“Mix CD 4” A National Board Survivor’s
D uring the year that I worked toward National Board Certification, I had an
extraordinary group of students who loved having music on in the back-
ground as we worked. They would regularly bring in CDs for me to play during
class. I’d have to ask about the content of the CD. Within a short time, we had
a problem: what was appropriate to them was not always appropriate to me. The
simplest solution was for me to make mix CDs full of current and classic music—
appropriate and appealing for all of us. During that year I made at least six differ-
ent mix CDs. The following year I didn’t even think about what was on them since
I had burned them onto my hard drive and then hit “shuffle” so we wouldn’t hear
the same songs in the same order repeatedly. It wasn’t until this year that I finally
noticed something unique about them.
Two years after my NB experience I’m teaching in a new district. During one
of our writing workshop/music classes, a few of my students started to complain
about the CD playing in the background. It wasn’t the usual complaint that the
music isn’t up-to-date or not loud enough, but a simple complaint: “Can’t we play
something a little more upbeat?” Since I generally create mix CDs with the inten-
tion of generating a positive atmosphere, I was a bit surprised and told the stu-
dents that it’s just an anomaly; wait for the next song. No, no improvement. The
next one? Better, but still too serious. I took out the CD and looked at it. It was
then that I noticed that the song list was more serious than usual. I looked at the
title I gave the disc and it hit me: I numbered all of the mix CDs I made during my
NB year. This innocuous disc is “Mix CD 4,” made during the last month of my
National Board Certification experience. Looking through the song list, I saw that
it was an unintentional musical diary of that final grueling month.
I have one disclaimer before I begin an analysis and explanation of the song
list: I thoroughly appreciated and my NB experience. The journey alone was the
single best professional development experience I’ve ever had. No workshop, no
college class—nothing before or since—provided as much daily application of
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practical ideas I could use in my classroom. Perhaps I am protesting too much,
but I worry about the perception I’m creating about my NB experience through
an analysis of the final month. It feels like I’m about to show only the most chal-
lenging portion of an otherwise incredible experience. Before I begin my analysis,
let me clear about one thing: the one consolation I recognized even as I turned
in my portfolio at the post office was that regardless of the results of my scores, I
knew I was a better teacher than I had been at the start of the year just for having
undertaken this incredible journey.
Since each NB portfolio begins with a discussion of context, it’s only appro-
priate that I should set up the analysis with a bit of context, too. I collected the
songs and created the CD over a period of about three weeks in March 2006. At
that point: I was in the process of writing rough drafts for each of my four portfo-
lio entries. Two of the entries involve an analysis of videotape: one for small group
discussion and one for large group discussion. I was scanning about nine record-
ings for each portfolio, 18 total, desperately hoping that somewhere in those 18
recordings would be two 15-minute episodes that covered enough of the standards
that I could write a 13-page essay over them. The essays themselves were giving me
trouble as I was starting to stress out about page length (nothing over 13 pages
accepted!) and structure. I had already done away with indenting paragraphs and
was about to start deleting the extra space between sentences. It sounds silly, but I
knew it would give me an extra three or four lines on page 13. The English teacher
in me was already calling the writing voiceless and atrocious, but it seemed to sat-
isfy the requirements. I also had the six computer-based exams coming up. I was
scheduled to take those in late March based on the earlier thought that it would
be great to have all of it done by the end of that month. The exams would have
questions about preparing students who speak English as a second language. Not
having experience with those students, I was desperately searching the National
Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) online archives to look for useful strate-
gies. In the midst of all this, I still had my responsibilities as an 8th grade teacher
and we were approaching state assessment season. The pressure was on to hit not
just AYP, but also the state’s goals for Standard of Excellence. We needed to review,
needed to prepare, and above all else I had to put on a strong face of confidence.
It’s in this context that I collected the songs and created the CD.
