Why Is It So Hard to Become a Teacher?

Here’s a great opinion piece by Ellie Herman, a television writer of 20 years who is trying to become an English teacher at an L.A. public high school.

Testing my patience
California needs teachers, so why is it so hard to get a credential?
By Ellie Herman

After nearly 20 years of working as a television writer, I made a radical life decision: to teach English at an L.A. public high school. I felt it was time for me to make a difference, to share my passion for language and literature with the next generation. Sure, I knew that the pay would be abysmal and that the teaching conditions in gang-infested, impoverished communities might be tough. But I really wanted to try, so I braced myself to keep going even if there were times of struggle, of heartbreak, of feeling inadequate and humiliated, even if there were times when I wanted to weep from frustration, even if I sweated through dark nights of the soul overwhelmed by the futility of it all.

And indeed, I have experienced all that. But what’s crazy is that I haven’t even set foot in a classroom yet.

By state law, I cannot teach in a California public school without a credential from the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing. On the face of it, this requirement makes sense. Schools can’t go around hiring any slob who professes a love of children and a burning desire to make $39,788 a year (the LAUSD starting pay scale for interns).

But just applying to a teaching-credential program has taken me months of pointless, numbing, bewildering toil. I’ve submitted stacks of applications, online and on paper, along with college transcripts and letters of recommendation. I’ve written a five-page letter of “self-reflection,” completed 45 hours of early field experience, endured a TB test and had my fingerprints taken to prove that I’m not a convicted felon. And that was just to start the actual work: proving I am “highly qualified.”

As mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act and interpreted by the Legislature, all teachers in public schools must be deemed “highly qualified.” Again, fair enough. One of the notorious disgraces of our public school system is the way the best teachers are funneled into schools serving high-income students, while children from low-income families are often stuck with far less-qualified teachers.

I have a bachelor of arts degree in English from Bryn Mawr and have spent my entire adult life as a working writer — and all I want is to sign up to take the education classes I need before I walk into a classroom. Won’t my degree and my life’s work qualify me at least to sign up for those classes? Not even close. First, I had to take the CBEST, a four-hour exam on reading, writing and math.

After taking the CBEST, I still had not proved “subject matter competence.” For that, I would have to fill the apparent gaps in my transcript with five courses in linguistics, expository writing, adolescent literature and American literature — or pass something called the CSET, an Orwellian, five-hour sequence of four exams with some questions so obscure I would defy most PhDs to answer them. What is a modal verb? What’s an embedded appositional phrase? A grapheme? Can you pick the meaning of a poem from a list of answers a, b, c and d, none of which in any way capture the ineffable beauty of the poem itself?

By studying for weeks, I managed to pass the CSET. And by a miracle, I found a job teaching at a charter school in South L.A. as an emergency hire, or intern, through a program that gives a temporary credential to teachers willing to work in schools that would otherwise be hard to staff, while taking education classes at night.

To enroll in the intern program, I had to fill out more applications and then complete 40 hours of pre-service training in teaching English language learners, a course that in theory would have been very useful but in fact only entailed reading a stack of paperwork and writing essays I suspected would be stuck in my file unread. I also had to summarize what I’d learned in a page of sentences that began with “I used to think,” and ended with “but now I know … .” Whatever the actual purpose of this exercise, writing about my former state of ignorance felt deeply sinister, like some kind of forced confession by a totalitarian state.

And I had to pass an 80-question, unbelievably arcane and ambiguously worded test on the U.S. Constitution. I have wracked my highly qualified brain, and I cannot imagine any possible rationale for this test. Because if I hadn’t memorized the Bill of Rights I might march into the classroom and try my students twice for the same crime? Or force them to quarter soldiers in their homes? What is being tested here? My patriotism? My sanity? My level of desperation? What’s next … eating centipedes?

Remember: This is not to finish my teacher education. This is to be allowed to enroll in it.

Meanwhile, a new study shows that 33% of California high school students drop out before graduating; Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has speculated that in particularly underserved Los Angeles communities, the dropout rate might be as high as 70%.

