There are lots of good reasons to become a teacher. It’s rewarding. Kids need you. And because of a teacher shortage, the state needs you too.
But Shamaine Bertrand has an even better reason: Teachers are powerful.
“A lawyer can’t be a lawyer. A doctor can’t be a doctor. A surgeon can’t be a surgeon. A plumber can’t be a plumber. Nobody can be anything if they did not have a teacher. So we are powerful, right?” she said.
Bertrand, an assistant professor of elementary education at Illinois State University, spoke this month to 350 high school students visiting ISU for the Future Teacher Conference. The event was part informational, part pep rally, for a profession that many feel has an undeserved reputation.
That reputation is one cause for a complex teacher shortage that’s being felt statewide. There are currently around 1,800 unfilled teacher positions in Illinois, with concentrations in special education, English as a second language, and the STEM fields, said ISU College of Education Dean Jim Wolfinger. A survey by the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools found that superintendents in 85% of districts have either a major or a minor problem with teacher shortages.
“We have a problem in Illinois,” said state Sen. Jason Barickman, a Bloomington Republican and ISU alum who spoke to the high schoolers. “I’m enthused by the fact that I can look out and see all of you who have raised your hand and said this is something I might be interested in.”
High schoolers at the Oct. 18 event spent the day learning about what it’s like to be a teacher, or a college student training to become a teacher. Sessions covered a wide range of topics, including international teaching opportunities, high-demand teaching fields, and working in urban schools.
Chicago Teachers Strike
The conference took place on Day 2 of the Chicago Teachers Union strike, which has canceled school for more than 300,000 students. It follows months of negotiations between the union and Chicago Public Schools that failed to resolve disputes over pay and benefits, class size and teacher preparation time.
The strike was on the minds of several attendees, including Sameer Datta, a senior at Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville. He wants to teach high school, focusing on math or hands-on skills like engineering or automotive skills.
Datta said he wants to teach because of an urge to give back—to repay what his teachers did for him. He’s also informed. He’s followed the new state law that will raise the minimum teacher salary in Illinois to $40,000 by the 2023-24 school year—one way the state is trying to cut into the shortage.
“It’s lessened my worry about pay, because I want to have a family and support them, but at the same time being a teacher isn’t about money. You don’t get as much money,” Datta acknowledged. “I’m a little worried about that, but I feel like I can get past that.”
Bertrand, the ISU professor, also spoke to conference attendees on the pay issue. She said the profession is “the most rewarding job ever.”
“While I don’t drive a (Lamborghini), I’m OK,” she said. “Because there’s something that happens in these classrooms where I can say, I gave them that experience so they can be better.”
Teaching is rewarding, but it’s also demanding.
Daniel Jackson is a recent ISU teaching graduate who is now teaching second-graders in Chicago Public Schools. He spoke on a panel with current and future educators at the conference.
“There’s injustice. You can’t ignore it. The students don’t ignore it. They bring it to you,” he said.
Jackson said the social-emotional needs of his students stretch well beyond his lesson plans. Good teachers dive into “uncomfortable situations,” he said, and talk to students about challenges in their personal lives.
“You want to give them something you needed as a child. That’s something I’ve learned from my teachers: They gave me what I needed, and then they moved on with the curriculum,” Jackson said.
Finding The Right Fit
Britta Warren is a senior at Normal West high school, and she’s already sold on being a teacher. Her mom was an elementary school teacher.
Warren wants to teach special education. And it’s a safe bet: She began working with the special-needs ministry at her church as a sixth-grader.
“I love that they just care about having a good time and being themselves,” said Warren. “They don’t really care about what a lot of people worry about most of the time, which is such a relief to work with kids that want to just have a good time.”
Warren said she learned a lot at the ISU Future Teachers Conference, and she appreciated the encouragement about the profession. On paper, Warren’s job prospects would be good. There were 871 total special education openings (pre-K through 12th grade) in 2018, according to the IARSS survey.
“I would say I’m pretty much all in, but one worry for me is finding the right fit in a school district. Teaching is a team effort nowadays, and finding the right fit in a good team would be a slight worry of mine,” she said.
About 1 in 4 new public-school teachers in Illinois graduated from ISU. ISU has around 4,600 students who are studying education in some form, said Wolfinger, the College of Education dean. That’s been steady the last few years but down from historic highs, he said.
“As we look to the future, thinking about what are the needs of the state of Illinois, we need to be sure we’re focusing on things like special education, English as a special language, and STEM fields,” Wolfinger said. “And thinking about those programs as well as our traditionally strong programs like elementary education, early childhood education, and middle school.”
Beyond addressing the shortage, Wolfinger said his college is working to diversify its student body and therefore the teaching profession. In McLean County’s Unit 5 school district, for example, 65% of students are white but 93.7% of teachers are white, according to the Illinois School Report Card. In Bloomington’s District 87, 88.9% of teachers are white, while just 47.9% of students are white.
“We don’t see the teaching workforce mirroring the demographics of the state, so we’re working on outreach to try and get more students from other backgrounds to come into education,” Wolfinger said.
ISU was founded originally as a teachers’ college. Wolfinger said ISU still plays an outsized role in making sure Illinois’ education workforce is adequate to meet its needs.
So what was his goal for the 350 high schoolers in attendance at the conference?
“I want them to be invigorated by the idea of becoming a teacher. That this is an exciting occupation, that every day you can go out and do something good in the world,” he said.
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