EDUCATOR SHORTAGES: Teacher shortage at crisis level in east central Illinois
Students in Aaron Taylor's classroom at Carl Sandburg Elementary School in Charleston type a New Year's Day poem on Jan. 7. (Credit: Charleston CUSD 1)
Educators report burnout, exhaustion, and no clear end in sight
By TAYLOR VIDMAR
For Capitol News Illinois
Editor’s Note: Taylor Vidmar is a student in the Public Affairs Reporting program at University of Illinois Springfield. She is a reporting intern at the Capitol for Lee Enterprises.
SPRINGFIELD – There was once a time when Kristen Holly might see more than 200 applicants for a single elementary teaching position.
It was overwhelming just to figure out how to screen applicants, the assistant superintendent for student services in the Charleston School District, said.
That time is long gone.
Just a decade later, that same elementary position might now yield only six to 10 applications, on a good day. Job openings for more specialized positions — like counseling, special education, or secondary foreign language — Holly said, sometimes draw no applicants at all.
“Now, we're going to see your application no matter what,” she said.
Most positions in the Charleston district are filled, but with fewer substitute teachers and support staff available, having only a few teachers out because they are sick can pose an issue for the entire district.
Holly’s concerns are echoed by superintendents and educators across east central Illinois. Many have observed a rapid decline in new teachers entering the field and reported shortages in school positions ranging from teachers and counselors to bus drivers, custodians, and even administrators.
More recently, many schools have also seen increased illness among both students and educators caused by the COVID-19 omicron variant surge, forcing some to go remote for days at a time.
As Dr. Kyle Thompson, regional superintendent for the Regional Office of Education 11, put it: “It's a serious crisis. It has been for several years, and it gets worse every year.”
But what caused the crisis? Many educators agree that there was no single cause. Instead, a variety of factors have helped make the education field seem less desirable for both prospective and current teachers.
One of those factors is teacher pay, said Matt Snyder, regional superintendent for Macon and Piatt counties.
Teacher pay isn’t as high as for other fields that require a degree, and many college students know they can make more money at other jobs, he said.
In 2019, Gov. JB Pritzker signed into law a bill that increases minimum teacher salaries to $40,000 by 2023.
But increasing pay can also create added stress on smaller, rural districts with less disposable income, many of which are already increasing daily pay for substitutes to make up for staffing shortages.
And salary costs aren’t the only challenge districts face.
It’s become too complicated for prospective teachers to get certified, Thompson said.
To teach in Illinois, teachers must obtain a Professional Educator License. For that, they need at least a bachelor’s degree and some student teaching experience. They must also complete a state-approved teaching program, which can take a few years.
The challenges don’t end when teachers get certified. There’s also simply too much stress on teachers, said Aaron Hird, regional superintendent for Vermilion County.
Some districts have combined classes, leaving teachers with more students than before. Many teachers also take on additional school roles like sponsoring activities.
In recent decades, teachers have seen more state oversight than before, Snyder said. State codes requiring specific units of study, extra paperwork for reporting classroom activity, and reliance on test scores can be difficult for teachers to keep up with in addition to their already busy schedules, he said.
Many teachers experience burnout caused by educator shortages and the pandemic, said Lauren Mellott, a fifth-grade teacher at Jefferson Elementary School in Charleston.
“It's hard, because when you walk down the hallway ... you see it in other teachers’ faces that they just look dejected,” she said. “They look tired.”
“I mean, it's always been hard, but it's exhausting now,” Kimberly Spanhook, Mellott’s teaching partner, said. “You feel like you're on fire all the time.”
The exhausting environment is also impacting students.
“We're seeing fifth-graders that are academically, and, really, behaviorally, socially, emotionally more at a third-grade level because that was the last normal true school year that they had,” Mellott said.
This creates more challenges for teachers, who have to adapt their lesson plans and teaching strategies to meet the changing needs of their students.
According to the Illinois State Board of Education’s most recent Illinois Educator Supply and Demand Report, east central Illinois had the second lowest average educator retention rate of any other geographic area in the state at 84.2%.
Similarly, the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools’ 2021 Illinois Educator Shortage Survey found that teacher shortages are seen most downstate — 91% of districts in east central Illinois reported teacher shortages.
Some are calling on ISBE and the Illinois General Assembly to do more. Thompson said not much will change unless ISBE backs certain policies, like ending the use of the edTPA assessment for licensure.
Even though it's a tough time to be an educator, Mellott said she finds hope through her students.
“You work for your kids, even amongst the difficulties,” she said. “The kids make it all worth it.”
Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government and distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.