Sarah Rao

JEFFERSON — After eight months of rigorous study, research, preparation, program-building documentation and test­ing, West Elementary School English Language Learn­ers teacher Sarah Rao has become the sixth teacher in the School District of Jefferson to achieve certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

Two of the first teachers to complete the process in the area, Bonnie Dimond and Jo Christianson, have since retired. Also achieving this high level of certification were Nicki Gilbert and Lynda Murphy, classroom teachers at West, and Jefferson Middle School teacher Kathy Cornelison. Other teachers have started the process.

National board certification is an individual and voluntary process through which highly accomplished teachers strive to meet the highest standards in their field. It’s completely separate from college and graduate degrees, although teachers may receive some credits for going through the process.

The website for the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards,, said that this advanced teaching credential complements, but does not replace, state teacher certification. Rather, it challenges teach­ers to meet high and rigorous standards through intensive study, expert evaluation, self-assessment and peer review.

The independent national organization offers 25 certificates in a variety of subject areas and student developmental levels.

In a Congressionally-mandated study, national board certification was recently recognized by the National Research Council as having a positive effect on student achievement, teacher retention and professional development.

Rao started teaching in the School District of Jefferson in 2009. Before that, she served as a classroom teacher in Janesville for five years.

“I always wanted to be a teacher,” Rao said. “I never even thought of doing anything else. I was always playing school as a child, and that interest just grew as I got older.

“It’s such an inspiring career,” she added.

Rao called teaching her “passion,” and said that one of the things she likes about it is that every day is different. And just like their classroom charges, teachers learn and improve day by day and year by year, and there are always new challenges and goals to work toward.

“When I started teaching, I had no children of my own, and now I have three,” the teacher said.

She said that is not a handicap: a person can be a really good teacher without children of their own. However, parenting experience has given her a new perspective and some additional tools as she seeks to provide her students with the best education they can get and at the same time seeks to connect with children’s families in order to achieve better outcomes for all.

Rao received her undergraduate education from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and has obtained two master’s degrees since, the first from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater in English as a Second Language/Bilingual Education and the second from Cardinal Stritch University in Educational Leadership.

Rao said she loves a challenge, particularly when it comes to honing her teaching skills, and she had just finished up her second masters’ degree when she learned about National Board Certification from some of her colleagues.

She hadn’t intended to go on to any higher level of teacher training, but the idea of National Board Certification sounded like a tremendous opportunity.

Although it has taken an incredible amount of time and energy, Rao said, she found the process really rewarding, and she would recommend it to others.

“It took me two years to complete National Board Certification,” Rao said. “At first, I struggled to pin down my focus because I was the only English-as-a-New-Language instructor undergoing National Board Certification at the time. There was a lot I could learn from the classroom teachers who were going through the process, but my task was less subject-specific, more open-ended. I really had to work to narrow it down.”

Rao started looking into National Board Certification in October two years ago, but she soon found out that as a part-time teacher, she was not eligible for compensation from the school district for this costly process.

“However, Mr. (Mike) Howard (West Elementary School principal) took up my cause and went to the school board, asking them to revise their policy,” Rao said. “His assertion was that if people want to do this, we should reward them.”

The board found Howard’s argument sound and voted to change its policy regarding National Board Assertion. Among the board members, Norm Stoner has been a particular champion for the advanced certification, saying that the district should encourage all interested teachers to pursue this certification as it helps the district provide the best education to its students and also helps the district retain dedicated, top teachers who truly are an asset to the local schools.

Having gained school district backing, Rao then started attending workshops and working with other National Board Certified teachers in the district.

One of the first tasks she had to complete was recording her classroom in action.

“You can’t set up the ‘ideal’ conditions for this,” Rao said. “First, I wanted to show authentic learning going on, and second, the students I was working with were kindergartners and second-graders. It’s exciting for them to have someone in the classroom taping them. It made for some challenges, and could also be pretty funny at times.”

In addition, Rao had to write four different papers documenting what she was doing with her ELL students, showing how she was using the best developmental and brain-based techniques to optimize student learning.

“I had done a whole lot of college papers, but they were not looking for the same things,” she said. “The writing could actually be kind of rough or abbreviated. Instead, they were looking for you to reiterate the points from the tasks they asked you to do and show what learning actually was going on.”

The first paper focused on assessments, so Rao had to arrange an activity, framing it with a pre-assessment and a post-assessment.

The second paper focused on a group learning activity, and the third on a whole-class activity.

Finally, Rao had to show how she worked within the school and community. She used the in-school book clubs she coordinates and the monthly bilingual Family Book Nights she organizes during the evenings as examples of ways she is reaching out within the school and also to learners’ families.

“We are really focusing on authentic family involvement in schools, because that’s a huge predictor of student success,” Rao said.

She noted that this is more challenging for the population she works with, as many of the parents of her English Language Learners are not proficient in English either and might not feel as welcome in the school setting as people who already share the same language.

“We really want to build an authentic partnership with them, to communicate clearly and to work together toward a common goal,” Rao said. “We want them to feel comfortable and welcome coming into the school on a regular basis.”

Throughout the two-year process, Rao said, she drew a lot of inspiration from the other teachers in the building, both the mentors who were going through or had already been through the National Board Certification process and her other colleagues.

“Others working on the boards were so supportive,” she said. “I could ask them any crazy question and they’d help me think it through.

She credited co-teacher Kelly Meinholz (who is no longer with the Jefferson district) for welcoming all of her board-inspired ideas into her first-grade reading and writing lessons.

“She was always a cheerleader for me and willing to help me do whatever I needed,” Rao said.

She said she was also really thankful for the support and inspiration of her co-worker, Jessica Krause, who served as a sounding board and helped her push herself and stay on course.

Rao said she has gained a great deal through the process, and she has no doubt it has made her a better teacher.

“You know that reflection is good, but you get caught up in day-to-day life and don’t do as much reflection as you think you ought to,” she said. “Going through National Board Certification really helped me to do that reflection, and helped me to improve what I do.”

It also pushed her to collaborate more with her colleagues, to communicate better with all stakeholders, and to work together with other staff members on common goals that would benefit all students.

She said she feels her studies and reflection have yielded definite results.

“Especially after watching tapes of my classroom, I became much more mindful of every individual student and whether they were getting the lesson or not. It forced me to make my teaching more engaging.”

One success story was the peer-assisted learning strategies that Rao worked on with her teaching partner.

“We had students practice specialized skills while helping another student, so that they wound up teaching what they were learning,” Rao said. “Working with a partner, they were reinforcing what they had learned and gaining a deeper understanding as they sought to share that learning with others.”

Rao worked with students not just on the facts and skills to be learned, but also on how to work with a partner.

“You have to work hard to help someone learn something correctly the first time,” she said. “It takes a lot more time to unlearn something that was learned wrong to begin with.”

As they worked with partners, Rao said, she had the opportunity to see some completely different dynamics among the students.

“I noticed some things, (like) individual students were really shining at working with a partner, that you don’t always see in a big group,” she said. “It gave me a much better view of my students’ abilities as a whole.”

Rao said that she was incredibly glad she had taken the opportunity to go through National Board Certification, even though it took a tremendous amount of time and effort.

“And I am really thankful to the district for giving me the opportunity. I couldn’t have done this without the district’s support, and I am thankful my colleagues and I were able to gain so much from the process.”

While word about the opportunity is spreading, National Board Certification remains a rare achievement among Wisconsin school teachers. As of last year, there were 1,080 National Board Certified teachers in Wisconsin, 62 of whom were certified in the previous year in all areas.

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