Attracting teachers 101

Illinois goes to school on the teacher shortage

A recent report said there are 1,407 unfilled teaching positions in Illinois. - PHOTO BY DAVID BLANCHETTE
Photo by David Blanchette
A recent report said there are 1,407 unfilled teaching positions in Illinois.
It appears that until very recently Illinois has been trying to make the career of teaching seem as unpalatable as possible.

“For many years there’s been a lack of respect for the educators in our schools,” said  Kathi Griffin, president of the 135,000-member Illinois Education Association. “The funding has been diminished so much over the years that it’s not a welcoming profession for our students to entertain as a career.”

The lack of respect and funding, plus a number of other factors, have created what most in the education field are calling a “critical” teacher shortage in the state. The Illinois State Board of Education’s most recent annual public school vacancy survey conducted last October showed 1,407 unfilled classroom teaching positions in Illinois, with some school districts and subject areas disproportionately affected by the teacher shortage.

“The state’s rural areas find it difficult to supply classrooms with qualified educators,” said Illinois State Board of Education spokesperson Jaclyn Matthews. “Many superintendents and principals have noted they once had scores of applicants for teaching positions but now have just a few, or sometimes none.”

Recent legislative and public perception fixes are starting to turn things around, but relief from the current critical teacher shortage in the state may be a long time coming.

“This is not something that happened overnight, and it is not something that is going to be fixed in short order,” said Diane Hendren, director of governmental relations for the 2,000-member Illinois Association of School Administrators. “Superintendents are scurrying in many areas of the state trying to find teachers. You are seeing teachers moving from district to district because they are getting better offers.”

There are also not enough teacher candidates in the pipeline to fill those vacancies. The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education reports that from 2010 to 2016 in Illinois, the number of people completing teacher preparation programs dropped by 53 percent.

Substitute teachers are also becoming more scarce.

“There is a shortage of substitute teachers, which generally happens during a good economy,” said Ben Schwarm, deputy executive director of the 850-member Illinois Association of School Boards. “When there are fewer jobs available, there tend to be more applicants for substitute teacher jobs.”

Introduction to Teacher Shortage 101

The roots of the current teacher shortage began with the 2001 No Child Left Behind federal education initiative, according to Jennifer Hill, media director for the 94,000-member Illinois Federation of Teachers. The law brought an overemphasis on standardized testing, biased teacher evaluation systems, larger class sizes, loss of professional autonomy and reduced funding for teacher professional development, she said.

“On top of that, Bruce Rauner’s term as governor made a tough situation worse,” Hill said. “For those four years, teacher prep programs and MAP grants for needy students were underfunded, which reduced the number of students able to pursue higher education.”

Jennifer Martin is an assistant professor of Teacher Education at the University of Illinois Springfield.

“We are now in a culture of ‘teach to the test,’ a heightened standardization of curriculum and pressure to teach to the standardized tests,” Martin said. “So young people are finding that learning in school isn’t as much fun as it once was, so why would they want to work in a place where they won’t have fun learning?

Professor Ronda Mitchell teaches a University of Illinois Springfield class that is creating a pathway for those currently working as para-professionals or classroom aides, or who are a few credits shy of completing a teaching degree. Students from Decatu - PHOTO BY DAVID BLANCHETTE
Photo by David Blanchette
Professor Ronda Mitchell teaches a University of Illinois Springfield class that is creating a pathway for those currently working as para-professionals or classroom aides, or who are a few credits shy of completing a teaching degree. Students from Decatu

“Not only do we have a teacher shortage, but we have a teacher-of-color shortage,” Martin said. “The state’s required teacher test was a gatekeeper that kept a lot of nontraditional students out of the profession.”        

Legislation signed in August by Gov. J.B. Pritzker will do away with the test to which Martin referred, but there’s still the issue of teacher autonomy.

“Teachers wonder if they are being expected to teach kids basic life skills rather than educate them,” said Springfield Education Association president Aaron Graves. “They are disillusioned when they realize they can’t do creative things with kids like Robin Williams did in Dead Poets Society.”    

And then there’s teacher pay, an issue that has also been addressed by recently signed legislation. Sue Scherer was a teacher for 34 years in the Decatur and Maroa-Forsyth school districts, and as 96th District state representative she voted for the bill that increased the minimum teacher salary.

“It goes back to so many years of low pay that there just isn’t the respect for educators the way there used to be,” Scherer said.

Retirement Math 102

Illinois teachers have been traditionally underpaid, at least early in their careers, so they  have often had to supplement their income with secondary employment. But because of what they do for a living, teachers and their spouses are penalized under Social Security rules.

“It’s a very sore subject with our members,” said Illinois Teachers Retirement System spokesman Dave Urbanek. “If they work two jobs, like a lot of teachers do, and they pay Social Security on the second job, they are not getting the full benefit of that work experience.”