“Mix CD 4,” created March 2006
1) “Paint It Black,” –the Rolling Stones
Despair followed by resolve. February hit and reminded me of how much I still
had to do to finish NB. One of the things that I am almost ashamed to admit to is
that one of my main motivators to finally finish NB was the fear of having to pay
back money I received from my state and my school district. Both were generous
in supporting and continuing to support candidates to cover $2500 in expenses.
Having done so much already, I didn’t want to do anymore; but, giving up would
be disgraceful and give my family a huge debt. Two lines from this song stand out.
The first is “Maybe then I’ll fade away and not have to face the facts.” Initially I
thought my inclusion of this song was about wanting to run away. Despair yes,
but then also anger. The song builds a pounding drumbeat crescendo in the end.
Rather than fading away, the beat remains and becomes stronger even as if it’s
resentful just for having to be there. The other line that stands out is “I have to
turn my head until my darkness goes.” That’s really why this song was included.
The darkness/despair is there, but the only way to deal with it is to stand firm and
wait it out. And so I did.
2) “Somewhere I Belong”—Linkin Park
Lost and searching. One of the tougher things about the NB process is that it has
clearly defined high standards that one must reflect on and show in one’s teaching
through the portfolios. I thought I was good, but the standards terrified me. The
whole process at times made me feel small and inadequate. Professionally, I didn’t
know who I was anymore. And there’s Linkin Park singing “I wanna heal, I wanna
feel, like I’m close to something real.” I just wanted to stop doubting myself and
feel competent again. In spite of the doubts echoed in the song, the song is also
encouraging and instructive as Chester Bennington sings, “I will never know my-
self until I do this on my own…” The song reminded me that I was learning about
myself and becoming a better teacher for my students through the NB process.
For now, just continuing would have to be enough.
3) “Under Pressure” – Queen and David Bowie
Reaching out to help from the past. The title here is clear-cut about its place on
the CD. More than anything else I likely included it for nostalgic reasons. This was
the song my friends and I used to play during finals week in college. It helped us
survive finals. The fond memories of it and friends helped me survive NB.
4) “How to Save a Life” – The Fray
5) “Heroes” – David Bowie
Plummeting confidence while putting on a strong front. The title asks how to save
a life, even as I was asking what have I done to my students? The NB experience
is not for the faint of heart. One moment I’d be feeling encouraged enough to
continue with full confidence; the next moment I’d feel like I shouldn’t be allowed
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to be in a classroom. In spite of the emotional roller coaster I was on, my students
still needed me at my best from the time they entered the building until the time
they left. I kept it together throughout the year, but there were times when I won-
dered if I had any right to be in front of a classroom. I was terrified of the damage I
might be doing to my students. We’ve all had the nightmare about being in a class
completely unprepared and without plans. The title and tone of the song bring all
those fears to life.
David Bowie’s song was my attempted response to all of those fears. The title
and looking at the lyrics on a page make the tone of the song seem very strong,
very inspirational. But then listen to the melody and how Bowie actually sings the
song. There’s no sincerity in his voice. He’s saying the right words, but the emo-
tions aren’t there to support him. It’s a song about longing to feel something that
the singer can’t feel, even though he has to express it. This is the way I felt in the
classroom and as I started to organize and compile the drafts of my NB portfolios.
While I was at least saying the right words and using the right academic slang, my
heart wasn’t in it yet.
6) “Land of Confusion” – Disturbed
Another fairly clear-cut inclusion. This was Disturbed’s cover of the classic Genesis
original. The last push in the NB process involves completing a lot of paperwork to
make sure the portfolios are processed correctly. NBPTS created each form with
a reasonable need to preserve the security and integrity of the process, but at the
time it felt like a bunch of bureaucratic nonsense. With the mounting paperwork
and the need to make sure each form was filled out and initialed precisely (along
with all of the labels that went here and here, but would disqualify my candidacy
if found there), I found myself in my own surreal world. Not coincidentally, I also
remember going through a Kafka reading frenzy during this time.
7) “I Stand Alone” – Godsmack
8) “So Cold” – Breaking Bengamin
Songs of the final push to get the portfolios written and package the materials.
