Rural locations, pandemic worsen educator shortages in McLean region

By Grace Barbic Capitol News Illinois

Christelle Harding, instructional specialist coordinator, and Jey Owens, recruitment and retention specialist, speak to new Decatur teachers in August 2019. The district has a program to recruit new educators. (Photo by Jeff Smudde/Herald & Review of Decatur)

Editor’s Note: Lee Enterprises reporters Lenore Sobota, Kelsey Watznauer and Lyndsay Jones of The Pantagraph in Bloomington; Valerie Wells of the Herald & Review in Decatur; and Rob Stroud of the Journal Gazette/Times-Courier in Mattoon-Charleston contributed to this story.

East central Illinois school districts have an even greater difficulty filling teaching positions than the statewide average, according to a new study from a regional superintendents group.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made matters worse as rural districts brace for lasting effects in the years to come. 

Kyle Thompson, regional superintendent for the 11th Regional Office of Education, said it gets more difficult every year for schools to fill positions, and he believes the worst is yet to come. 

“For a while it was, ‘Well there’s a shortage in Spanish, or there’s a shortage in FCS (family and consumer science).’ And, over time there’s just a shortage in everything; now everybody’s in a panic,” Thompson said. “But we put out this survey every year and, it’s the same results every year. A lot of times, the State Board (of Education) or the General Assembly they’ll put a Band-Aid on an open wound that needs stitches and has an infection and that doesn’t solve the problem.”

Thompson’s regional office contains 25 school districts within seven counties, including Clark, Coles, Cumberland, Douglas, Edgar, Moultrie and Shelby counties.

The Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools on March 1 will release its 2020 Illinois Educator Shortage Study that shows 77 percent of the 591 school districts responding to the survey believe they have a teacher shortage problem, with rural areas being hit the hardest. 

Seven regions were established for the survey. With 84 percent of east central Illinois district respondents reporting having at least a “minor” teacher shortage, the region was above the state average but in the middle of the seven areas surveyed.

Despite this region being home to two of the state’s top teacher producers — Illinois State University and Eastern Illinois University — the more rural districts are finding it harder to fill new positions each year. 

According to the survey, all respondents in 11 of the region’s 18 counties reported having at least a “minor” teacher shortage. In Champaign County, 70 percent of responding districts reported teacher shortages. All respondents in DeWitt and Edgar counties reported a “serious” or “major” problem hiring teachers.

Teacher shortages are not new to the state, but Thompson said matters began to worsen when the State Board of Education made EdTPA, a performance-based national assessment for licensure, a state requirement to become a teacher. 

Reassessing the licensure process may be one way to address the teacher shortage, said Regional Superintendent Mark Jontry, whose office covers DeWitt, Livingston, Logan and McLean counties.

Jontry said some state education officials have considered eliminating certain testing requirements as well as making “alternative licensure programs” more accessible for disadvantaged populations and those coming from a different career. That might include adjusting the structure and scheduling of the process, he added.

“We’ve got to look at the barriers that are currently there to prevent people from entering the field for whatever reason — whether it’s testing, whether it’s coursework, whether it’s the structure of our teacher preparation programs — to make them more accessible,” Jontry said.

There is also concern that increased responsibilities for teachers and criticism of educators for the way learning has been handled amid the COVID-19 pandemic could hurt recruitment.

The pandemic has exacerbated shortages that already existed in disciplines like science, math and special education, Jontry said.

Districts in that area, he said, “had some teachers that have probably chosen to retire a year or two earlier than they were going to” because of the pandemic. He said there aren’t enough teachers available to fill those spots.

According to the survey, of the east central districts that responded, 49 percent said there were significantly fewer qualified applicants to fill open positions in their district compared to previous years. In rural areas overall, 56 percent said there were significantly fewer qualified applicants. 

“Everybody should just understand that we always seem to have positions that go unfilled in our region, and while we are, relatively speaking, better off than most, it continues to be a concern that we’re going to be getting to a point where we’re unable to offer some programs,” said Jontry, a member of the IARSS Educator Shortage Committee.

The survey also shows that 21 percent of districts in the east central region reported canceling classes or programs due to shortage of qualified applicants. A total of 58 classes were reported canceled as a result, according to the survey.

“We’ve got to make the profession attractive,” Jontry said. “I think more and more is asked of our teachers and we have to, kind of, reset and think about … what things we really shouldn’t be able to expect of our schools.”

Regional districts also have an increasing problem filling substitute teaching positions, the survey found. Of the districts that responded in the east central region, 92 percent reported at least “minor” shortages of substitute teachers. The problem has worsened in the past five years, 85 percent of responding districts reported. And all but 3 percent of respondents said they expect the shortages of substitute teachers to worsen in the future.

​The teacher shortage crisis hasn’t hit Bloomington District 87 as hard as other parts of the state, thanks in part to having the state’s major producer of new teachers, Illinois State University, in its backyard. The Mattoon school district in western Coles County reported a similar situation due to the availability of student teachers and recent graduates in this field from nearby Eastern Illinois University.

But these school districts are still concerned about the future. 

Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources David Skocy said Mattoon has seen applicants for elementary teaching posts decline. There was a time when the district could expect 400-500 applicants for openings in certain areas, but now that number is down to 40-50, he said. Skocy has seen applicants for content-specific classes such as Spanish decline from 5-10 on average to 2-3 in recent years. 

Skocy said he’s hopeful that the recent increase in undergraduate teacher preparation program majors at EIU will help reverse this trend.

“The real challenge to this is retention. Once you employ a good teacher, you want to retain a good teacher,” Skocy said, adding that Mattoon’s retention rates have declined from 90 to 92 percent to 86 to 88 percent in the past decade.

Retention is especially difficult for rural school districts because there is not as much of a draw for teachers to relocate to rural areas. 

Many rural school districts are also found competing with surrounding districts for teachers to fill positions and are starting to see trends with teachers relocating more than they used to.

Thompson referred to it as a “teacher carousel” with neighboring districts. 

“You pin some of these districts against each other by quote unquote stealing teachers or teachers leaving one district to go to another,” Thompson said. “A teacher leaves district A to go to district B, who then leaves because a teacher left district B to go to district C. And, you know, meanwhile you leave district A without a teacher, and it’s just kind of a chain reaction.”

As a result, there has been an increased effort to recruit from within existing districts. 

“Grow-your-own” programs have increased in Illinois high schools, creating a pipeline for future students by giving them the opportunity to learn about and experience teaching before they graduate. Some schools partner with their local community colleges and universities to offer dual credit courses while their students are still in high school, including McLean County Unit 5.

Thompson said the teaching profession has changed significantly and students are coming to school now with greater needs. The number of families living below the poverty level has increased exponentially in his region over the past decade. The social and emotional well-being of students is also a concern, he said, as rural areas lack social workers and other mental health resources.

But for now, Thompson is focused on filling an open math position at one of his schools. 

“It’s still February, and I’m already worried about how many applicants I’m going to get and what I’m going to have to do and how creative I’m going to have to be to get somebody to do this,” Thompson said. 

“We, as a state, just have to keep working towards finding some more solutions, but the longer this goes on, the worse it’s going to get.”

Teacher shortage worsening for most Illinois districts