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.

58 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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