Springfield High School teacher Cathy Turner, who has been an educator for 25 years. - PHOTO BY DAVID BLANCHETTE
Photo by David Blanchette
Springfield High School teacher Cathy Turner, who has been an educator for 25 years.
Urbanek said Illinois is one of 15 large states where teachers voted in the 1950s to opt out of Social Security through their primary employment, choosing to use the Illinois Teachers Retirement System instead because of its better benefit. But teachers still pay into Social Security with each secondary job paycheck.        

“If somebody is a teacher for a certain amount of time but they’ve also got Social Security credits, and their spouse has Social Security credits, under federal law their Social Security payment is reduced,” Urbanek said. “The federal government views it as double dipping.”

The Illinois General Assembly added to newer teachers’ retirement concerns when they established the “Tier 2” rules as part of state pension reform in 2010. Tier 2 mandates that those who start teaching after 2011 must wait until at least age 67 to retire with a full pension, up from 55 years of age for those who began teaching before that year. In addition, teachers from 2011 onward must pay nine percent of their salary toward retirement with a reduced benefit, compared to six percent for those hired before 2011.              

Intermediate Teacher Shortage 202

Fewer employees to do the same amount of work means more work per employee.

“Teachers are overloaded with large class sizes, more classes to teach, a heavy dependence on substitutes and educators forgoing contractual preparation time in order to supervise and instruct students,” said Hill of the Illinois Federation of Teachers. “They have less time to focus on individual student needs.”

Lack of preparation time and the use of substitute or temporary teachers to help fill vacancies has taken its toll, according to the Springfield Education Association’s Graves.

“That creates a vacuum of professionalism where people are collaborating, and when you don’t have those consistent relationships, it’s tough to have that kind of consistency with kids,” Graves said. “And inconsistencies with kids often create behavioral issues.”  

Class size is another consideration. The statewide average class size is 20, according to the State Board of Education, but board spokesperson Matthews said the teacher shortage disproportionately affects certain regions and subjects.   

Springfield School District 186 has class size limits set forth contractually with the Springfield Education Association, which are 31 students for elementary and 33 students for middle and high school. Superintendent Jennifer Gill said class sizes fluctuate across buildings and grade levels, but the district’s average class size remains at 20.

District 186 employs approximately 1,150 certified staff and has 13 certificated vacancies. Jacksonville School District 117 has 268 teachers, eight of whom are long-term subs, and has 10 open teaching positions posted.

“We are in a critical shortage,” said District 117 Superintendent Steve Ptacek. “Positions that require a specialized certificate, such as teachers, are more difficult to find.”

Mark Klaisner is the president of the 80-member Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools.

“As I travel the state I hear about shortages everywhere,” Klaisner said. “In our studies, 85 percent of superintendents reported the teacher shortage as a significant problem in 2018, and I expect it to be even worse this year.”

Introductory Compensation and Testing 201

On Aug. 22 Gov. Pritzker signed legislation that establishes a minimum starting teacher salary of $40,000, to be phased in between now and the 2023-24 school year. Former Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed similar legislation last year.   

The legislation’s sponsor, former teacher and current State Rep. Katie Stuart, D-Edwardsville, said starting salaries for some Illinois teachers are approximately $27,000, creating a challenge for school districts to retain teachers. She said that any amounts school districts pay toward the state teachers’ pension fund on behalf of full-time educators will be counted toward the minimum salary requirement under the new law.

Wilcox Elementary School teacher Jasmine McCray, who is in her fifth year as an educator. - PHOTO BY DAVID BLANCHETTE
Photo by David Blanchette
Wilcox Elementary School teacher Jasmine McCray, who is in her fifth year as an educator.
The average teacher salary for all experience levels in the 2017-18 school year was $65,721, according to State Board of Education spokesperson Matthews.

Superintendent Gill said the legislation’s impact on Springfield District 186 will be negligible, as their lowest-paid starting teachers now make $39,416, including the district-paid retirement contribution. The district already exceeds the limits for the 2019-20 through 2022-23 school years, she added, and noted that the teacher retention rate at District 186 is 90 percent, exceeding the state average of 85 percent.

In Jacksonville District 117, Superintendent Ptacek noted, “We raised the teacher salary last year and it is making a difference in our ability to find teachers. We have fewer open positions, but we are still in need.”

Many school districts, however, will find it tougher to meet the new salary requirements.

“An arbitrary cookie-cutter approach across the state will be harmful,” said the Illinois Association of School Boards’ Schwarm. “Districts just aren’t going to have the money to pay for that and in some cases it will actually result in fewer teachers.”

The Illinois Association of School Administrators’ Hendren echoed those sentiments.

“We as an organization opposed that bill because of the cost to the school districts,” Hendren said. “We don’t like salaries being set in statute, but we understand the intent of the bill.”

The Illinois Education Association’s Griffin pointed to school funding reform legislation passed a year ago and said the law’s evidence-based funding could help some districts with the cost of the minimum salary increase.

Springfield High School educator Cathy Turner, who has taught for 25 years and started out at $15,000 per year, said the minimum salary legislation leaves out one important consideration.

“It’s not just the bottom end, but you’re insulting the people who are the backbone of your school by if you don’t support your upper end,” Turner said. “Money is going to be one of the issues that is always in play.”      

