Who will teach the children? That’s a question many school districts throughout Illinois are struggling to answer as they search for teachers to fill vacancies.
A collaborative effort to address the teacher shortage downstate is underway as Southern Illinois University Carbondale has partnered with Shawnee Community College, John A. Logan College, the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) and nine Southern Illinois high schools to proactively establish pathways to teaching careers for young students.
ISBE awarded an Education Career Pathways grant of $249,000 for 2020-2021 to the Southern Illinois Future Teachers Coalition (SIFTC), which includes the aforementioned institutions of higher learning along with these high schools: Anna-Jonesboro, Carterville, Cobden, Johnston City, Joppa, Massac County, Meridian, Vienna and West Frankfort. In all, ISBE is investing nearly $1 million over a four-year period to address the teacher shortage in the region. Shawnee Community College is the grant administrator.
The premise is simple, according to Nancy Mundschenk, director of SIU’s Teacher Education Program: When students are still in high school, they get specialized opportunities that provide a jumpstart toward careers in teaching.
How dire is the teacher shortage?
Four years ago, Vienna School District Superintendent Joshua Stafford recalls, he could expect to see 40 applications within a week of posting a teaching vacancy. Fast forward to the summer of 2020. Stafford’s district posted 15 teaching positions, including two high school math jobs, and 30 days later, there were zero applications for the high school posts.
Stafford eventually recruited two excellent math teachers from other schools, but despite having the advantages of a decent salary scale and geographical advantages not available at all Southern Illinois districts, it is an ongoing struggle to fill teaching positions. He has even had teachers come out of retirement to help fill jobs for as long as a year or two.
Stafford is far from alone with what he’s experiencing in Vienna. According to the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendent of Schools 2020 Educator Shortage Study, released in March, 77% of the 591 districts responding reported a teacher shortage, and 93% of the surveyed districts reported a substitute teacher shortage. Some of the most severe shortages are in the rural and southern parts of the state, officials said.
Officials said there are numerous reasons for the teacher shortage. A few years ago, there was an oversaturation of teachers. For more than a decade, school funding in the state was “tumultuous,” leading to job losses and the perception that teaching wasn’t a good career path, according to Stafford. Evidence-based funding of schools kicked in during the spring of 2018 after revised legislation was enacted, but schools are “still in recovery mode.”
Growing teachers locally
Helping young people envision themselves as the teachers of tomorrow is vital, according to Mundschenk and Stafford, who point out that a recent SIU study showed the majority of the educators in Southern Illinois work in districts within a 13-mile radius of where they attended high school.
“We know that the solution to our teacher shortage will come from us working collaboratively as schools, communities and a region to equip our young people to fill these positions downstate, and this grant is helping us do that,” Stafford said.
Mundschenk said the project is a “true partnership” of the high schools, community colleges and SIU creating a “well-crafted teacher preparation program that will inspire young people to consider education professions and ignite their passion for teaching and learning.”
There are several components the high school students can get involved in, including:
- Dual credit courses in the teacher education track in which students earn high school and college credits.
- Workshops and other special activities.
- The Educators Rising Club – a modern day, ramped-up version of Future Teachers of America, according to Stafford. Students get hands-on learning experiences and participate in projects in their communities.
- Experience with younger children – spending time in grade school classrooms, observing and helping with children, or working in after-school programs, Boys and Girls Clubs or church organizations – anywhere aspiring teachers can see what it’s all about to work with younger children while under the supervision of experienced teachers and adults.
- Special activities such as visits to SIU.
“What we are doing is creating the pathways so they will be ready for secondary education that in turn prepares them to become engaging teachers,” Mundschenk said. “This program is very deliberate, very articulated. It involves real-life experience and mentorship. It’s job-focused. It’s designed to help students get a jumpstart on their career path and help school districts ‘grow their own’ teachers.”
Program’s impact felt
Maelee Sparks and Heather Trambley have been participating in the Educators Rising program at Vienna High School. Sparks said it has been a “very meaningful and educational experience.” When she begins her senior year this fall, Sparks will have already earned college credits by completing two dual credit courses in educational psychology and diversity of schools and society, and Trambley will be starting college with credits already in tow.
Every Friday during the spring semester, the Educators Rising participants enjoyed going to Vienna Grade School and helping in the classrooms. Sparks said her time in the first-grade classroom of Elaney Spore was an enjoyable, interactive experience that taught her so much.
