How To Avoid Getting Trapped In License Hell

By Mary Koepke — April 01, 1990 19 min read

Susan Scollon was dying to teach. She completed all the necessary course work in art education at Michigan State University in the spring of 1989. She and her fiancé, a legislative assistant living in Washington, D.C., wanted to get married that summer and reside together in Washington, but she had to complete her student teaching in the fall. So, she thought, why not go ahead with the wedding and arrange to do her student teaching that fall in the nation’s capital? That’s where she would be job hunting anyway.

It seemed like a great idea at the time. She got the necessary permission from MSU and completed her student teaching in November; she expected to be working in January.

Months and a score of phone calls later, Scollon is still waiting to get a D.C. teaching license. She was bounced back and forth between departments at MSU before finally finding out that someone there had mistakenly labeled her application “music teacher” instead of art. D.C. still hasn’t received the letter it needs from MSU proving that she completed the program. The university keeps saying that it’s on the way. In the meantime, she is burning out before she even gets started.

Scollon is trapped in license hell-- and she isn’t the only one. The horror stories abound. Experienced teachers can encounter a myriad of problems when moving from state to state, or when it comes time to renew, or when they have to take a job “out of field.” And prospective teachers tell of the paper chases they’re forced to run through their school of education before sending off their applications.

Often, beginning teachers naively expect that someone will hand-hold them through the process of getting licensed or assume that once they get a license it will last them a lifetime. Some are shocked to find out that their college preparation wasn’t enough.

To make matters worse, teachers often hear different stories about licensure requirements from different people. College advisers in one state don’t always know what is required in another.

Sheri Sutton was told by her adviser at Depauw University in Greencastle, Ind., that her state had a reciprocal agreement with Illinois--the state in which she was offered a job--to honor each other’s teaching licenses.

When she arrived, she did get a license, but was told that she had to make up some “deficiencies.” Although she was teaching only high school physics courses, which is what she was trained for at Depauw, the Illinois office of certification required her to take courses in health, the psychology of exceptional children, and U.S. History, as well as to pass tests on both the Illinois and U.S. Constitutions.

Sutton was disappointed. “I thought reciprocity meant reciprocity,” she says.

But, according to Illinois officials, she never should have been told that Indiana and Illinois have reciprocity. “It’s not true,” says Susan Bentz, assistant superintendent for Illinois’s office of teacher education and certification. “Unfortunately, sometimes college advisers don’t even know what the requirements are in their own states.”

Likewise, teachers cannot always trust advice from other teachers. “People have gotten into lots of trouble by talking to other teachers,” warns Donald Hair, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification. “They take it as gospel. But legislation changes, and no two teachers are exactly alike in terms of their professional preparation. What might have been possible for one teacher might not be for another.”

It is confusing. Every state has the right to set its own requirements, design its own application process, and define its own terms. What results is a nation of states babbling in different languages. They can’t even agree on how to categorize grade levels. For example, Illinois defines elementary as grades K-9, while in Delaware an elementary license is only valid for grades 1-8.

And states keep changing their requirements. So whether you are applying for your first license or are a veteran teacher moving to a new state, you will need to contact the state’s licensing agency to get the current information on requirements and regulations. (See page 58.) Other things you should know before applying include:

  • Fees: Application processing fees vary from no fee in Hawaii and a dozen or so other states to $125 in Michigan. Some add an extra charge for out-of-state applicants.
  • The Application: Most states require you to fill out an application form, provide verification from your graduating institution that you completed an approved program, and submit a copy of your college transcript. As part of the application process, some states have a few other miscellaneous requirements, such as fingerprinting or providing verification of “good moral character.” Write directly to the state licensing agency or contact your college adviser for an application form.
  • Tests: The majority of states require applicants to have passed a competency exam, most commonly one or more components of the National Teacher Examinations. Some states have developed content area and/or basic skills tests of their own. Your state licensing agency or college-certification adviser should be able to provide you with a list of the testing requirements, sites, and dates.
  • Structure: Most states now have a licensing structure with two or more stages; beginning teachers normally receive a provisional license before becoming eligible for a professional license. Not all states require teachers to move to a second stage. However, most teachers opt to do so.
  • Provisional License: The first license is valid for a specified length of time, usually from one to five years. During the period for which you are provisionally licensed, you may be required to gain full-time teaching experience, complete inservice training, or take course work either to qualify for the next level or to renew at the same level.
  • Some states have mandated special induction programs specifically designed for beginning teachers. For example, first-year teachers in Indiana are automatically paired with mentor teachers. In other states, programs may be available or required at the district level.