I understand the idea of “standards-based” education. I embrace the need to hold teachers in low-income schools to the same standards as teachers who work with more privileged children.

But the standards to which I’m being held here are not high standards; they are just a high pile of standards, a mountain of detritus generated by various acts of legislation whenever new statistics come out showing that California schools are failing, that teachers are fleeing the state, that high school students can barely read. In a system so broken, a system that already deters most applicants with its near-poverty-level wages and difficult working conditions, why are they trying so hard to weed out anyone who, in spite of everything, still wants to come in and change a child’s life?

Ellie Herman has been a television writer since 1989. This fall, she will be an intern teacher at a charter school in South L.A.

71 Comments on “Why Is It So Hard to Become a Teacher?”

  1. Karen says:

    Do the CSETS REALLY measure a persons knowledge? NO!! My daughter has passed 2 of the 3 agriculture tests…mostly because she grew up on a farm and was in 4H and FFA…and all of the “test prep” info she found did not help. She has taken the subtest 1, 3 times…it asks questions that seem to be outdated. Does anyone know how many different tests there are within each category? And if at each “window block” if the tests are the same. Trying to figure how to get her a passing score. Then she can go into an intern program. She has a BS in AG science…and is MORE than qualified to teach AG.

    August 21st, 2015 at 10:53 am
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  2. laura says:

    I have been in social services for 15 years and have always had a desire to be a teacher. I recently started looking to get my credential and I am overwhelmed!! I am so scared to take this CSET. I have bought the study guides but I am scared. Helped to read your words. Thank you. Any words of wisdom are welcomed. :)

    October 1st, 2015 at 9:37 am
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  3. Winnie says:

    Oh my goodness! Amazing article dude! Thank you so much, However I am having troubles with your RSS.

    I don’t understand why I can’t subscribe to it. Is there anybody having identical RSS issues?
    Anyone that knows the solution will you kindly respond?

    October 17th, 2015 at 4:37 pm
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  4. IG says:

    I just found this blog! Thank you so much for the encouragement. By encouragement this is what I mean. I am becoming a teacher and I am already in financial debt! I have had to take the CBEST, pay for prep classes for the CSET, and now retake it again after not having enough time to finish it. Yes, I did separate the test to have more time for those of you that are wondering. I have been working with children for 14 years now and have taught many struggling students to read and write. This includes language learners as well. I don’t want to give up but financially can not afford to keep paying for test and the program as well! Help with any words of wisdom please.

    January 20th, 2016 at 6:12 pm
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  5. Anonymous says:

    I have not b passed Praxis 2 I scored,151 need 157, I have paid 5 times to take it. I have had 3.5 and higher GPA in college.This c is,crazy, I ve purchased study books paid Tutor I really feel like this,test foes not determine how,well you teach. The scenerios are graded by other educators that refuse to give me points based on how I would teach in my classroom based on the individual teachers way she feels,she will be most effective to the students in the vkassroom. I have to keep myself encouraged bc I know I am intelligent and bright enough to be a teacher. I worked hard to earn my degree to teach and it’s sad a standardrized test determines so many teachers oppurtunity to recieve certification. This,came in effect with the NCLB abd needs to go away with it also.Praxis test need to be done away with.There would be more devoted effective teacher if these test were not a requirment.
    Thanks for whom ever is listening and supporting

    January 28th, 2016 at 11:04 pm
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  6. Anonymous says:

    Sorry for mispelling classroom and few more words these phone are smarter than us now and sensitive keys again thanks for listening.I won’t give up.

    January 28th, 2016 at 11:09 pm
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  7. Eli says:

    Everybody is getting it wrong. It is hard for highly educated people to become a teacher in L.A. and other districts because they have an inside program whereas they ‘train’ minorities with high schoo for 11 monthl to become teachers with full credential and full salaries (those salaries are; appr 70,000 base, 25,000 (other?? pay) and 20,000 benefits in total about 125000. The reason they complain they have no teachers is so that they can keep getting funds to keep churning out these high schoolers with full teaching credentials on taxpayers money while racially discriminating against you. . This programs is paid and LAUDS brags online that it has trained 10,000 high schoolers in such a program. In advertising it is mentioned that if the trainee has some college or is at least enrolled in some college courses, he gets more pay. I don’;t know where this pay is but every teacher in LA has 25,000 of other pay besides basic salary and benefits. Basically higher education is weeded out of the districts by conspiracy. It is not worth doing substitute because they only let you teach one subject now and in only one range of K12 so you will be crossing LA for some 17 dollars a day. You cannot teach an entire day now. I don’t mind that universities reach out and give minorities some slack etc.but I hated being made a fool of, while trying to get some sub job in California and be basically bullied by the staff. So while we paid our way through our B.A. degrees and borrowed money and paid it off and did low paid menial jobs around our courses (and paid taxes on those jobs) you are racially discriminated – this is a clear case of racial discrimination both systemic and individual and there should be a class action suit.

    February 26th, 2016 at 6:19 pm
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  8. Ana says:

    I agree. I was thinking the same thing. I didn’t realize how hard it is to become a teacher for someone who has a bachelors degree and has worked in the professional field. It is so much easier to become a teacher if you are a high school graduate who is going to college to get their teaching credentials than someone who already has their degree. For example I have my masters degree in biology and I am not qualified enough to teach high school biology? The problem with the education system is that they say students are not performing well in science because teacher sometimes lack knowledge about the subject matter, whereas someone whose expertise is that subject is not qualified enough!? There is something terribly wrong with that. How are schools ever going to recruit science and math teachers who are not only knowledgeable in their field but are dedicated in making a difference if the system is set up to make it so hard for us to become teachers???

    May 15th, 2016 at 4:22 am
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  9. Andrea says:

    Amen, Sister! I found this article while searching “Will the CSET Go Away?”. I do feel like a rat in a cage in some sterile, scientific lab rather than a human wanting to be of service to the youth of today. Great article, keep truckin!

    June 2nd, 2016 at 1:29 pm
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  10. bmj says:

    I agree and it’s not just California. Rather I believe this is all part of the NEA “closed shop” mentality to keep professionals out of the teaching profession. I too have BS and MS in physics as well as 30 years as a practicing physicist, yet am unable to get in the door for education. Why? Because I have a real degree rather than an education degree.

    After trying to get in and working with teachers in various ways, I am convinced the NEA and education establishment is out to protect the status quo by making it so difficult for professionals to transfer over that they limit the competition..

    June 19th, 2016 at 10:32 am
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  11. Maryann Walsh says:

    Thank you! I wish someone in Sacramento Dept of Ed would read this! I have taught in New Jersey and Nevada. Yet, here in California, I have to jump through hoops to earn a credential. If California was number one in education, perhaps these many requirements to becoming a teacher would be acceptable. However, I have been a teacher in two other states and am having a challenging experience to earn credential here.

    June 30th, 2016 at 1:44 am
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  12. Maryann Walsh says:

    Thank you! I wish someone in Sacramento Dept of Ed would read this! I have taught in New Jersey and Nevada. Yet, here in California, I have to jump through hoops to earn a credential. If California was number one in education, perhaps all these requirements, would be acceptable. So for now, I am having a challenging experience earning a credential here.

    June 30th, 2016 at 1:48 am
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  13. Donna says:

    I just got home from taking another test. The RICA is 4.25 hour exam designed to test my Reading Instruction Competency. After I had passed the CBEST, CSET, 4 prerequisites, 5 credential courses, and completed and passed two of the 4 TPAs, I still had to prove that I can teach reading.

    I am so perplexed at the mountains of requirements that seem so incredibly repetitious. I want to be a teacher, I want to be the best that can be, but seriously, all of this????

    My head is spinning. I am burned out. And, I haven’t even entered the classroom yet.

    California is a case study in red tape and lots of rules and laws.

    July 5th, 2016 at 5:55 pm
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  14. Jane says:

    I am sitting here trying to console my daughter. She is a special education teacher who has now lost her job, a job she loves, at a school she loves, because of the RICA. She has now taken this stupid test 7 times and no one will tell her why she can’t pass it. It costs close to $200 each time she takes it in addition to the study guides and preps she’s purchased. It is ridiculous the hoops California asks it’s teachers to jump through. Then they don’t pay them for crap.

