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WNIJ's summary of news items around our state.

The Solution To The Illinois & Nationwide Teacher Shortage Could Be Local

Spencer Tritt

Morelia Garcia was helping an afterschool program at her high school when the principal walked by. He started asking her the sorts of questions everyone approaching graduation gets: “What are your plans for college? You want to be a teacher, right? Well, how about here?”

They both laughed and Garcia countered with the sort of question everyone approaching graduation wants answered: “Can you actually help me pay for school?”

A few minutes later, she realized he wasn’t joking. He thought Garcia would be a great candidate for their PLEDGE program with Northern Illinois University.

Now Garcia is graduating college and back in the Rochelle School District, where she grew up. She’s got a degree in elementary education with an English as a Second Language and Bilingual endorsement. And Rochelle picked up a large amount of her college tuition tab in exchange for teaching five years back in her hometown.

‘The reason I want to stay and come back and stay with the school was because I grew up in a really diverse setting. Rochelle is more Hispanic; I was an English language learner,” she said. “So, then my experience just with that, I just wanted to be giving back to my community.”

Laurie Elish-Piper is the dean of the education department at NIU. Illinois is facing a huge shortage of teachers. She thinks schools should be trying to replicate Garcia’s experience. 80% of Illinois teachers report that their first job is within 30 miles of the high school they attended.

“When we recruit from the community and work with the community, the teachers are much more likely to stay because they're rooted in that community,” she said.

That’s why they’ve partnered with schools like Rochelle, and also Elgin, Rockford and Waubonsee Community College.

She says the teacher shortage is a two-pronged problem:

  1. Are they producing enough teachers to meet the need?
  2. Are those teachers sticking around?

The answer to the first part is no, but enrollment in colleges of education like NIU are increasing. Elish-Piper says their numbers were up 5% in the fall with spring numbers looking up too.
As for the second part, it’s complicated. Year-to-year retention rates hover around 86%, but there’s nuance within that number. Chicago sees lower retention rates, and it’s harder for high-poverty and high-minority schools to keep their teachers around.

Many of those teachers they target are also bilingual. Bilingual teachers are a top need for schools during the shortage and also difficult for them to retain.

Cynthia Cabrera is a recent grad with NIU’s Rockford partnership, teaching second grade. Rockford Public Schools places teachers like her in schools they’ve identified have the most need: where academic performance is a concern or where they have trouble hiring.

Cabrera was matched up with a master teacher for her student teaching who helped make the transition to full-time teaching a breeze.

“The majority of my students are Hispanic, and I'm Hispanic. So when we talked about culture, their eyes lit up, and I was able to connect on a level with them on a level that another teacher would not be able to,” said Cabrera.

Elish-Piper says pairing them with schools of need is crucial.

“One of the things that I hear from our aspiring teachers is how motivating that is because they make a difference on day one,” she said. “And they understand that their contribution, and that their teaching is going to matter.”

There is also a massive shortage of teachers of color. Students of color have more academic success when they have teachers of color around them, according to research. Nationwide, only 2% of teachers are Black men. Illinois students are way more diverse than their teachers.

Less than 3% of East Aurora students are white, but 75% of their teachers are. Elish-Piper says NIU has a partnership with Waubonsee Community College to open pathways into the profession for East and West Aurora students.

“We're hoping in an initiative like that, that we can specifically and intentionally recruit more students of color, more young men of color, who are interested in going into teaching,” she said.

She’s also concerned that because of COVID-19, there are going to be a lot of teachers that retire and a lot of teachers that are so burnt out that they quit after this year. Thirty-five percent of teachers are considering leaving the profession all together because of the pandemic. That could inflame a shortage that has nearly doubled since 2017.

In that year, there were just over 1,000 unfilled teaching positions. Now, there are more than 1,700. Accounting for other school support staff and paraprofessional educators, the picture gets bleaker, even though the numbers this year look slightly better than last.

“I am worried that if we have this increased number of retirements that the progress we've made, we might be set back a bit. But I think these kinds of creative initiatives, PLEDGE projects and other types of partnerships are really the direction that we need to go,” she said.

Other programs across the state are trying to think outside of the usual education pipeline to address the shortage. Golden Apple’s “Accelerators” initiative, for example, focuses on people shifting into a teaching career later in life.

However you slice it, it’s going to take more creative solutions and often -- local solutions -- to keep the shortage from getting worse and affecting kids in classrooms across Illinois.