NAU education alums earn National Board Certification with funding from Arizona Teachers Academy

Claren Gustkey and Laurie Gowin

Five Northern Arizona University College of Education alumni finished 2020 with a major accomplishment—completing their National Board Certification, an achievement that helps teachers enhance their practices and better support Arizona students. These educators were among the 49 who certified statewide and 11 who were supported by Arizona Teachers Academy funding.

This marks the first group of certified teachers who were assisted by the Arizona Teachers Academy (ATA), which Gov. Doug Ducey announced in 2017 to help address the teacher shortage in the state. The Arizona K12 Center administers the funding and provides support to the ATA-sponsored teachers working toward certification.

To make the achievement even more impressive, the 11 ATA-sponsored teachers finished their certification, which typically takes three to five years, in just one year—a year in which all the teachers had to switch to online teaching mid-year and find new and innovative ways to reach their students in the midst of a global pandemic.

“The unique piece about National Board is that it is totally focused on a teacher’s practice. A teacher must provide clear, consistent and convincing evidence of the National Board Standards in their teaching,” said Kathy Wiebke, executive director of the Arizona K12 Center. “What I admire most about this group of teachers is they chose to continue during a pandemic. They were given the option of deferring and they did not do that. They are a testimony to the great teachers that can be found throughout Arizona.”

Research has shown students of board-certified teachers demonstrate deeper understanding more than three times more frequently than their peers. Students also have an additional one to two months of learning compared to their peers.

Claren Gustkey, a 2012 alumna and a math teacher at Chaparral High School in Scottsdale, and Laurie Gowin, a 2005 alumna and music teacher at Ruth Powell Elementary School in Safford, are among this first cohort who received ATA scholarships through the Arizona K12 Center. They talked about their experiences getting the certification, which is an intense process.

Both decided to get the certification for a variety of reasons; for Gustkey, part of it was avoiding the inconvenience of changing her state certification every time she moved.

“As I learned more about the certification, I was intrigued by the challenge to reflect on my effectiveness as an educator and the prestige of certifying,” she said. “Ultimately, it was a decision for both my benefit and the benefit of every student I will teach in the future.”

Gowin, who earned a master’s degree in 2017, received encouragement from a coworker and looked into the certification. She found out she’d get a raise when she was certified, which helped convince her, but the entire learning process was helpful enough to make it worthwhile—though she noted that it was so writing-intensive that her decision to not earn a doctoral degree because of all the writing now seems like an ironic joke.

Gowin found the Arizona K12 Center, which offered scholarships and trainings to help teachers be successful, and started the process in June 2019. The certification has four components, each of which looks into different aspects of teaching ability and knowledge base. It’s rigorous, she said, and only about half of candidates who try to complete all four components in one year achieve certification on their first attempt. She went for it anyway.

Over the course of certifying, she took a subject knowledge test, recorded students in her classroom and recorded herself teaching, using different instructional methods and wrote several papers.

“Component four is about being an effective and reflective practitioner,” she said. “Much of its focus is on collaboration, community and knowing your students. I saved it for last and wrote every day for a week straight, the week before the due date.”

As a music teacher, Gowin’s certification required a little more filming than others. Gustkey submitted written student work samples to gauge whether students met the educational goals of the unit she planned using differentiated learning. The basic requirements for every subject are the same, but what the final submissions look like varies depending on a teacher’s content area.

“I’m not sure there’s a hardest part,” Gustkey said. “The biggest thing is that it’s a lot. Every component wants something different. Every time I attended a meeting to learn more about the various components, I planned what evidence I could gather from my next unit and did so as early and as often as possible.”

Although the pandemic upended her teaching, it didn’t set Gustkey back in her certification, she said. She did significant recording and collected student assignments, lesson plans and other documents throughout the fall. After a workshop in February, which offered significant time to work on some of the assignments and map out future assignments, she had the information she needed to write and lots of time to do it as Arizona was under a stay-at-home order.

Gowin also sidestepped the effects of the pandemic. She started recording her students early in the school year so they could get used to having the camera on. She planned to officially record when the students returned to school the week after spring break in March, which didn’t happen, but she had hours of practice recordings and found materials that worked. She also had additional time to study and get the work done after the due date got pushed back.

Both said the process helped in their lesson plans and classroom activities and to refocus their work on helping students have the best educational experience possible. Gustkey said she’s more cognizant of how purposeful she is while creating instructional activities and assessments, which offers more clarity to students about how to be successful and how to self-reflect on their own learning. Gowin shared similar insights.

“The Five Core Propositions have changed my focus on what I should do as a teacher,” she said. “I strive to live those practices.”

Ramona Mellott, dean of the College of Education at NAU, said the National Board Certification is the most respected professional certification in K-12 education.

“I am thrilled to see so many of our alums earn this certification and to see so many candidates supported with funding for this certification by the Arizona Teachers Academy,” she said. “Through this certification, students in their classes have access to a highly accomplished teacher who applies the National Board Standards effectively in their classroom every day. I offer my heartiest congratulations to the newest NBCT recipients.”

NAU graduates who received ATA funding and earned the National Board Certification are:

  • Susan-Marie Flanigan, Sunnyside High School
  • Laurie Gowin, Ruth Powell Elementary School
  • Claren Gustkey, Chaparral High School
  • Cindy King, Alhambra High School
  • Jennifer Perry, Independence High School

Learn more about the Arizona Teachers Academy at NAU. Current teachers interested in pursuing National Board Certification using funding from the Arizona Teachers Academy can visit the Arizona K12 Center’s website.

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Heidi Toth | NAU Communications
(928) 523-8737 | heidi.toth@nau.edu