So you want to teach . . .

Ellie Herman, a professional writer for 20 years, set out to become a high school English teacher in Los Angeles. It’s not easy, she found. Her years of experience were irrelevant. So was her Bryn Mawr English degree. After passing the CBEST, a test of basic reading, writing and math skills, she was told she needed to prove “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 Ph.D.s to answer them. What is a modal verb? What’s an embedded appositional phrase? A grapheme?

She passed. Then she was hired as an intern by a charter school.

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. . . . 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? What is being tested here? My patriotism? My sanity? My level of desperation? What’s next … eating centipedes?

These aren’t high standards, she argues. They are “just a high pile of standards.”

Via Edspresso.

About Joanne


  1. Becoming a teacher in California is like the German Army trying to breach the defenses of Moscow in the winter of 1941. When you get past the dragon’s teeth, the tank traps and the bunkers, you’re only half-way there. It’s a great way to keep potentially good teachers out of the profession.

  2. I thought there were a lot of hoops 20 years ago. This all sounds ridiculous, and California says it needs more teachers? It’s gonna be a tough sell.

  3. ucladavid says:

    The writer didn’t even mention half of it. Once you get your credential, you need to do BTSA (in California) to clear your credential. It is mainly a bunch of BS you have to do. You take boring classes of stuff you already learned while getting your first credential like what is an IEP or how to use technology in the classroom. It is a lot of paperwork and very time-consuming. Many of the things for ita good teacher does anyways like reflecting on lessons or figuring out which students are gifted/ESL/special ed.

    The good thing is that you are paired with a mentor teacher, which can really help a new teacher. The problem is that many times you may not be paired up until December (like me). Another problem is that your mentor teacher may not be great and give you little to no help.

  4. I’ve been a full time teacher/tutor for five years and resisted ed school ferociously until this year. After a lot of thought, I decided that the best thing to do was to spend a year getting my Masters with credential, rather than an alternative path that was hit or miss. I am currently attending Stanford and student teaching at a local high school. Surviving Stanford–here’s my blog on ed school so far.

    Why the beef about the testing requirements? Those are the only ones that make any sense. The CBEST is a joke. The CSETs cover a reasonable facsimile of a high school curriculum. I’ve currently passed the Math and Social Science CSETs and will be taking the English ones (my best subject) Real Soon Now, which will allow me to teach all three subjects in high school. If Herman didn’t have the specific group of courses needed in her English degree, then all she had to do was pass a test. No big deal.

    If it were up to me, teachers would have to pass the CSET in their field(s) and a criminal check. If it were that simple, though, there’d be too many political considerations, as is always the case when testing enters the picture.

  5. Andy Freeman says:

    What is the justification for such tests? Is performance on them correlated with increased (or at least adequate) student achievement? If so, why can’t we use the methods used to determine which tests correlate with increased student achievement to measure teacher performance?

  6. Being a professional writer is not adequate preparation for teaching high school English. Sorry. I started out as a professional editor — came in handy for knowing grammar and usage, but it didn’t do much to teach me how to prep a novel and scaffold skills or adapt a lesson plan for a kid with LD in written expression. She has years of experience as a writer, not as a teacher.

    To be honest, the California hoops look kinda pesky, but not difficult. Appositives, modals, and graphemes are not esoteric or Orwellian. Pretty basic stuff, actually. When I went back for my credential, I think I was missing some course work in Am Lit and expository writing, too. They turned out to be pretty useful classes since it had been so long since I’d read the basic Am Lit canon. The writing class was also a good update for my MLA research skills, which hadn’t seen the light of day for a fur piece since feature and technical writing (what I’d been doing) don’t require internal citations. (Other classes, mind you, not so much. And, yes, I had to do the whole U.S. Gov’t. thing, too.)

    I’m all for streamlining the credentialing process in favor of time in the classroom under an experienced teacher, but basic knowledge is basic subject matter knowledge. If she can’t identify an appositive, she ain’t got it.

  7. In 1987, right after we married, my husband and I moved from Texas to Sacramento for his first duty station in the Air Force. I had just graduated from Baylor University with a degree in Secondary Education, certified to teach both Math and Spanish. I thought getting a teaching job in California would be a piece of cake. Boy, was I wrong! Since I didn’t have a math degree, I not only had to take the state test, they wanted me to go back to school and take more math courses before they would give me a teaching position!

    I decided instead to go to work for Sylvan Learning Center, then became pregnant with our first child, so in our years in California I never became certified to teach there.

    We moved back to Texas where I have now been teaching for 18 years, and I now also work as a consultant for the College Board presenting workshops to other teachers. The state of California could have had me working in their classrooms as well, but the red tape kept me (and has probably kept many others) from pursuing state certification. Most state certifications transfer from state to state, but not in California. Their loss….

  8. John Thacker says:

    A modal verb is an auxiliary verb like “can,” “could,” “should,” “would,” “may,” and “might” that indicates the mood (not tense) of the following verb.

    I know what they are so that I can describe the double modal construction common in my native Southern American dialect. (“You might should do that,” etc.)

  9. There are so many people who have the drive to teach but are turned off by the red tape. I worked in the New York City School system while pursuing my MSED and learned quickly that I had to use a more practical approach. I could not rely on the required test to get me through the school year. I had to be proactive in looking at other avenues to immerse my students in learning. Although I did pass my tests and enjoyed teaching, I left to train adults how to work with students in urban schools.