    July 27th, 2016 at 9:55 pm
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  15. rhill says:

    I don’t know if I even want to be a teacher anymore. I finished my courses for the Master’s Degree in multiple subjects, That was the easy part. I passed the CBEST and can substitute teach (but can’t buy a house because they can’t ‘prove’ my income) and passed 2 of the 3 tests on the CSET and have taken one of the sub sets twice. I still have 2 more TPA’s to do, student teaching, (that I cannot do until I pass the CSET ($99 for each sub set). I’ so frustrated to be not making enough money, then I learn I won’t be making too much when I actually become a teacher. geez.

    August 8th, 2016 at 7:31 pm
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  16. Kenya Nelson says:

    It’s also like this in Michigan. I am preparing for it and seem to have more pre-requisites than actual classes need to get the damn certification. And I have a BA in English and experience. Sometimes, I feel like why the heck I am even doing this when I don’t have the money. I feel like what’s the point. Right now, I feel like taking my BA and my TEFL back overseas to another country to teach again.

    August 25th, 2016 at 11:12 am
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  17. Sarah says:

    So glad it’s not just me. My passion is to teach students of all ages in music (ages 4 to 94). When I got a taste of classroom teaching it became my goal to start in the classroom and hopefully, one day, teach during the day at the schools and by night in the junior colleges.

    Because I heard about the tests I have to take through the AZ Dept of Education, I thought “Hey, they’ll have what I need to get started”. Wow. No where does it mention needing to take ESL or other classes that I didn’t get as a performance major. No where does it mention the required observation/student teaching hours. Not even my Music Education friends even knew what the state standards were for when they were going to school.

    Finally, when I asked Google why teaching certification processes are so confusing I found a few other blogs along with this. It’s funny that there are so many standards on what students are expected to know, but professionals are running into dead ends when attempting to start their teaching careers.

    ~Hoping to make a difference…someday.

    September 12th, 2016 at 10:43 pm
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  18. I. M. Freeman says:

    The irony is the staggering number of certified teachers who violate the public trust and have inappropriate relationships with students (i.e. James Hooker, Enochs High School in Modesto, Alexandria Vera, Stovall Middle School in Houston , TX; the list goes on and on). One Washington Post article reported that, in 2014 alone, there were 781 reported cases. Terry Abbott, former chief of staff at the U.S. Dept. of Education referred to the problem of teachers having sex with their students as a “crisis.” Ellie Herman’s personal experience should be front page news. The inability or unwillingness of education leaders to re-examine the certification process is a travesty with harmful consequences.

    September 25th, 2016 at 6:48 pm
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  19. Tara says:

    Ellie Herman, you are my HERO, thank you for writing this wherever you are.

    These damned tests are going to be the end of me. I took another section of the three part drama better known as the CSET today. I’m just becoming so bitter. There isn’t even any information on the damn test on pedagogy. WTF? This test ignores the fact that we’ve all been to college and mandates we recall information we learned years ago as if we were going to teach without a lesson plan. I mean, what the hell is the point of memorizing half of this crap? To what ends?

    All this testing does is puts money into the Pearson Test Co. pockets. The obscene costs continue keeping well intentioned and enthusiastic future educators from getting their foot. It’s very classist in a way, discriminating against individuals who simply don’t have the luxury of taking the test more than once due to economic reasons.

    I hate you Pearson, and get your act together already California, for our youth’s sake.

    September 29th, 2016 at 8:08 pm
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  20. Anonymous says:

    As a Marine and a former owner of a million plus dollar business along with a spectacular resume who wants to lead children into the future, I cannot believe the resistance towards me by those who are half of my age that run these public schools.

    October 7th, 2016 at 9:52 pm
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  21. Anonymous says:

    I too am amazed by the school districts. I’m wanting tho get in at lausd but am shy on the gpa but I have passed cbest/rica/cset already. Do i even stand a chance? Maybe I should try another district?

    October 10th, 2016 at 10:19 am
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