No School Zone

No School Zone

Mary Ellen Piland plans to enjoy retirement.

In June, Mary Ellen retired from teaching 1st grade at Ocracoke School. She started out as the Kindergarten teacher, and was at the school for 13 years, meaning that last year’s graduates were her first students on the island.

To celebrate her years at Ocracoke School, Alice Burruss and Cheri Ely put together a book of photos and letters from her students. Kids from seniors to her current class were asked to write about their favorite Mrs. Piland memories. Fictional character Junie B. Jones was mentioned a lot (Mary Ellen always read those books aloud) along with the books Where the Sidewalk Ends and Charlotte's Web. Many of the students had happy memories of YMCA field trips, Polar Express parties, visits from the first grade's many community friends, and all of Mrs. Piland's costumes for Halloween, Spirit Week, and holiday parties. They know she's an NC State fan and that she loves to show them pictures of her grandbabies. They remember singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" and competing in the class Spelling Bee and picnicking on her houseboat. The letters and poems are sweet and sincere.

“This was the best present I could’ve gotten,” she said. “It was so nice of Cheri and Alice and everyone to organize it.”

She’s now enjoying spending time with her family (husband Jim, son Will, son Jared and daughter-in-law Amy), especially her two grandsons, Jameson and Whitton.

Never idle, Mary Ellen is already working at OPS and at the Secret Garden Gallery. She has a "No School Zone" sign hanging in her OPS office. But there's no fooling anybody. When she talks about kid-friendly museum exhibits and scavenger hunts and getting local families into the museum, it's obvious that her positive influence on Ocracoke's young people will continue on outside of the classroom.

In Mary Ellen's tribute book, 7th grader Mac Kalna summed up his favorite teacher's influence in a poem that asks "What if?" those good times had never happened. He ends with "But all of this did happen, and because of it, I am me!" 

Ocracoke parents owe Mary Ellen a debt of thanks for helping their kids be who they are as eager students who know learning can be fun.

The following is a story I wrote in 2007 when Mary Ellen earned her National Board teaching certification. It originally appeared on Island Free Press. The Current would like to wish her best of luck in retirement!

Ocracoke Teacher Achieves National Board Certification

On Friday, November 9, 2007, Ocracoke first grade teacher Mary Ellen Piland learned that she had achieved her Certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. 

“They sent me an email on Thursday letting me know that the scores would be posted online Friday morning,” she said. “When I checked the website on Friday morning and found out I did it, the whole class started dancing and jumping around with me. The kids shouted ‘Mrs. Piland won on the computer!’”

Piland’s accomplishment comes after three years of effort preparing her portfolios, analyzing videotapes of her teaching, and sitting for exams. She estimated that she put in about 400 hours of work to earn the certification, and she is the first teacher to do so at Ocracoke School.

“It was a personal and professional goal of mine,” she said. “I’m so happy and proud to have achieved it!”

Founded in 1987, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards is an independent, nonprofit, and nongovernmental organization with a mission to advance the quality of teaching and learning. 55,000 of our nation’s teachers  – about 2% – have achieved National Board Certification over the past twenty years. North Carolina employs the largest number of National Board Certified Teachers, with 12% of the state’s teachers being certified.

The NBPTS literature calls the certification process “rigorous,” and Piland agrees. She completed three portfolios in Literacy, Math and Science, and Art and Social Studies. For the Literacy portfolio, she chose two students at opposite ends of the learning-to-read spectrum, and wrote about how she dealt with their different needs in the classroom. The Math and Science portfolio included video footage of a lesson in floating and sinking clay boats, and for Art and Social Studies, the students learned about island fishing. They pulled nets with local fisherman and then painted a mural about what they saw and learned. Piland assessed her own teaching and analyzed the students’ work for her portfolios.

The NBPTS also requires teachers to document all their accomplishments within the community. For Piland, these included developing and recording an exercise DVD with her first grade class (the DVD can be checked out of Ocracoke Library), selling student artwork at the first grade chili supper fundraiser, and working with community members who volunteer in her classroom.

