae.”

“Compass is a collection of behaviors while National Board is a process that teaches teachers when to apply which best practices, depending on goals, current students’ needs, materials and other factors,” she said.

She said she hopes the pendulum shifts back more toward rewarding teachers based on their efforts, such as National Board certification, where teachers try to improve their practice.

“There is a reason this is a profession and it should be treated as a profession,” she said.