“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Years after Nelson Mandela made his now famous statement, we find that responsibility for instilling this education now rests largely on the public-school system, and more specifically on the classroom teacher. With such responsibility, it is reasonable to expect that an educator’s knowledge of his subject area would be tested and evaluated.
Content certification exams are mandated in every state. Your bachelor’s or master’s degree is a commendable accomplishment, but it won’t get you a stable teaching job in America’s public-school system. You must pass the required certification exams that are designed to guarantee that teachers have a broad and deep mastery of their subject area.
While most educators are willing to accept that some form of assessment of a teacher’s knowledge of the content area is a rational requirement, preparing for and taking a high-stakes test is a stress-inducing, time-consuming undertaking. After all, a teacher may have completed a thesis last month, but not diagrammed a sentence in ten years. She may be an expert in Asian negotiations but have forgotten the nuances of the Northwest Ordinance. How do you get control of all the knowledge and skills you need to pass?
If a content area certification exam is in your future, you can follow targeted strategies that will have you prepared on test day.
Four Ways to Prepare
- Research the requirements. About six months before you expect to take a certification exam, schedule a two-hour block of uninterrupted time to visit your state’s education department website and read up on the specifics of certification tests. If you studied in one state and plan to teach in another, check requirements of both states as well as the possibility of reciprocal certification. Make sure you know which tests are required. Read and process all the test objectives.
- Review your course work. Much of a teacher candidate’s course work is focused on instructional methods, educational theories, and practice teaching. However, you should have had some courses on the content knowledge in key subjects. Search out the syllabus, notes, and projects for your content courses. Review vocabulary and skills.
- Take a practice test. Set aside another block of time to take a full-length practice test. Your state’s testing provider, education department, or university may have one available. If a practice test is not readily available, check a neighboring state for a practice test in a similar area. Take the test. Score it. (Yes. Score your test. Assign a real number to what you know and don’t know.) Align the questions you missed with the test objectives and determine where you stand.
- Use resources to prepare. If your practice test revealed a weakness or gap, you could be at risk for not passing your exam. Be proactive in finding a prep program that will work for you. Here are some options:
- Self study Prep books and materials are cost effective and self-paced. Look for material designed for a teacher candidate instead of material designed for a student. Resources may be available in your university library or public library, or from one of the big online booksellers.
- On-site course work You know your learning style and your weaknesses. If you’re at your best in the classroom, look for a prep course designed to create a deep understanding of the material, not one just focused on passing the exam. In a prep class, you get the benefit of expert knowledge, plus the company of other prospective teachers who share your status. Expect that you will need to sit through some instruction on content you have mastered in order to get to the content you need to review.
- Online review class Similar to a live workshop or prep course, you can also look for an online course to help overcome the intimidation of reviewing volumes of content that you haven’t thought about in years. An online curriculum acknowledges that every teacher candidate is unique. Strengths and weaknesses vary from person to person, and no one wants to waste time focusing on topics that are already familiar. Once an assessment has shown you where you need to focus your efforts, you can select the objectives that apply to your needs. If your online class includes diagnostics, you can track your progress and build confidence.
A self-paced, online review class is an attractive option because you can target your areas of weakness and scan over the content you’ve mastered. You can take as long as you need and access the course and problems at your convenience. You maximize your time because every minute of study is devoted to prep, not to driving to class or walking across campus.
Strong content knowledge is a teacher’s friend. While acquiring and demonstrating your knowledge is indeed a stringent and rigorous process, your state education department knows that the pain of testing is far less than the pain of stepping into the classroom unprepared. Teaching methods and philosophy are important, of course; but don’t neglect content mastery. Follow proven steps to prepare for certification exams and reap the benefit of simultaneously mastering the content you need to teach with confidence.