“I Stand Alone” reflect a feeling of being alone and ready for battle. I was fortu-
nate to have an absolutely wonderful support group of colleagues, NB teachers,
friends, and family who kept me sane throughout the process. Despite this won-
derful foundation, the work was, in the end, mine and mine alone. By this point I
had worked through my doubts and was committed to seeing the process through
to the end. Godsmack’s heavy metal guitar riff and tough lyrics made me feel like a
warrior ready to win the ultimate battle. This was sometimes a must-play when I’d
start an NB session of writing.
“So Cold” was the song of the writing process. When I finally put my portfo-
lios together, I did it over Spring Break committing myself to being alone in my
classroom and staying each day until I was satisfied with something approaching
a final draft for each portfolio. It was a manic week of isolation, reflection, and
writing. The chorus of the song, repeated several times, reminds me of an ongoing
battle as we hear “Show me how it ends, it’s alright / Show me how defenseless
you really are / Satisfy an empty inside / That’s alright. Let’s give this another
try…” The song ends with a repetition of the phrase “It’s alright” even as the music
becomes louder and the guitar riffs heavier. Everything is going to be fine in the
end. Keep going. It was all that I needed to hear in that frantic week.
9) “My Hero” – Foo Fighters
The completion of the NB portfolios is a wonderful victory by itself. I half expect-
ed parades at the end of March. Against all doubts and in spite of all worries, I had
done it! Who cares about the scores? Well, I did of course but for the time being
it was enough just to have completed the process. By the end, whatever illusions
I had of being some master teacher were gone. I was just a man and considering
how low I had felt during the process, that was enough. Like the song says, I was a
hero just because I was “ordinary.” For me, the song was a celebration of returning
to some semblance of normalcy.
10) “Time After Time” – Cyndi Lauper
Feeling empty and reflective. I had spent eight months of my life pushing myself
to finish something that sometimes excelled the stress of my Master’s Thesis, yet I
was supposed to just dump it at the post office and try not to think about it while
I waited another seven months for my scores. For at least a couple of days I felt
like not feeling, not thinking, not having any dramatic realizations for awhile. As
a child of the 80s, I must have reached back and found one of the most comfort-
ing songs I know. Cyndi Lauper’s beautiful and reassuring song gives us all hope of
moving on and reconnecting with those we’ve lost—in my case those same won-
derful friends and family I felt I had had to isolate myself from to finally finish the
11) “You” – Radiohead
12) “Surrender” – Cheap Trick
13) “All These Things that I Have Done” – The Killers
My trilogy of guilt. A hard truth about the NB process: it’s doesn’t simply end on
March 31st when “the box” is shipped away. The climb up the mountain is criti-
cal, but the climb down is often just as tough. The emotion I found myself work-
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ing through most was guilt over having pushed away everyone—friends, family,
colleagues, even students—in the desperate attempt to complete the NB process.
Radiohead’s “You” felt like a pulsating indictment as Thom Yorke crooned, “But
I won’t share myself with you.” Likewise Cheap Trick sang out, “Surrender, sur-
render, but don’t give yourself away…” I knew I had to surrender my doubts and
fears, but I worried I had given some part of myself away to the NB process. Both
songs reflect my fears that I had done irreparable damage to relationships during
my quest to finish the process. Finally, the Killers’ “All These Things that I Have
Done” was the apology that my support group would have said was unnecessary,
but an apology I had to sing out nonetheless.
14) “I Feel Free” – Cream
Again that emotional roller coaster kept moving. Even as I worried about my
friends, I couldn’t help but also feel alive and free for the first time in eight months.
I remember blasting this on the way home from the post office. In that brief mo-
ment I stopped worrying about people and I stopped second-guessing all of the
things I should have added or taken out of the portfolios. I gave myself over to
extreme joy. I was done!!!