  • Professional Licenses: Most states that have a second-stage license require you to renew it from time to time. The most common requirement for renewal is to pick up six semester hours of credit every five years. A few states still issue “lifetime” licenses, but most of them are planning to discontinue the practice. New Jersey, for example, currently offers a lifetime license, but major revisions in its licensing procedure are planned for 1991.
  • Education officials--even at the state level--are not always able to advise you in tough situations. What follows are answers to some of the stickiest questions regarding teacher licensure.

    1. Can I accept a job teaching a grade level or subject for which I am not licensed? For example: What if I hold a secondary school license but the only job I can find is teaching 4th grade?

    Most states issue separate licenses for different fields and grade-level categories. Technically, teachers are allowed to teach only what their license stipulates under state regulations.

    But those regulations are “routinely violated,” according to Bella Rosenberg, assistant to the president of the American Federation of Teachers.

    Says Shari Francis, a senior policy analyst for the National Education Association: “It happens in rural or remote areas where there are not enough teachers and in urban centers where it is hard to recruit teachers.”

    Over the years, state certification offices have adopted provisions that allow districts to make out-of-field assignments. In most states, for example, emergency licenses (also called substandard or limited licenses) are issued on a short-term basis (usually for one to two years).

    Generally, the application for an emergency license must be accompanied by some verification of need from the employer; a district official may have to sign a statement saying that he or she could not find a qualified candidate.

    The job candidate’s college transcript is then analyzed by a certification adviser at the state level to determine what course work is essential for teaching the subject area or grade level. Most often, the teacher must agree to fulfill any deficiencies in his or her education and/or training during the period of employment. The requirements vary from state to state.

    If you are asked to accept a position out-of-field, think twice. Both NASDTEC and the NEA agree that you should be wary of accepting a job that is not covered by your license.

    Although you may not ever intend to consider a job out-of-field, you may find yourself in that position if you move to a state that defines grade levels or subject areas differently from the one you left. In Alabama, for example, an early-childhood special-education license enables a teacher to work with children of all handicapping conditions. But if a teacher with such a license were to accept a job teaching emotionally disturbed preschoolers in a state-funded special-education preschool in California, a specific “severely handicapped” credential would be required. On the other hand, if the teacher were offered the same job in Colorado, the general early-childhood special-education license would suffice.

    Rosenberg says that the AFT gets many letters from people who move to a new state and are told that they are unqualified to teach a subject that they have been teaching successfully for years. “The other day, a math teacher wrote that the only thing they would let her teach is home economics,” she says.

    Many states are “tightening up” on out-of-field assignments, says Donald Hair of NASDTEC. Twenty-three states have recently completed studies on misassignment, and new legislation or regulations to curtail the practice have been approved in 20 states, according to NASDTEC’s Manual on Certification and Preparation of Educational Personnel in the United States. But both Rosenberg and Francis are skeptical. They say that they haven’t yet seen any real evidence that things have improved.

    2. Is it possible to accept a job teaching out-of-field and not know it?

    Yes. For example, an administrator may ask an English teacher to teach speech without knowing that the state requires a special endorsement in speech. “Administrators don’t always understand state requirements,” warns Richard Mastain, editor of the NASDTEC manual.

    The NEA’s Francis says she has heard of cases in which administrators--unable to fill certain job openings--deliberately did not inform staff that they were being asked to teach out-of-field.

    In most cases, a description of the grades and subjects you are authorized--or endorsed--to teach will appear on the front or back of your license. If it doesn’t, ask the state office responsible for teacher licensure to send you a written description of your authorization. “State licensing agencies have the responsibility to be very clear about what service each license authorizes a holder to provide,” Mastain says.

    If you find that you have been teaching out-of-field and didn’t know it, contact your local teachers’ organization, Francis advises. The union can help you find out what needs to be done to resolve the problem.

    3. What does “reciprocity” mean?

    Reciprocity is often misunderstood. Many teachers believe that when their state has reciprocity with another, they are guaranteed a new hassle-free license if they move to that state. Not true.

    It is true that some states have signed reciprocity contracts with each other under the Interstate Certification Agreement. (See table on page 54.) But reciprocity in this case doesn’t necessarily mean that you won’t have to do anything to get a new license.

