Illinois is struggling to attract and hire new teachers. A new program hopes to borrow a few tricks from the medical field to address the issue.
State lawmakers have approved several measures to ease the problem. They’ve eliminated the basic skills test, made licensing easier for out-of-state teachers, changed the requirements for substitutes -- even started the march toward the $40,000 minimum salary.
Education leaders say that’s all good. But, as regional superintendent Scott Bloomquist says, “It might be four more years before you start seeing the impact of it because it's not addressing getting people in the classroom now.”
That’s frustrating for Bloomquist because he says education leaders saw the shortage coming.
“I don't know that they had the appetite to want to do the things that we in leadership have been saying needed to be done a decade ago to prevent this from happening,” said Bloomquist. “It's much more reactive of a response right now, and that hole has been created right now, and the damage is going to be tough to dig out of.”
The organization says future teacher talent pool is shrinking. The number of college education majors has fallen off significantly over the last decade. So, one of their solutions is to look outside of the pipeline.
They’re looking for college seniors and people with a bachelors’ degree in disciplines other than education that can translate into teaching.
Alan Mather is the president of Golden Apple. He says they’re accepting 50 would-be teachers in their first year. They will be buoyed by a mentor teacher and receive a stipend.
The teacher trains for one year and then stays in that school for four more years.
“Just as rural communities have resident physician programs and doctors have residency programs; it's the same thing for a teacher,” said Mather.
They’re focusing on high-need positions like special-ed, bilingual-ed and STEM. And those teachers will be placed in districts through western, central and southern Illinois.
“We're not going to be recruiting in Chicago for someone to come to a rural community, a different community,” said Mather. “The idea is to find those people in your communities, find those paraprofessionals who are already in the classroom.”
Special-ed has been perennially one of the hardest positions to fill. A survey earlier this year from theIllinois Association of Regional Superintendents found over 800 openings statewide.
Bob Sondgeroth is the regional superintendent for Lee, Ogle and Whiteside counties. He’s seen this firsthand.
“They've allowed us to do some emergency special-ed endorsements so that we can get some more teachers in. But that's usually a licensed teacher that then becomes a special ed teacher, which leaves a gap somewhere else,” he said. “It's always robbing Peter to pay Paul.”
School districts often rely on substitute teachers and paraprofessionals where there are also staff shortages. Alan Mather says they often want to become fully licensed teachers, but it can be a long and expensive process.
“Most of it is done online because that same problem you're talking about where people say, ‘I want to teach, but I can't leave my family. I can't quit my job,’” said Mather.
But the shortage is not just for special-ed teachers, and the initiative wants to expand into those other areas.
David Zimmerman is a first-year English and theatre teacher at Belvidere North High School. He says he saw the effects of the teacher shortage in his job hunt.
School districts are often willing to offer experienced teachers more to poach them from other schools to fill vacant spots. That means new teachers like Zimmerman often must wait to see if districts have surprise openings.
Scott Bloomquist says teachers with decades of service at a school are leaving like they never did in the past.
“You're seeing almost that corporate America model of staff recruitment that’s taking place,” said Bloomquist.
Anna Alvarado is the superintendent of Freeport School District. And as much as shortages and turnover impacts teachers, she says it’s important to remember the toll it takes on students.
“Remember, no teacher works in isolation, right? And if those people are missing, it really adds to the challenge that already exists,” said Alvarado.
Bloomquist adds that, “Ultimately what happens is kids suffer because the support is not there.”
Alvarado also says schools need to empower the teachers they have.
“To me, those are the things that we don't think about that really leads to teacher retention,” she said.
Illinois has approved funding for the first year of Accelerators, but leaders hope it can be one of the first programs to make an immediate impact in the state’s most understaffed positions and most understaffed schools.