She also explored new topics and issues affecting teachers and learned a great deal in the corresponding high school education course taught by Leslie Bradley. Sparks has wanted to be a teacher as long as she can remember, and she’s pleased to have gained so many insights and practical experience through the program.
Trambley especially enjoyed working in the classroom with younger children and a visit to SIU.
“It has been great to learn what it is like to have your own classroom, and I loved building relationships with the students,” she said. “The presentations done by different professors at SIU were really interesting and helped me decide to go to SIU.”
The COVID-19 pandemic and accompanying restrictions threw a few roadblocks up for the program during the last year or so, Bradley said, but “I hope that the students were able to see that as a learning experience and a small look at how fast teachers and staff must adapt to the needs of their students and community.”
Bradley said it’s important for educators to encourage their students to examine goals in whatever area their interests may lie and “we must provide them some access to explore the educational path leading to those careers and some training to prepare now for their future. While we hope to support them in pursuing careers as educators, it is more important to give them tools to understand the many possibilities ahead of them.”
That’s the goal of the SIFTC collaboration, Mundschenk said. Thus, another important component is helping high schools establish model programs that feed career exploration. That can include offering classes in child development, social work and other areas, particularly those related to education.
A taste of college
SIU hosted a special program and campus tour for about 50 Educators Rising program participants and high school faculty sponsors in late April. The students met with School of Education faculty and staff, as well as Grey Dawg, and participated in interactive learning experiences with SIU students who are current teacher candidates.
Shaely Hennesy, a senior at Anna-Jonesboro High School, and Lily Moore, a junior at Vienna High School, were among the participants at the SIU event. Hennesy said she appreciated the chance to “test out” a career in teaching through Educators Rising.
“I’ve had good teachers, and they changed me,” Hennesy said. “I want to teach kids and help change their lives.”
Moore said she wants to teach at the college level and motivate her students through her teaching.
“I’ve learned a lot about how to be inclusive of all students, regardless of their differences, through this program,” Moore said.
Bailey West, a senior at Carterville High School, said working in the classroom gave her a real appreciation for teachers and how much effort they put into preparing engaging lessons and it brought her close to some of the youngsters she enjoyed helping.
Sophie Davis, a senior at Du Quoin High School, has wanted to be a teacher for a long time and is grateful that Educators Rising helped her get an early start toward the career she wants.
Allison Baer, a senior elementary education major at SIU from Salem, said having a program like Educators Rising “would have made my life a lot easier.” On an individual basis, she said, she did some of the same things that are part of the program but having a support system and designated program would have been very beneficial.
Skylar Miller, a senior elementary education major from Carbondale, had first intended to be a dental hygienist, but like many students, she changed majors. As she shifted plans, she found the faculty and advisers very helpful in enabling her to get her goals put together.
Upon arrival at SIU, Baer also found a lot of support and guidance.
“The best part is the professors and one-on-one connections you make,” Bauer said. “Right off the bat, they go out of the way to help you. They almost become your friends.”
Making lessons count
Bauer is looking forward to doing her student teaching in third grade at Unity Point School in August and graduating in December. She and Miller joined Hennesy, Moore, West and Davis in a unique teaching and learning experience at Wham on the SIU campus that April morning.
Each group, comprising high school and SIU students, was assigned a specific everyday object – a small flower pot, a plastic foam ball, a tiny tree, a baseball, a ball of yarn, a flashlight or some other commonplace item. Their goal was to create diverse classroom lessons they could teach using that object.
The SIU faculty and staff on hand were wowed by the quick thinking and wide variety of ideas the future teachers came up with in just a few minutes. Who would have thought that a baseball could lead to lessons about history, civil rights and nutrition?
Seeds were planted two years ago
The foundation for the SIFTC collaboration was laid by a 2019 grant, the Scaling Education Pathway in Illinois (SEPI) grant. The Southern Illinois Network for Future Teachers project, which involved SIU, John A. Logan College, Shawnee Community College, the Association of Rural Small Schools, the Illinois Education Association and the Regional Office of Education 30, along with six area high schools (Vienna, Carbondale, Carterville, Cobden, Du Quoin and Johnston City) received $14,000 in funding.
The grant funding enabled the coalition members to work together to create career pathways to help youths begin preparing early for careers as licensed teachers. Stafford saw for himself how well it worked, so he was very happy that Vienna would be part of the new and expanded project.
“Teaching is probably the most important thing a community does,” Stafford said. “Educating the next generation is a vital task. We very much appreciate Nancy and the School of Education for their support of this program and our students.”