Growing up in St. Petersburg, Sally Henderson didn't give a thought to becoming a teacher.
She planned to be a lawyer.
Seven years after taking a teaching job while raising money for law school, Henderson can't imagine being anything else.
The West Tampa Elementary third-grade team leader loves it so much that she became one of six Hillsborough County teachers last year to earn certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.
"This is kind of a way for me to prove to myself that I was in the right profession," she explained.
Not too long ago, her achievement wouldn't have stood out.
Hillsborough schools used to turn out National Board teachers by the dozens each year. Florida ranked second to North Carolina in teachers reaching what many consider the gold standard.
This year, just 17 Florida teachers gained the certification — six in Hillsborough, one in Pinellas.
Participation dropped off when Florida lawmakers, dealing with the worst recession in years, stopped paying for the training and bonuses for teachers who completed it.
"I guess we found out what the motivation was for National Board certification," said Senate Education Appropriations Chairman Don Gaetz, adding there are no plans to restore the funding.
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Seventeen years ago, state lawmakers deemed getting National Board-certified teachers into Florida schools a priority.
They created the Dale Hickam Excellent Teaching Program, covering all but a sliver of a teacher's $2,500 National Board costs. The program also paid a 10 percent salary bonus, plus 10 percent more for mentoring, to teachers who earned the certification.
The idea was to get top teachers into classrooms across the state, where they would serve as role models and help others to improve their instruction. Many viewed National Board certification as more difficult — and practical — than a master's degree.
"It's one of the best professional developments they've ever had," said Jean Clements, Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association president. "It makes you look critically and carefully at how you're teaching."
In short order, Florida soared near the top of the list of annual National Board certifications. Districts welcomed newly certified teachers by the dozens, with Hillsborough, Broward and Miami-Dade counties routinely among the country's leaders.
At the peak, 1,809 teachers joined the group in one year.
"A number of people began to do this process because they felt valued," said Peggy Brookins, a National Board-certified teacher who recently became the organization's executive vice president.
Seeing National Board teachers in their own schools encouraged others to pursue the option, too. Before long, more than 13,000 Florida teachers had completed the process.
"They understand it's going to make them better at their craft," said Faye Cook, one of Hillsborough's first National Board teachers, who teaches at Wilson Elementary. "That's what they want, to be the best they can be."
When the economy dropped out around 2007, though, lawmakers started looking to cut costs. The Dale Hickam program came under scrutiny, and not just because of the cost.
Then-Sen. Steve Wise led the questioning. Certified teachers undeniably were good, he said, but he wondered whether it was because of the certification.
In the end, lawmakers kept the program, but stopped covering application fees and bonuses. The numbers quickly dried up.
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Sen. Gaetz suggested that the falloff created an opening to learn whether the credential affects student performance.
Some research already has been conducted.
Clements said in Hillsborough, National Board teachers score better than their noncertified peers on several evaluation categories. Those include engagement, questioning and critical reflection.
Two recent national studies also showed higher test scores by students taught by board-certified teachers. But Dan Goldhaber, director of the Center for Education Data & Research, said there's more nuance.
There's evidence to demonstrate that board certification is better than a master's degree, he said, but little to suggest that it makes one a better teacher.
"People who are more motivated, more dedicated to the craft, are the ones who are more likely to do something to make themselves better at their craft," he said.
Cook, the Wilson Elementary teacher, contends the process helps create better teachers. And she agrees that financial support for certification rewards good teaching, which lawmakers have said they want.
"We say we value (excellent teaching), but the reality of it is, we value what we put money into," Cook said.
She said she really respected the teachers like Henderson, who pursued the credential anyway.
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Henderson saw her effort as a validation.
She got hired in a teacher shortage and earned her state certification through an alternative program.
For months, she spent nights and weekends poring over materials for National Board certification, meeting with mentors and preparing portfolios.
"It definitely made me a lot more reflective on my teaching," Henderson said.
Watching videos of herself teaching, for instance, helped her see more clearly how her students react to her questions. That insight helped push her to do better in meeting each child's individual needs.
Lynda Taylor, a Gaither High special education teacher, completed the program a year earlier.
"I would like to be the best at what I do," Taylor said. "This is our highest professional association. That is really why I pursued it. I knew I wasn't going to get any extra money once I did it."
She, too, said the effort provided insight into the way she teaches, and how to be more effective. Moreover, she had to work with other teachers, opening herself to their critiques and suggestions.
"They never gave me any answers. All they gave me back was more questions," Taylor said. "I had never been in a position like that."
The HCTA stands by the program so much that it offers what financial help it can. The school district also offers some bonuses, though not as extensively as what the state once provided.
"Is it worth it? Absolutely," Henderson said. "I would definitely encourage anyone to go through the process."
Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at firstname.lastname@example.org.