Everyone seems to agree on the benefits of a law signed Aug. 7 that does away with the Basic Skills Test, a requirement that all teacher candidates demonstrate complex skills, such as geometry proofs, that often were unrelated to the grade or subject the candidate intended to teach.

”Doing away with the test allows 246 individuals to either receive a Professional Educator License or to move forward with other remaining requirements,” the State Board of Education’s Matthews said. “It also allows approximately 1,300 teaching candidates in Illinois to begin student teaching immediately this fall without having to take a test of basic skills.”

Matthews said teaching candidates still must pass the edTPA, a performance-based and subject-specific assessment, as well as the content test relevant to the subject and grade they intend to teach.

“Making changes to the basic skills test should be helpful, but you’re not going to see that for two or three years as students get through the programs,” said Schwarm of the Illinois Association of School Boards.

Jasmine McCray is in her fifth year of teaching at Wilcox Elementary School in Springfield. She vividly remembers the tests she had to take a few years ago just to become an educator.

“During undergrad work you had additional tests that you had to take and they were really expensive, and if you didn’t pass you had to pay for it again,” McCray said. “It was kind of hard to believe that there were so many expenses for the program before you even graduated.”      

Other new laws sponsored by 48th District State Senator Andy Manar, who has been a legislative leader in education reform, include measures that create incentives for teachers to work in rural and remote areas, making it easier for educators outside of Illinois to apply for hard-to-fill jobs here, and creating a short-term substitute teaching license and allowing downstate retired teachers to substitute in classrooms without jeopardizing their retirement benefits.

“We have done much of what has to happen to address the shortage of teachers in the state,” Manar said. “But I also believe there has to be a societal change toward how teachers are viewed. We can’t legislate that.”

Teaching the Teachers 204

Area colleges and universities are doing what they can to generate graduates who want to become teachers.

The University of Illinois Springfield (UIS) has created a pathway to a teaching degree for those who are currently working as paraprofessionals in area schools, are a few courses shy of completing a degree, or who are working as aides in the classroom.

“We will start seeing people who would have been interested in being teachers start thinking about the process again,” said UIS professor of education Vickie Cook. “Those career changers have a huge amount of expertise to add to the classroom. They may have had a business or military career and now they are interested in coming back into the classroom.”   

The university is also working with schools in Sangamon and Logan counties to provide a dual credit program so high school students who want to be teachers can take the first two classes toward a teacher education degree at a reduced tuition cost. Cook added that UIS’ Prairie Area Teaching Initiative is also being used to inspire first-generation and minority students to enter the teaching profession.

Illinois College in Jacksonville has seen a decrease in the number of students interested in pursuing degrees in education over the past decade, but that trend seems to be reversing and the school has made some changes to accommodate it.

“This year we have added two professors to our education department, one who specializes in agriculture education and the other in literacy,” said Illinois College spokesman Bryan Leonard. “We also have a new psychology professor who specializes in math anxiety that will also be beneficial to our education students.”

Continuing Education Reform 301

What else needs to be done to address the Illinois teacher shortage? Those previously quoted in this story weighed in.

Jennifer Hill, media director, Illinois Federation of Teachers: “The state should fund programs that increase opportunities for paraprofessionals, parents and students to get teaching degrees and stay to work in the community where they live.”

Diane Hendren, director of governmental relations, Illinois Association of School Administrators: “Restrictions have to be eased, even if it is temporary. Teachers who have degrees in a content area but not a degree in education, maybe they can teach some of these high school courses.”

Ben Schwarm, deputy executive director, Illinois Association of School Boards: “There are still some obstacles for those looking to cross state lines and teach in our school systems, even though they were licensed and had experience in their previous state.”

Jennifer Martin, assistant professor of teacher education, University of Illinois Springfield: “We need to defer student loans or forgive loans for people who commit to work for several years in the more struggling areas.”

Jasmine McCray, Springfield elementary school teacher: “There need to be more incentives going into the profession. Many teachers feel we are always having to fight for something, and if there were more attention shown to the positive things that teachers do, it could change the way that people think of teachers as a whole.”

Introduction to Optimism 101

The bipartisan Illinois Education Association State of Education poll conducted in March 2019 showed that 88 percent of survey respondents had a favorable opinion of teachers, but 57 percent felt that teachers were not paid enough, and only 53 percent would encourage a family member to seek a career in teaching. A total of 68 percent said improving public schools is one of the most important issues facing Illinois.

“It’s an extremely stressful job, but the reason people keep doing it is because it’s also probably the most rewarding job on earth, because you can truly make a difference,” said Sue Scherer, state representative and former teacher.               

Illinois Education Association President Griffin sounded an optimistic note.

“I think maybe the ship is starting to turn a little bit more, that we’re looking to enhance the quality of education in our public schools and not focus on dismantling them,” Griffin said.

Springfield High School teacher Turner has been through a lot, but she’s never regretted her career choice.

“I have had a fantastic career, it has been loads of fun, but it will soon be time to pass it off to someone else,” Turner said. “And remember, you are only a doctor or a lawyer or any other position in life because of your teachers.” 

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