Piland also traveled to Greenville to the NBPTS assessment center to sit for the written exams. She was given six prompts in the subject areas of math, science, social studies, literacy, physical education and health, and wrote a lesson plan for each of them. 

For Piland, the highlight of the process was videotaping her classroom at work.

“I’ve been teaching thirty years, and I still learned a lot about myself and my students from the experience,” she said.

Piland grew up in Southern Pines and is a graduate of Appalachian State University. She says she “never wanted to be anything but a teacher.” Her teaching career began at O.A. Peay Elementary School in Swan Quarter, NC, where she taught for fifteen years total (taking time off to raise a family). She also taught at Pungo Christian Academy before moving to Ocracoke. This is her 9th year at Ocracoke School.

Piland was first encouraged to seek Board Certification by Anita Ware, who worked with Ocracoke teachers on a reading excellence project in 2002, but it was another colleague who was the biggest influence. Susan Piland (no relation) came to Ocracoke as a Board Certified teacher and taught here for the 2004-2005 school year. During that time, she helped Piland get started on the Certification process. 

“We had the most fun!” Piland said. “She told me I could do it, and encouraged me to keep going.”

Four other teachers in Hyde County are Board Certified, including Paige Smith from Mattamuskeet School.

“Paige was very helpful to me,” Piland said, “And she used to be one of my students!”

Piland began the certification process thinking it would be easier to achieve than it turned out to be.

“After reading the NBPTS standards and the Five Core Propositions, I felt I was already doing those things, so the challenge was: could I prove it?” Piland said. (The Five Core Propositions are:  1. Teachers are committed to students and their learning 2. Teachers know the subjects they teach and how to teach those subjects to students 3. Teachers are responsible for managing and monitoring student learning 4. Teachers think systematically about their practice and learn from experience 5. Teachers are members of learning communities) 

“I thought there wasn’t much to it,” Piland said. “But it was actually hard work.”

Piland turned in her portfolios three times before her scores earned her Board Certification. Having to try a second and third time was discouraging, but not devastating; only four out of ten teachers can achieve it on the first try, so she was in good company. Her perseverance paid off, and Piland is now glad that Board Certification was such a challenge.

“If it had been easy,” she said, “I wouldn’t value it as much.”

Part of the reason Piland wanted Board Certification is that the State of North Carolina also values the achievement. Board Certification gives teachers an automatic 12% pay raise, paid for by the state.

“I was looking for a way to increase my salary,” Piland said. “The twelve percent was a big incentive.” 

Piland credits her husband, Jim, and the Ocracoke School staff for supporting her during the three years she worked toward her goal. She’d also like to thank fellow teacher Kay Riddick, videographer Clayton Gaskill, and the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching for their help. And she’d like to encourage other teachers to give it a try. 

Two more teachers at Ocracoke School are rising to the challenge. High school English teacher Charles Temple and English as a Second Language teacher Flavia Burton have both begun the Board Certification process. Temple recently attended an NCCAT seminar designed to introduce teachers to the National Board requirements.

“I’m glad I went,” he said. “Board Certification is not exactly what I thought it was, so I was glad to learn more about it. The process is definitely worthwhile.”

 Burton likes the idea of growing as a teacher. 

“National Board Certification is a wonderful way to strengthen one’s teaching with a challenge,” she said.

 Burton and Temple were both eager to hear the results of Piland’s work.

 “On Friday morning, when I checked my scores, Charles and Flavia were waiting outside the door to my room,” Piland said. “They came right in and joined the kids in celebrating the news.”

At lunchtime, Piland’s husband gave her a silver necklace with a pendant shaped like a helmet conch. “He didn’t know for sure if I’d achieved it, but he said I would need a present either way,” Piland said.

Ocracoke business teacher Kay Riddick praises Piland’s “great achievement.” “It was accomplished by a lot of hard work,” she said 

The new National Board Certified Teachers will be officially recognized on December 4, 2007. Piland will receive a Certificate and a nameplate to hang on her classroom door.

“I didn’t do it for the recognition,” she said. “I did it for the pay raise – and just to see if I could!” 

Note: Since this article was written, Ocracoke School teachers Charles Temple, Flavia Burton and Kitty Mitchell have achieved National Board Certification. 

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