    You may be required to fulfill what the ICA defines as the “noneducational requirements’’ of your new state. Those requirements vary widely from state to state and may include passing a basic-skills test, being fingerprinted, providing verification of your good moral character, or signing a citizenship oath. If, for example, you were to move from a state that did not require the NTE to a state that did, you would have to take it before receiving your license.

    To be eligible for a license under ICA reciprocity guidelines, you must have graduated from a state-approved teacher-preparatory program. (If you entered teaching through an alternative route, you qualify if you have a license and three years of recent teaching experience.)

    Some state certification directors say that to be eligible for ICA reciprocity you must also hold a license from your state. But that is not the case. According to ICA guidelines, if you graduated from a state-approved program, you do not have to hold a license from that state in order to apply for a license from another state. (However, you may benefit from getting that license before you move; see question number seven.)

    take any additional course work as a prerequisite to getting the license. So if you were moving into a state that requires all beginning teachers--regardless of the subject they intend to teach--to have taken a health course in college, and that state had not signed an ICA contract with your home state, you would have to take that course to be eligible for a license. But if the state had signed such a contract with your home state, you wouldn’t.

    It sounds good, but there are some loopholes. According to Ervin Marsh, chairman of ICA’s Contract Administrators Association, you can be required to take additional course work in the following cases:

    If the subject or grade level you are teaching requires a different kind of license in the new state. In some states, for example, there is no special endorsement required to teach math to 8th graders, while in others a degree in math is required. So in state A, you could hold a general elementary license and teach math to 8th graders. But in state B, a general elementary license would not authorize you to provide 8th grade math instruction. If you wanted a job teaching 8th grade math in state B, you’d have to apply for a “different license.” And the ICA guidelines only guarantee reciprocity with “like” licenses.

    If you hold an expired license and have never taught. In such cases, the applicant will usually be required to complete “refresher” course work, determined by each state.

    Also, you should realize that the reciprocity contract simply allows you to receive another state’s initial license, which will let you teach. But once you get this initial license, you will be required to complete any of that state’s standard requirements to keep or renew it. For example, if the state requires all initial license holders to complete six hours of college course work during the first two years, you must earn those credits.

    4. What happens if I am moving to a state that is not part of the ICA?

    Procedures and policies vary. If you graduated from an approved program, most states will give you a provisional license or a “holding pattern credential,” as Mastain calls it. “They’ll issue you a license, valid for one or two years, and tell you that you will have additional requirements to meet,” he says. The most common requirement is passing a competency exam.

    Don’t expect your home state’s certification adviser to know what is required in the state to which you are moving. Find out for yourself. Write or call your new state’s licensing office.

    5. What happens if a state that supposedly has reciprocity with my state asks me to fulfill a course work requirement that goes against ICA guidelines?

    First of all, find out for sure if the state is a member of the Interstate Certification Agreement. Sheri Sutton was told by her college adviser that Illinois “had reciprocity,” but, in fact, it was not an ICA member.

    If the state is a member, it may be violating the agreement. The ICA specifically stipulates that additional course work cannot be required to meet the prerequisites for an initial license.

    A state violating the agreement is probably “not knowingly” doing so, Marsh asserts. “It could be as simple as this: The individual doing the analyzing may not know the regulations well enough.”

    If you believe the requirements that a state has given you violate ICA guidelines, contact the state’s licensing agency and ask to speak with the person responsible for the state’s reciprocity agreement.

    6. What should I do if, on the basis of a transcript analysis, I am told that additional course work is required and I disagree?

    Regardless of whether you are dealing with an ICA state, a transcript evaluation may be part of the application process. Some states even do random transcript evaluations of in-state applicants to make sure that preparation programs are following the regulations.

    There is nothing scientific about transcript evaluations. Analysts do the best they can to determine whether an individual has taken the necessary course work. Generally, they read the course titles and, at times, refer to college catalogs for course descriptions. But the interpretation of those course titles varies.

    If you receive notice from the state licensing agency that you have not completed a required course and you think a course on your transcript fulfills the requirement, Mastain suggests that you write to the certification office and state your case. Note the numbers and titles of the courses in question. You may need to send a photocopy of the course description out of the college catalog. Or even better, get your professor to write a description of the course for you.

    What are your chances of succeeding? “It depends how much energy you have to fight,” says the AFT’s Rosenberg. “I’ve heard of teachers writing letters and winning, but I have no idea how many people win.”

    7. If I am seeking my first teaching license, should I get it in the state from which I graduated even if I don’t plan to teach there?

