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ON THE SCENE: Meet Keene’s National Board Certified teacher

January 3, 2020
By NAJ WIKOFF , Lake Placid News

Abigail Adams once wrote in a letter to her son John Quincy Adams, "learning is not attained by chance, it must be sought for with ardor, and attended to with diligence."

At the time, her son was living in Europe, traveling with his father, John Adams, who was representing the Continental Congress in its efforts to secure funding to aid in this country's Revolutionary War effort. While the outcome of the war was not inevitable, Abigail sought a bright future for her son, believing that a key was a solid foundation of learning. More than that, she wanted her son, who would go on to be a future president of the United States as did his father, to value learning as a lifelong pursuit.

Building on Abigail Adams's beliefs about education, educator and author of "Teacher's Journey; The Road Less Traveled" Robert John Simon Meehan, wrote, "The quality of an exemplary teacher is demonstrated by their willingness to set and maintain the highest standards for themselves and students."

Article Photos

Keene Central School teacher Melissa LaVallee
(Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

Keene Central School teacher Melissa LaVallee, who recently achieved a National Board Certification, embodies the aspirations that Adams and Meehan extol. National Board Certification was designed to develop, retain and recognize accomplished teachers and to generate ongoing improvement in schools nationwide. It's the most respected professional certification available in K-12 education and arduous to attain. Only 1.5 percent of teachers in the U.S., and just 1 percent of New York state teachers, are National Board Certified.

The certification process can take five years to complete, and LaVallee knocked it off in three. She had to complete a four-part assessment process that first required her to demonstrate her knowledge and pedagogical practice of developmentally appropriate content for the age and ability level of her students. The second required LaVallee to gather and analyze information about the students' strengths and needs, and then use that information to design and advance their learning and achievement. To complete this task, she had to submit work samples that illustrated the students' growth over time.

The third required LaVallee to create a video record of her interactions with students and theirs with her. As part of this step, she had to describe, analyze and reflect on her teaching and interactions with the students. Think of a director's cut of a movie wherein the director is discussing what's going on, the choices made in directing, the actors' actions, the angles of the shots, and so on. That's the task the third requirement made of her.

Finally, LaVallee had to demonstrate evidence of her ability to evaluate and reflect on her work and process as a teacher, her use of assessment tools to measure the effectiveness of her work and her ability to collaborate to advance her teaching and the students' learning and growth.

LaVallee took on this time-consuming task for two reasons: It was something she had been considering for some time as a means of improving her skills; and because the school was looking for a faculty member willing to undertake the certification process.

Keene Central had been designated as a Reward School, one of only 155 in the state (3% of all schools, the best of the best). To receive their designation, and a grant that comes with it, a school is required to have on staff at least one teacher already with National Board Certification or working toward it. Thus, Keene Central's administration was looking for a willing teacher. Fortunately, LaVallee said yes.

"Melissa is an outstanding classroom and reading teacher," said Erin Perkins, who teaches kindergarten. "She worked extremely hard over the past three years on the certification process and has a lot to be proud of, as does the district. When the school asked if anyone would take this on, she stood up. The other teachers are thrilled for her. Her accomplishment is like getting a doctorate in medicine. It's a big task. I'm very proud of what she did."

Melissa said one of her biggest challenges was not having cohorts that she could meet with in person at least once a month to share experiences and ideas and discuss how to tackle the tasks required in each section. She said there was only one board-certified teacher in the region, in contrast to those living in urban areas that could meet, share thoughts and experiences, and gain the wisdom of many.

"You get together and unpack the four components, discuss what the questions mean and strategies for getting through this," said LaVallee. "Teachers in Albany, Syracuse and other cities had huge support, and here it was very, very tiny."

LaVallee praised Amanda Zulo at Saranac Lake Central, a previous recipient, for her support and assistance. She said the process was very reflective; the mantra was what do your students need? Each student has different needs based on a wide range of circumstances. She said all students are all over the place, especially in first grade, where she had some who were just starting to make letters and others who could write sentences. For LaVallee, watching herself teach in component three was most revealing.

"It's what do you look like in the classroom, how do you relate to and interact with the kids, how do you manage the classroom?" she said.

She had to reflect on all aspects of her teaching, such as "I said this because I know this about this child, and because I know this, this is why I made my next move." LaVallee said the fourth section, which was about assessing herself as a teacher, was, in many ways, the most difficult and the most rewarding. LaVallee said she had to constantly reflect on the why behind what she said or did and how she'd build from there.

"It was this pocket of time where I had three years to dive deeply back into my practice where you are constantly reevaluating what you are doing," said LaVallee. "We don't always give ourselves that time as teachers because everything is so busy. When I used to work with Robin Jacques, she said, 'There is no ceiling in teaching. Every project can be better.' When you teach, you are constantly making judgment calls. But when you're recording and looking back at them, that's revealing. The reflection was huge. It was powerful. I think every teacher should do that just for themselves."

"Melissa's accomplishment was a big honor for us," said KCS Principal Bob Woughter. "Being Board Certified is one of the highest honors for a teacher. Many doctoral-level teachers haven't gone through the process. She took on a very robust and difficult curriculum. We're very proud of her."

"To just have a Nationally Board Certified teacher working in the district is phenomenal," said KCS Superintendent Dan Mayberry. "The amount of work she put in to get it accomplished is amazing. It's not an easy process."

An added benefit to the school is that other teachers will gain skills and insights from LaVallee. Her knowledge will help raise the skill level across all grade levels and help make Keene an even more exceptional educational resource, one that continues to attract out of district kids as a consequence and send its students to the best colleges in the nation.



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