15) “Don’t You Forget About Me” – Simple Minds
Please be good to my work. Even in my joy at having finally completed the NB
process, there was still a bit of ego desperately calling out to the judges and say-
ing, in spite of the thousands of portfolios to be received this year, please let mine
stand out and shine. Again, as a child of the 80s, what better song to embody this
than to reach back to the Me Decade and find this gem from The Breakfast Club
16) “99 Red Balloons” – Nena
Celebration and apocalypse. No matter how hard one tries, it’s impossible not to
start worrying about scores and results even though they won’t appear for roughly
seven months after “the box” is shipped. I was thrilled to be done. It was a sweet
and wonderful thing like the release of balloons into the sky. Even so, like the song,
I worried that apocalyptic doom was on the horizon. Thoughts of not succeeding
were devastating and I worked hard to shut them away for the time being.
17) “Float On” – Modest Mouse
Come what may, we’ll endure and life will continue—that’s the simple message of
Modest Mouse’s 2004 hit. Seven months of waiting for NB results is ridiculously
tough without some sort of coping mechanism. “Float On” was mine. When I
became too worried, I’d play this and find a lot of reassurance in its message. I even
started to use it to slowly help myself get used to the idea that I might not have
It eventually became easier to think I likely didn’t succeed. Hope was too
much torture to endure.
18) “Bittersweet Symphony” – The Verve
This song’s inclusion may have actually been a prediction of how I’d feel seeing my
results: definitely bittersweet. NB results are typically posted online the Friday be-
fore Thanksgiving, yet the 2006 scores were delayed until mid-December. No one
knew when scores would be posted. My group’s scores were posted early, Friday,
November 9, 2007.
I received word that scores were online in an e-mail from a close friend and
mentor and National Board Certified Teacher herself. She asked if I had checked.
I hadn’t even known until her e-mail that they were posted. My first response was
to mentally scan the rest of my day to check for the soonest and most appropriate
time. Though I wanted to check immediately, I considered the potential reaction
I might have in front of students if the results were negative. Surprise, surprise, I
realized—hope was still there waiting in the wings. I put off checking my scores
until my students were at lunch three hours later. I’d miss lunch, but that was fine
since by that point I had been fighting nausea all morning.
It takes extreme courage to key in the information and prepare to accept the
results, positive or negative. Even for English teachers, it is impossible to describe
the sensation of keying in one’s identification, hitting “enter,” and then seeing
those magical words “Congratulations! You’re a National Board Certified Teach-
er!” Like so many others before me (I learned later on), I repeated this action not
once or twice but dozens of times per day for the next week just to see that result
and be reassured that it was still there. No one had made a mistake. I had earned
my certification. I may not have hit the same thrill as that first time, but the thrill
each successive time was only a little less. More than a year later, it’s still a great ego
boost on rough days.
Despite the immeasurable joy, within days it was bittersweet. I knew several
others who had gone through the process my same year. A few of them didn’t
make it. A form of survivor’s guilt surfaced as I wondered whether I deserved to
have succeeded when others did not. Had they worked harder than I did? Were
they not more deserving? Yes, even in one of my life’s greatest joys, I had found
reasons to doubt and question my achievement. However, if the NB process had
taught me nothing else, it was how to accept those doubts and move on stronger
One year after earning certification, I am somewhat ambivalent about my NB
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experience. I don’t doubt that it was worthwhile. I know I am a better teacher
for my students thanks to the NB process. I recommend it to any teacher who
seeks practical, immediate, and worthwhile professional growth. But be careful.
The process is intrinsically reflective and may show us things about ourselves we’d
rather not know. I wasn’t sure what some of those things were myself until I dis-
covered my musical diary. One year after earning certification, analyzing this CD
has now become an epilogue to my own NB experience.
As for the CD itself, I’m not throwing it away in spite of the emotional con-
notations it has for me. “Mix CD 4” was my catharsis. I couldn’t let that emotional
roller coaster show, often even to myself on the surface, because I had to maintain
a professional composure throughout the process. It’s just the nature of teaching as
we follow our own advice to students: put away the drama and focus in class from
the first bell to the last bell. But in that CD, the chords and rhythms and lyrics
sang out every feeling that I couldn’t during that challenging time.
John Ritchie, Washburn Rural High School, email@example.com