    If you have spent the last four years paying tuition rather than earning a salary, you might be disinclined to pay for a license you don’t think you’ll need. But getting that initial license in the state where you trained can actually pay off, according to Marsh. (Some states don’t even charge an application fee.)

    Having a license from one state can make the process of getting a new license in another state easier, Marsh says. For example, Illinois will immediately issue a provisional license if you hold one from another state. But if you don’t, you will have to meet specific state requirements before you are eligible to teach.

    Also, it helps to have a license when you start job hunting, even if it’s from another state. Without a license, superintendents may not be willing to consider you as a candidate for a job opening. With a license--no matter what state its from--you have some credibility. “When you go to a local district, you can say, ‘I am certified,’” explains Marsh. “You’ll have an ‘in’ with the personnel director.”

    8. If I was supposed to fulfill certain requirements (such as additional course work or teaching experience) in order to renew my license or qualify for the next level but did not complete them, what happens?

    If you no longer intend to teach because you are leaving the field, there are no consequences.

    If you intend to continue teaching under that license but were unable to fulfill requirements because of an unexpected circumstance, such as illness or death in the family, seek an extension, Mastain says. “Generally,” he notes, “extensions are granted for good cause.”

    But if you let your license lapse for no good reason, you may have to deal with some pretty tough consequences when it’s time to renew.

    “You will be subject to whatever new regulations the state has set,” says Celeste Rorro, director of teacher certification for New Jersey’s state department of education. In other words, not only will you have to make up the requirements you failed to meet, but you also will have to complete any new requirements that have been added since you first applied. “Some people find themselves in a serious bind because regulations are revised,” Rorro explains. “For instance, a testing requirement or another degree requirement could have been added. You may have been O.K. under the old license, but since it has expired, you’ll have to fulfill these new requirements.”

    “Plan ahead,” advises NASDTEC’s Hair. “Staying licensed is an individual responsibility. You can’t say that the school district or the state should remind you of the requirements.”

    If you don’t get the requirements completed, contact the state department directly, advises the NEA’s Francis. Every situation is different and only the state department can tell you what you will need to do to become re-licensed.

    If you are moving to another state, changing positions within the teaching field, or working toward a career in administration and are tempted not to fulfill the requirements of your current license, think twice. Make sure that the license you will eventually need-- to teach or be an administrator in another state--does not hinge on the license you are going to give up.

    9. Do I have to be licensed in order to teach in a private school?

    Twenty-three states require private school personnel to hold a state license, according to the NASDTEC manual. But if you want to teach in a particular private school, you should contact the school’s hiring official, advises Charles O’Malley, a private education specialist for the U.S. Department of Education. Some states that have the private school requirement exempt certain types--most often religious schools.

    On the other hand, some private schools in states that do not require licensing want their teachers to be licensed, according to O’Malley. “A substantial number of private schools, from Christian fundamentalist through independent, have encouraged teachers to be state certified or at least eligible for state certification,” he says.

    Some private school administrators believe that having licensed teachers can give their school credibility. Explains O’Malley: “One of the first questions parents ask is, ‘Are your teachers qualified?’ If administrators can pull out a list saying that all their teachers are certified or certifiable in their fields, they think it makes more of an impression. It’s like a ‘Good Housekeeping seal of approval.’”

    10. What if I want to get a license but I did not go through a traditional teacher-education program?

    Many states permit certification through “alternative routes.” The procedures for becoming licensed this way vary from state to state. Most require a combination of college course work and field-based experiences.

    In New Jersey, for example, you must first get a job offer from a school district. Then, if you meet certain basic requirements, you are given a provisional license. For a year, you work in that school with mentor teachers and attend college-level seminars to learn pedagogy.

    The best way to find out about the regulations for a given state is to call its director of teacher licensing. But don’t just ask if the state has an alternative route, Mastain advises, “because you might get a ‘no’ when in fact it does.” Definitions and terms vary from state to state. Some states that say they have no “alternative license” may have an “emergency” license that serves a similar purpose.

    “Ask about the alternative ways in which you can become fully licensed,” suggests Mastain. “Then, more specifically, ask, ‘Must I go through a complete, approved program? Can I qualify for a full-time emergency credential to gain experience?’”

    Not all teachers are forced to run an obstacle course to get the piece of paper that allows them in the classroom door. Some manage to teach a lifetime without ever hitting a stumbling block.

    Being well informed is the best way to clear the hurdles if they arise. And you will make it--millions of other teachers have.

    A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 1990 edition of Teacher as How To Avoid Getting Trapped In License Hell