Back to school the hard way

Five Cedar Grove-Belgium teachers found qualifying for National Board Certification harder than getting their degrees but it made them better educators

EARNING NATIONAL BOARD certification presented different challenges for five Cedar Grove-Belgium teachers, but all cited support from family, colleagues and administrators as essential in their quests to improve on their craft. From left are Carol Schumacher (high school), Kim Brill and Sara Kluck (elementary school), Melinda Sippel (middle school) and Mike Theine (elementary school). Photo by Sam Arendt

Ozaukee Press staff

Their routes to careers in education may differ, as do their subjects and the grades they teach, but five Cedar Grove-Belgium School District teachers have one thing in common.

Carol Schumacher, Melinda Sippel, Mike Theine, Kim Brill and Sara Kluck say they have become better teachers through National Board Certification.

The process involves completing four rigorous components in a three-year window — the Cedar Grove-Belgium five only took one year — that essentially requires educators to prove their students are learning through a deep and critically objective look in a mirror on how they approach their craft. Components consist of content knowledge, differentiation in instruction, teaching practice and learning environment, and being an effective and reflective practitioner.

Many say earning certification is more difficult and digs deeper than obtaining a master’s degree, and all say it requires the support of family members, colleagues and their principals.

Schumacher, who was inspired to teach high school English by Ozaukee High School English teacher Robert Chesney, knows what it takes twice over. She earned the honor five years ago and was recertified last month.

“For me, the largest benefit of the National Board process is that it makes me much more intentional in my teaching practices,” Schumacher said.

The renewal process, she said, has reinvigorated her focus and reflection.

“I’ve been making changes to lessons and assessments which I think are helping my students learn. My goal is to become a master of my craft, and National Board gets me one step closer to that goal,” Schumacher said.

Sippel, a seventh-grade English language arts teacher who was inspired to enter the field through influential teachers she had while attending Cedar Grove-Belgium schools, wanted to improve.

“What can I do to bump myself up as an efficient educator? After 17 years in, you get stagnant,” she said. “This re-energized me.”

Sippel learned about herself and her teaching throughout the process, and she has adjusted accordingly.

“I take the student feedback and actually use it,” she said. “I ask for it a lot more now. It’s almost a weekly thing.”

Through discussions with her classes on what works and what doesn’t, Sippel said, she learned “my perspective was way skewed.”

Now, however, her students are taking a more active role in their education.

“There’s definitely increased engagement when they have voice and choice of what goes on in the classroom,” she said.

Her process was made more difficult in that she started it while working in West Bend before coming to Cedar Grove-Belgium this year. She has a graduate degree in curriculum and instruction from National Louis University, and said that achievement was an easier endeavor.

“I feel like my master’s wasn’t as hard as this,” Sippel said.

The most difficult part, she said, was writing papers in a specific and formal way. Sippel teaches creative writing, but certification required no elaboration.

“I don’t write like that,” she said.

Schumacher, who has taught for 16 years, said she likes being challenged, and generating the time and energy to recertify presented a new hurdle.

“The timing of my renewal was a challenge because I had a baby. My time management skills were really stretched during this process. I was teaching high school English full time, completing my National Board Maintenance of Certification and being a new parent,” she said.

Others balanced their initial attempt with multiple children but had colleagues to lean on. Second-grade teacher Brill, third-grade teacher Theine and fourth-grade teacher Kluck — all parents — served as a support network for each other.

The trio, each of whom has a master’s degree, became interested after Principal Jeff Kondrakiewicz, who earned certification as a teacher in 2006, made a pitch for the program to the staff.

Theine said he wouldn’t have followed through on the process if Brill and Kluck hadn’t also agreed to undertake it.

Their commitment to their craft is similar, but their reasons for entering education were different.

Theine said he struggled in school and realized he could help improve a system that didn’t work well for him, something he has tried to do the past 14 years.

Brill said she wanted to be a teacher since she was in third grade, inspired by former Cedar Grove-Belgium teacher Robert Pilsl, and has been teaching for 24 years.  Kluck said she always loved working with children and became a teacher’s assistant in high school. She has taught for 17 years.

The three started with the final component that involved evidence-based data collection from anyone who works with their students, including parents, nurses and other teachers.

“We got a good handle on who our students were,” Kluck said.

They also had to capture two videos of themselves teaching and were not allowed to alter it. Kluck took half a year to make the videos because she was “picky.”

She said following the instructions of each component was the hardest part.

“Just wrapping my head around what they were expecting took months,” she said.

Brill, a mother of three, grappled with finding time to work on the initiative. She needed chunks of time, not just half an hour here and there.

“I would tell my family Saturday is my National Boards,” she said.

Theine said his wife would take four sons to the park so he could work, and while he was at his children’s swim lessons he would text the other two while he snuck in some time on his laptop. He said organizing the materials was a challenge — he has a large binder of information he will hold onto forever.

The certification process, they said, brought them closer than ever as colleagues and made a significant impact on their teaching.

“I feel like this year I am very different, and Jeff (Kondakiewicz) has noticed it,” Kluck said. “I model what I want the kids to do so much better so they can take that and used it as an example.”

Brill said, “I’m a fairly reflective person, but this has made me look at why I do things. I don’t just do it because it’s the next thing listed in the curriculum.”

Theine received validation.

“I gained confidence with it. Everything I did showed me the way I teach works,” he said.

Theine said the process is invaluable.

“You’re proving your instruction. You’re proving you’re a good teacher and know your content and can show it,” he said.

Results were released in early December. Not everyone passes the first time, and all five teachers were anxious to find out how they did.

Theine and Kluck stayed up late — results were to be released online at midnight, which was 11 p.m. Central Standard Time. The two contacted each other but were initially reluctant to say they passed.

Neither heard from Brill, who had gone to bed.

“I knew I wasn’t going to set an alarm for midnight,” she said.

“We were both so worried about you,” Theine said.

Brill woke up to messages from Kluck and Theine, and to find that she too had been certified.

Sippel nervously logged into her account as well.

“I basically held my breath until I saw those glorious fireworks pop up on my screen,” she said.

 Schumacher checked results the next morning and had a similar reaction to the first time she passed five years ago: joy, relief and validation.

It was a sentiment shared by the others.

“Relief is the word,” Theine said.

The five were honored by the School Board this month.

Kondrakiewicz is thrilled that three of his staff members earned the accolade.

“National Board Certified Teachers are examples of teachers at the top of their game.  Our three NBCTs are exemplary professionals, reflective practitioners, and always in search of the best way to help kids learn,” he said.

For more information on National Board Certification, visit



Click Here to Send a Letter to the Editor

Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
(262) 284-3494


User login