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What it will take for more Illinois school districts to 'grow your own' teachers

Heyworth classroom
Lyndsay Jones
/
WGLT
Students in Katie Bruemmer’s Education 101 class in Heyworth take turns giving group presentations about how school district finances work.

The coordinator of the Illinois chapter of Educators Rising, a group advocating for future teachers, says she’s lobbying for a $400,000 commitment from the state to allow high schools the chance to implement early teacher prep courses.

Often called Introduction to Education or Education 101, the courses are aimed at giving juniors or seniors a chance to see if they want to pursue a career in education — and they’ve also been touted as a means of reducing the teacher shortage, as well as diversifying a heavily white profession.

The problem, according to Educators Rising’s and 2018 Illinois Teacher of the Year Lindsey Jensen, is that these courses aren’t available at every high school in Illinois. In McLean County, three of seven school districts offer the elective course for dual-credit with Heartland Community College, including Unit 5, Heyworth and Olympia.

“Providing equitable access to the curriculum has been a huge obstacle,” Jensen said in a recent interview. “It all boils down to partnerships … providing those aspiring educators a system of support to make access into our profession more equitable.”

Jensen, who testified before an appropriations committee a couple of weeks ago, said she’s asking the state for $400,000. The money, she said, would go toward Educators Rising, and purchase a license for the curriculum that would allow for its distribution to high schools.

"As an educator, I want my students to make sure they know what education is, so that they can make a good decision about, ‘Is this for me?'"
Teri Wilson, Normal Community West High School

If a high school is offering this course and hasn’t purchased materials for it outright, it’s likely been funded by a grant from the Illinois State Board of Education. In February, ISBE announced its most recent round of funding for such programming — $2.1 million that brings the state’s total allotment to high school teacher prep to $5.6 million since 2018. Via a news release, ISBE estimates the money provided so far has “supported more than 1,000 high school students in their quest to become teachers.”

“What I’m trying to do is eliminate that middle step, so that we can just offer it to every public high school in the state,” Jensen said. “I’m in no way trying to overshadow the great work that’s being done with various ‘Grow Your Own’ programs throughout the state. But a lot of those things are happening in silos and what we’re trying to do is scale a collective effort to tackle this issue.”

If the $400,000 amount is OK’d by the state, it will signal the culmination of a four-year effort.

“We’ve been in the budget twice — we were on the governor’s desk in 2020 and then COVID happened,” Jensen said. “Each year it’s like we’re starting our advocacy efforts for funding all over again.”

Jensen said she expects to know whether the funding will be allotted by the time the state legislature adjourns on April 8.

Learning what you like — and what you don't

Teri Wilson leads Introduction to Education at Normal Community West High School. Between her classes and those of her counterpart at Normal Community, Wilson says there’s demand for the elective course.

Mostly, that’s because about “95-98%” of the 20-plus students who take it know they want to pursue education, but Wilson says there’s value in the class beyond the confirmation that some students get after a few weeks.

“One of my favorite things that happens in this class is that sometimes students recognize, ‘I don’t want to do this. This is not my cup of tea; I am not cut out for this,’” Wilson said. “I am always thrilled for students who figure that out at the high school because that means they have not wasted time, energy and money — all of these resources at a collegiate level where they’re paying for it.”

Plus, it’s not just about funneling potential teacher candidates to higher education programs: Wilson said she’s keenly aware that most people who go into education “are not in the classroom for 35 years.”

That’s why guest speakers frequent the class, speaking from their perspective as a counselor, social worker or building technologist. They remind students that they can still work in schools without having to be a classroom teacher.

“I don’t know what it looks like in the next 25-35 years that my students are going to be teaching,” she said. “But there’s a whole new set of things that are coming up and you can be innovative.”

The variety of experiences helped NCWHS senior Kylie Black figure out what she wanted to do — finally.

“I came into the class and I didn’t really know if I wanted to do education or if I just wanted to do something in the realm of school-ish,” Black said. “I’d toyed with school psychology for a little bit. But I found out I really liked being in the classroom and working with students.

“This has helped me kind of focus and it was kind of the first time that I felt like I had a path for my future, whether it be like college or just in general — things kind of make sense.”

Lest it seem like Black or any of the other students are viewing the profession with rose-colored glasses, Wilson said the class often has “pretty real conversations about the negativity” surrounding the profession.

“We continue to have frank discussions — what is the response (they) are going to have? Is (their) passion strong enough to stand up to that negativity?” she said.

The real talk prompted senior Autumn Casey to reevaluate what career path would work best for her. She knew she wanted to teach and she knew she loved music, so originally, she planned to go to college for music education.

“I actually changed my major,” she said. “Music is always the first thing to get cut, so I realized that my job would be on the chopping block first, so I had to change it. It makes me sad that you never know.”

Like Black, Casey plans to pursue a social studies teaching career after having “a really impactful social studies teacher.”

“I kind of want to be that to someone else in the future,” Casey said.

The course also offers students a chance to visit various levels of education, sending them to observations at the elementary, junior high and high school level.

In Heyworth, teacher Katie Bruemmer’s Education 101 student, senior Mercedes Tucker, said those observation periods helped her zero-in on what level she wanted to teach.

“I feel like this has opened up that world for me more,” Tucker said. “For me, elementary is just where it’s at — the kids are so full of life. Then you come to high school and it’s like everybody wants to die, so I’m leaning more toward elementary.”

On a recent Wednesday, Bruemmer’s students took turns giving group presentations about how school district finances work. In addition to learning about what it’s like to be “on the other side of the desk,” students also learn the basics of district operations — everything from how property taxes work to what equitable funding means to how salaries are determined.

“They’re good at being students and reacting to things or thinking about things from their perspective,” she said. “They’ve probably not thought too much about state budgets and federal money and how that all trickles into, ‘Oh I’d like a new desk or a new program in my classroom.’ Trying to make some of those larger educational concepts practical for them as future teachers is one of the main goals of this class.”

Like Wilson, Bruemmer knows that not every single one of her students will graduate college as teachers, but she sees in them a common denominator of “wanting to use their powers for good in the future.” She says it’s hard to be surrounded by her students and not feel excited for the future.

“It’s like everything else — you’ll get a soundbite or something about student behavior or low salaries or whatever, but when you dig a little deeper, every teacher and every situation is not like that,” she said. “For them to be willing to engage and dig deeper and look at what it really means to be in education — that is really exciting. They don’t just stop at the video of the TikTok teacher.”

Bruemmer said she’d like to see the program grow beyond what it has already become in the district; Wilson said she’d also like to see the program grow, emphasizing its versatility as not just a class that confirms what students think, but one that exposes them to reality.

“I hope that we recognize that giving kids an opportunity to take some of these ‘elective courses’ can really benefit them in a way that may reduce the time they’re in college,” she said. “We need to give kids an opportunity to see what their passion really is. As an educator, I want my students to make sure they know what education is, so that they can make a good decision about, ‘Is this for me?’”

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