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Getting Certified to Teach in Public School

career change gina plaitakis May 26, 2009

by Gina Plaitakis

photo by pexels

Most states offer an “alternate route” to teacher certification

A key step to getting certified to teach in public school is passing the Praxis exam.

For people like me who wish to become teachers in public schools but don’t have an education degree, there are programs called “alternate route.” The official definition on the New Jersey Department of Education website states, “The Alternate Route program is a non-traditional teacher preparation program designed for those individuals who have not completed a formal teacher preparation program at an accredited college or university, but wish to obtain the necessary training to become a NJ certified teacher.”

The first step is to find out what your degree would permit you to teach. Since I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, my specialty is art so I can become an Art Teacher, K-12. If you have a Bachelor of Science or a Bachelor of Arts, you would be eligible to become an Elementary School Teacher K-5. The middle schools and high schools have specialty teachers who teach a specific subject. The elementary schools have a general knowledge teacher who teaches basic knowledge in all subjects.

To become an Alternate Route Teacher, you need to get a Certificate of Eligibility (CE). To apply for this, it costs $190 in New Jersey. People used to apply right away and then take the necessary exams and if they didn’t pass, they would be refunded. However, now they have a new rule that if you don’t pass, you will still be charged $70 for processing your paperwork. Therefore, I decided not to apply for my CE until after I got my test results. The test I’m referring to is called the Praxis. There are many different Praxis exams; what type of teacher you will be determines which Praxis you will need to pass in order to start on the Alternate Route. The Praxis is a national exam which tests your knowledge and determines if you are eligible to become a teacher. There is the Praxis I which tests basic academic skills for people who want to be Elementary School Teachers, K-5. There are the Praxis II exams which test your knowledge in a specific subject such as music, art, calculus or French. Those are for people who want to teach a certain subject, K-12.

In New Jersey, you can find out more information about what your degree qualifies you for and which Praxis you will need to take by going to the state education website.

Since the Praxis is a national exam, it’s valid in all states. The only catch is that not all states require the same passing score. Some states require a higher passing score then others. In other words, if you pass the Praxis in New Jersey and are able to teach there, you may not automatically be eligible to teach in another state unless you meet that state’s passing score requirements as well.

Once you have determined which Praxis you will need to take, you can sign up for it at the Educational Testing Service. Some Praxis tests are offered online and some have to be taken as a paper test. The Praxis I took only comes as a paper test and is offered every three months. I signed up to take the Praxis last December and took it in March at a local university. When you sign up, I highly recommend giving yourself plenty of time to study. You also should purchase the study guide which you can buy online when you register. The study guide explains the way the test works, suggests ways to study as well as what to study, and has a sample exam. The study guide cost about $48 and the Praxis registration cost $130.

I had to take the Art Content Knowledge Praxis. It had 120 multiple choice questions. The sample exam had 70 questions. I took the sample test just to see how much I knew without studying. I realized that I had forgotten a lot. After all, this was stuff I had learned 20 years ago when I was in college. I knew that I would need to study hard to pass this test. I was glad that I had given myself three months. 

The way I studied was to learn not only the questions I got wrong on the sample exam, but to learn all the multiple choice answers as well. I simply Googled and Wikipedia’d everything. I created lots of study sheets for myself and organized all the info into categories such as Renaissance painting techniques, printmaking, architecture, ceramics, etc. There’s a website that helps you study and practice taking exams that was also very helpful. Another thing I did was to read my old college textbook, History of Art, from cover to cover. I had never read it when I was supposed to. In college, my art history classes were more like nap time. The classes were at the end of the day in a dark, comfy auditorium with cushy theatre seats and a teacher who spoke in monotone. The fact that I had spent all day working in a dark room smelling photographic chemicals did not help either. So it was a pleasant surprise that 20 years later I actually enjoyed reading it and learned a lot.

On the night before my exam, I tried to get a good night’s sleep since I needed to wake at 6 a.m. The report time was 7:30 a.m., and the test would take place from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. The only things we were allowed to bring were some #2 pencils, our admission ticket and a picture ID. Upon arrival, I found a long line of people already waiting to be admitted. I stood in line for about 15 minutes and chatted with the woman behind me. She was taking the English Literature Praxis to be an English teacher in middle school. She told me it was her third time taking the test! I almost choked. I knew there was no way I wanted to go through it all again. I had just spent three very intense months studying. I had put off all fun activities such as Book Club and Girls’ Nite Out so I could just focus on studying. I didn’t think I could work any harder then I already had. She said that repeating the test doesn’t make it easier because it’s a completely different test every time—none of the questions are the same.

At last we were admitted into the testing site which was a small auditorium like a movie theatre in a multiplex. Each seat had a tiny retractable desk. The lighting was awful because the lights were overhead and dim so I was casting a shadow across my desk. There were several proctors in the room with about 150 people taking various Praxis exams. The whole process reminded me of taking the SAT except we were in a college setting.

I can honestly say that it was a difficult test. I had no idea whether or not I passed. Some of the questions were really easy. Some questions were tricky and I could narrow it down to two possible answers and take an educated guess. Some of the questions were really difficult and I had no clue. For those, I put a little mark and came back to them after finishing the rest of the questions. The trick with the Praxis multiple choice is that there are usually only two possible answers and two that are throwaways.

Unfortunately, only a handful of the questions were similar to the ones in the sample test. However, all of the studying I did using the sample test was crucial. I suggest studying a variety of texts and trying to cover a wide range of information. I was surprised by how detailed some of the questions were—such as naming specific tools used in printmaking. Even a friend of mine who has a master’s degree in printmaking thought that the questions related to printmaking were challenging. Once I finished the exam, I went back to review the questions I left blank. Another trick with the Praxis is that you are not graded on how many answers you get wrong, only on how many you get right. So you shouldn’t leave anything blank. Even a wild guess has a 25% chance of being correct.

Once time was up, we handed in our booklets and answer sheets (you are not allowed to remove anything from the testing site or you will get disqualified). They write your name on all returned materials to be sure you return everything. After the test, I immediately remembered 16 questions which had puzzled me. When I got home, I looked up the answers and found that I had gotten eight right and eight wrong. I hoped it was a good sign. I had to wait one month for my score results. It was torture.

For my Praxis, the state of New Jersey requires a passing score of 150. I’m happy to report that I scored a 180 out of a possible 200. So now I have gone ahead and filed my application online for a Certificate of Eligibility with the N.J. Department of Education. I hear that Trenton is backed up by 5 months so I don’t expect to hear back until after the summer. In the meantime, I’m subbing and starting to apply for jobs with a note that my CE is in the process of being issued. Everyone in education knows that Trenton is backed up because there are so many people in the process of applying to become teachers. However, I don’t let this get me down because the word is that the United States is slated to lose close to 1 million teachers in the next five years. All the baby boomers are retiring; there will be a need for teachers. In my mind, the future looks bright.

For more information on the subject check out the free WhatsNext Teacher's Guide.


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