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During ongoing educator shortage, some student teachers are stepping up as classroom subs

Teacher burnout and thinning substitute teacher rolls combined with the continuing fallout of the winter surge is pushing public school leaders to the brink of desperation. Lawmakers are responding by temporarily rewriting hiring rules.
Gregory Bull
Teacher burnout and thinning substitute teacher rolls, combined with the continuing fallout of the winter COVID surge, is pushing public school leaders to the brink of desperation. Lawmakers are responding by temporarily rewriting hiring rules.

The pools of substitute teachers from which districts fill vacancies have been no exception to the ongoing shortage of education workers.

In a recent survey published by the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents, 96% of responding school districts said "they have a substitute teacher shortage problem" and 90% said that shortage "continues to get worse."

That's prompted a host of responses, with districts attempting to lure potential subs with higher pay rates, legislators reducing the licensure requirements for substitutes down from a bachelor's degree to either an associate's degree or 60 hours of completed college coursework and, more recently, colleges and universities encouraging teacher prep students to sub in their spare time.

That includes Illinois State University, locally, along with Monmouth College near Galesburg and Northern Illinois University in DeKalb.

"At the beginning of the semester (this year)... We were obviously hearing about the crisis and thinking, as an institution, 'What can we do to help our school partners?'" ISU professor and Cecilia J. Lauby Teaching Center acting director Monica Noraian told WGLT.

Noraian said ISU staff wrote to "all school districts in the state of Illinois," saying the university would offer an amended agreement that upper-level teaching students — who already are student teaching — could also serve as substitutes, if the districts were interested and the need was present. About 30 districts responded affirmatively, said Noraian, adding "we're continuing to get more as (districts) realize, 'Oh, we can do this.'"

Noraian said she didn't have exact data available, but "maybe 10-15" student teachers are now licensed to be substitute teachers.

"With this agreement, the student teacher is allowed to be paid for that day where they are the 'teacher of record' for that classroom," Noraian said. "Normally, they're not the 'teacher of record,' and their cooperating teacher is still in the classroom checking on them and working with them during this practicum experience."

"But in these times where so many teachers are being pulled out for health reasons or family health reasons, this allows the student teacher to become the paid teacher in the classroom because they have that short-term sub license. They can help their cooperating teacher or the district in what could be more of a crisis situation."
Monica Noraian, Illinois State University professor and acting director of Cecilia J. Lauby Education Center

Monmouth College's director of teacher education, Thomas Sargent, said he saw a similar trend — and opportunity to help — among the small, rural districts that often take the private, liberal arts college's students on as student teachers.

"The teachers that were out there, they were all clamoring at the start of the fall, saying, 'We need some help, we need some relief to ... keep schools open,'" he said. "The need really... arose when two of our student teachers found their cooperating teachers had contracted COVID."

Sargent said the resulting process was an entangled situation, in which student teachers were shuffled around to other classrooms, leaving behind the students they'd been working with all year. The district was "continually" looking for substitutes and "that's kind of where it really reinforced the idea that we should be taking advantage of the situation."

Monmouth College collaborated with the local Regional Office of Education to bring the required training for a short-term substitute teaching license to its upper-level education students and "from idea to actually getting the students licensed, it all probably took about three weeks to get done."

About 30 students were licensed as a result, Sargent said.

"Since the semester has started, many of our student teachers that are out there all-day, every day have already had to use their short-term substitute license to fill in because their cooperating teacher has been out," he said. "It's been an interesting idea — we'll see if it expands or where it goes from here."

Bloomington's Illinois Wesleyan University has not "institutionalized" an effort to get its student teachers licensed to substitute teachers; Chair of Education Studies Leah Nillas said IWU directs its interested students to the ROE website for more information.

"We can't really manage that at this point: we just lost one faculty member to retirement and we're struggling to keep up with our program and the needs — this semester alone we have 21 students who have changed their major to education. That's a big number we are dealing with ... And that's a good problem to have, for sure," Nillas said. But "we really can't add more to our plate by instituting a program for subbing with a temporary license."

Both ISU and Monmouth's efforts to get student teachers licensed as substitute teachers are dependent on various pieces of legislation, chief among them HB 5627 that allowed the Illinois State Board of Education to begin issuing a short-term substitute teaching license and developing related training. The bill became effective in 2018, with a "sunset" date of June 30, 2023.

The idea was to allow more people to join the ranks of substitute teachers by lowering the requirements somewhat until the teacher shortage was abated. State Sen. Jason Barickman, R-Bloomington, one of the bill's sponsors at the time, said in a statement to WGLT that legislators "hoped it would serve as a bridge to get us to a point where our schools weren’t having such a difficult time filling classrooms with qualified substitute teachers."

"Unfortunately, we have not reached that point yet," he wrote. "The statewide teacher shortage has not abated at all, it has, in fact, gotten worse. The ongoing pandemic has also increased the need for more teachers, a situation which also may not be ending any time soon."

Barickman said he's drafting an amendment to HB 5627 that would "make the (short-term) substitute teacher licensing program permanent."

"Right now, we're assuming this is going to sunset," said ISU's Noraian. "So, we're kind of in a probationary period with our agreements: They're set to terminate when (the legislation) terminates. If it does go longer, I think we'll assess, this semester, how it's working and we will continue it if the amendment that Jason Barickman is proposing is accepted."

Sargent said Monmouth College staff would "keep data and watch what happens in the long-term," knowing that data could be used to "advocate for the short-term sub license to continue."

The college has another cohort of students set to get that license in February. Sargent added that plans to go beyond the 2022-2023 academic year are not being developed due to the legislation's current expiration date.

Lyndsay Jones is a reporter at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021. You can reach her at lljone3@ilstu.edu.