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.

78 thoughts on “Why Is It So Hard to Become a Teacher?

  1. 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.

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  2. 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. 🙂

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  3. 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?
    Thanx!!

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  4. 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.

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  5. 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

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  6. 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.

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  7. 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.

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  8. 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???

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  9. 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!

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  10. 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..

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  11. 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.

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  12. 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.

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  13. 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.

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  14. 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.

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  15. 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.

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  16. 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.

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  17. 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.

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  18. 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.

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  19. 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.

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  20. 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.

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  21. 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?

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  22. Watch out for Pearson inc lobbyist and its for profit education politics behind the scene. Pearson conduct standardized test contract nation wide via monopoly.

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  23. Hi,

    I am currently in my 6th year as a substitute teacher and enjoy being in a classroom, but I will most likely not pursue a career as a regular teacher because of the credential program’s high expense and inconvenience. I work everyday as a highschool substitute. It has been a really good experience as a substitute as it is not difficult to become a substitute and you can get some great insights to the teaching profession. Many teachers regularly encourage me to pursue teaching as they request me as their substiute teacher. I am impressed by many teachers I have met over the years who have completed the (often rediculous) requirements to teach.

    I agree with so many experiences/insights of this website. The CSETs, Credential Program, Masters (often required to get into many school), and student teaching. Then, 50% of teachers quit before they complete 5 years of teaching! It is ironic that a profession that is so unpaid costs so much

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  24. I am an LAUSD sub going on for 18 years who loves subbing and teaching children. I have been fortunate to be able to get by on my diminishing salary as of late. Recently, I have been barely able to live paycheck to paycheck. The district has made it impossible to take long term assignments since I only have a 30 day credential. Every year as they place pool teachers in the sub pool I get called upon less by the subfinder system. My life is controlled by a machine ironically. I do get requested, however all the good teachers I know don’t take too many days off.

    Now I am considering getting a full teaching credential due to lack of income this year. I took a couple of practice tests for rica and cset online and failed. I feel discouraged and now dumb. I am not a strong test taker but more of a doer.
    I have worked in all grades from prekindergarten to 6th grade and consider myself highly qualified. I have taught in high and low income areas with kids from all walks of life.

    With 18 years of experience teaching I can absolutely tell you that these tests do not help actual teachers in the classroom or to feel prepared being a teacher. Being a strong teacher means innovation in the classroom and making multiple daily decisions about lessons and how best to help your students.

    I’m concerned about my income and it only seems to get worse.
    I question whether or not I want to pay for these high costing tests and retests. Shouldn’t my experience count for anything? I have been given high marks in formal reviews by principals. If I didn’t have to take these frightening tests I’d be happier accepting a full time position now 18 years later. It would beat leaving the job I love because I can’t live off of subbing anymore. As it is I live at home with my parents. Maybe sadly it is time to look for another job. It would be better if the credentialing process were easier.

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  25. I have been a special education technician for 15 years. I finally decided to go for my special ed credential which requires the CBEST and the CSET multiple subject subtests 1-3. The test covers subject matter that I will NEVER teach! I passed the CBEST. I passed the CSET Subtest l. I waited until today for the results to the Subtest ll. Let me point out, there is NO primary book or source from which to study! That’s right! The CA website only has a small study guide for each test of which almost NONE of the questions have been on the test! You have to search for secondary sources like Cliffsnotes CSET (which I used) or Princeton Review (which I used for the CBEST). On the CSET Subtest ll, I only recognized about 40% of the info on the exam but managed to pass the multiple-choice portion but FAILED the constructive response section. I scored 1 out 4 on that section–scoring a total of 215/220. I got these results tonight. I have since decided f*ck it! I’m done!! I’m going for my MBA!! I’m 45, and I don’t have the time or patience left for this lunacy! There is a shortage of special education teachers, and there is a need for male teachers. I just graduated with my bachelors Summa Cum Laude. I’m just going to go back to the corporate world and do my time until retirement. I hope that CA wakes up to this bullsh*t; otherwise, they are going to have a real crisis on their hands. I am not the only one to say, “It’s not worth the headache, especially with my school district always having budget problems and having to layoff teachers.

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  26. On this Independence Day I am declaring it for my thoughts, my time, my health and my well being.
    I am 60(yes 60!) I work as a classified employee. I have been doing it successfully for a while. I get offered to be in a grant program. I am accepted! Yay for me because I am so amazing for my age and all. Since last December I have been jumping through hoops to get into a credential program and pass those verschlugen CSETs I passed 2 out of 3. Waiting on results from math-science for second time. Now I don’t care anymore. I was ready to draw cells and cell division and photosynthesis and do quadratics! Test was dumbed down by in a way that I needed to have studied 7th grade ecology. Everything was about global warming and there was little algebra which I studied. Anyway what broke me was my summer school of 2 prerequisites so I can finally apply for credential. 20 pounds of shit ina 5 pound bag! I am going to die from acronyms and new speak! And observations in classrooms required in the summer! Most summer school is online now. NOW I feel broken and old! How old will I be if and when I get a teaching position? Nope I’m not that awesome, besides I already work in a classroom with kids and get to teach from time to time. I even have benefits. Also I am a native Californian that loathes most aspects of this state now. In my feeble 20th century brain, I thought Since I have a BA, I would just go to college, take a few paid for classes and be on my way. Nope. It is all a heavy Orwellian AND Kafkaesque ordeal. If I go all the way I will be rewarded with an ever more demanding job in special ed. I’m out.

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  27. Oh my gosh, this hit home, in many ways. I have never been a TV writer though, or had a meaningful career, that paid the bills. I met me husband while I was in college, and became a mom. It took me over 11 years to obtain a Bachelors degree in Elementary Education. I graduated at the height of pink slips, in 2010. I was supposed to head on into a credential program at that point. I had a five year old, recession in full swing. That was not to be. Two years later I took some preschool education classes, so I could work in a Pre-k. I found that was not what I wanted to do. I set out to become a teacher. Well, its 2019, and I for some reason though I could finish this credential, now after so many years. None of my instructors will recommend me. I got some C’s in the last year of my bachelors, and even thought my cumulative gpa is over 3.25, the C’s mean I would have to repeat classes. I took Cset, Cbest, TB test, fingerprint scanned, but those two items disqualify me from applying. I just want to quit. Here I am wanting to be a teacher, and I am questioning that want. Looks like I wasted my life. Been crying my eyes out for hours now. I’m a failure,a nd have no business trying to be a teacher, how stupid am I? I just thought you pick up where you left off in education, like when your reading a book.

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  28. Yes indeed, I feel your pain. I have an out of state certification and when I moved to Cali, I have so many things to do in order to keep my teaching credentials. I have extreme test anxiety which is keeping me from passing the CBEST. I asked the credential department if they would accept my CBASE scores which are identical to the CBEST and they told me “NO”. Now, I am worried about losing my credentials. I’ve taught in the urban core for 8 years prior to moving here and now teaching in a rural community. for 3, but still cannot pass the CBEST. I’ve taken the test at least 6 times and starting to doubt myself. Oh and I’m tired of losing money as these tests are not cheap. My husband tells me, I need to find a new career path, but I’ve invested so much already in this field not to mention almost losing my life in GRAD school. I just need a miracle to happen so I can continue doing what I love. Not everyone is a test taker and some learn differently than others…at least that’s what we tell our students.

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