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Skipping School: Teachers Making Ends Meet

Brandan Oates
Brandan Oates
Brandan Oates is preparing for his first teaching assignment at Kingsley Junior High in Normal.

Editor’s note: This is Part 2 of GLT’s Skipping School, a special series about the teacher shortage facing Illinois schools. Part 1 was about teachers who left the profession.

Brandan Oates is a 22-year-old from Poplar Grove, near Rockford. Fresh after graduating from Illinois State University in the spring, he landed his first teaching assignment at Kingsley Junior High in Normal, where he will teach business and computer science.

Skipping School: A GLT series about the teacher shortage facing Illinois schools.
Credit Flickr / Creative Commons - Patrick McFall
This week on GLT's Sound Ideas: A four-part series on the teacher shortage facing the State of Illinois, called Skipping School.

Oates taught grade school and high school students while he was a student teacher in Unit 5's Northpoint Elementary and Normal Community last year, but he's never dealt with the unique challenge of instructing sixth, seventh and eighth graders.

“There is a lot of drama that starts in middle school,” Oates said. “It’s a very important time in the development of an adolescent but it really is all about the trust and building rapport. That’s going to be key in classroom management.”

First-year teachers in Unit 5 who have a bachelor's degree start out at $37,000 annually. It's one of the lowest starting salaries in McLean County despite being the largest district in the county. District 87 in Bloomington offers the highest starting pay in the county at $38,128.

Oates said pay had no bearing on his choice of school district or even his career choice.

“Educators who are looking to get into the field because of salary are probably not going into the correct field,” Oates declared.

While Oates doesn't envision ever leaving the teaching profession, data suggests he's more likely to eventually leave the classroom than those who taught a generation ago.

Unit 5 hired 200 new teachers and teacher's assistants for its 23 schools this summer. The district had to replace nearly 10 percent of its faculty, as some educators retired, took other teaching jobs or left the profession.

The Illinois State Board of Education reports the state has turned over about seven percent of its teaching positions each year for the past decade.

Superintendent Mark Daniel said the unprecedented turnover is due in part to State Farm's recent job realignments which forced many teacher families to relocate, but he suggested there's also a larger cultural shift at play. 

“I think it’s part of the millennial generation,” Daniel said. “Historically, they don’t stay in a position for their entire career. They tend to move and find different places and even change careers.”

"Educators who are looking to get into the field because of salary are probably not going into the correct field."

But Daniel acknowledged teacher salaries and career earning potential can be a turnoff, specifically for teachers in Unit 5.

“We knew we were not competitive in regards to our salary schedule, so (in the) new contract (with the Unit Five Education Association) we had to revise that. We had to be somewhat competitive.”

The district bumped its pay for first-year teachers 7 percent this year.

Many educators believe pay has become a turnoff for prospective teachers. Ben Matthews, a field representative for the Illinois Education Association, recently attended a job fair at ISU.

“It wasn’t that long ago that the line at the Unit 5 table was out the door because people wanted to come work in this district,” Matthews recalled. “I was able to walk right up to the table this year and talk to the folks who were working there because there was no line at all. It’s because they would look at the starting pay and realize it was thousands of dollars less than what they could get elsewhere.”

Small-School Struggles

Gary Tipsord
Credit Eric Stock / WGLT
Gary Tipsord has been superintendent of LeRoy public schools for 12 years.

Nearly eight in 10 public school administrators in Illinois said in a survey last year their school has a teacher shortage. A majority of them said they face a major teacher shortage.

The survey by the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools shows smaller, more rural school districts have an especially difficult time finding and keeping good teachers.

Gary Tipsord is superintendent of the public school system in LeRoy, a McLean County city with a population of 3,570.

“If we opened an elementary position 10 years ago, it was not uncommon to get 75 applicants for that job,” Tipsord said. “We’ve had elementary positions open in the last couple years where we were lucky to have 10.”

Tipsord is one of the architects of Illinois' new evidence-based school funding formula, which calculates school districts' funding needs based on nearly three-dozen factors.

He said the intent of the new funding model is to give teachers the resources they need gives their students a better chance to succeed. That, he said, could keep more teachers in the profession.

“When you feel successful, when you see positive things happening, you feel better about your job,” Tipsord said. “It doesn’t matter what your job is.”

Tipsord said in researching the evidence, he came upon a discovery that he's already put to use in his school district. He noted students who are struggling to meet certain academic benchmarks but wouldn't fit in a special education setting would benefit from an interventionist, a tutor who could serve as a liaison between the student, parents and teachers to help the student meet their goals. He's hired one interventionist to help students in LeRoy’s elementary and junior high.

Tipsord acknowledged teachers, especially at the entry level, should be better paid, but he bristles at the $40,000 minimum salary bill lawmakers sent to Gov. Bruce Rauner this spring.

“(Lawmakers) need to understand and our public needs to understand the implications to property tax of a bill that was just passed in Springfield,” Tipsord said. “Some legislators in Springfield just told us in McLean County you are going to potentially have to do something different with your property taxes. That seems like overreach.”

Tipsord said minimum salaries in LeRoy are close enough to $40,000 minimum that a tax increase wouldn't be necessary, but for some school districts that have much lower starting pay, a tax hike might be unavoidable.

He said for teachers who are well below the $40,000 minimum, some districts would need to sharply increase annual pay, which could run afoul of another state law which caps pay raises at 3 percent in the final years of a career to avoid pension spiking.

“If I have (teachers) at the end of their careers, you just passed a piece of legislation that is going to force me to potentially have to take a penalty,” Tipsord said.

The school district would have to pay any penalties related to pension spiking.

Tipsord added the salary increases at the lower-end of the pay scale would inevitably lead to more pressure to increase pay for the other faculty.

How McLean County Schools Fare

According to the Illinois State Board of Education, nine school districts last year paid entry-level teachers less than $30,000. The lowest was in Farrington, a small town near the Indiana border where teachers start at about $26,700.

In McLean County, the lowest starting pay was Olympia at about $34,005. Next is Lexington at $35,294. Then comes the largest school district in McLean County, Unit 5, which educates nearly half (47 percent) of the public school students in the county. Teachers there started last year at about $35,393.

Here are starting salary levels for McLean County school districts in 2017-18, as provided by the Regional Office of Education:

Unit 5's Mark Daniel said if the governor signs the bill mandating the $40,000 minimum, the district would likely need to raise property taxes.

“I think Bloomington-Normal understands the importance of educating their youth, but we would have to go out for some type of revenue increase to cover that,” Daniel said.

The governor hasn't taken action on the teacher salary bill. Rauner has said while teachers should be paid better, he said the key to school district's financial flexibility is reducing unfunded legislative mandates. Setting salary minimums would be such a mandate.

While many teachers say they can live with a smaller paycheck, they are concerned about the uncertainty surrounding their pensions, even after the minimum retirement age was recently raised to 67.

Tipsord said that will be impractical, if not impossible, for some teachers to manage.

“The idea of a kindergarten teacher getting up and down with kindergartners and matching the energy of a kindergartner at age 67, those are remarkable people that can do that and they are rare,” Tipsord said.

Substitute Teachers

Neil Styczynski
Credit Eric Stock / WGLT
Substitute teacher Neil Styczynski says he begins every class by spelling his name phonetically for his class.

While a majority of school districts in Illinois say they face a major teaching shortage, many more of them will tell you they face an even greater shortage of substitute teachers.

Neil Styczynski was 53 when he retired from IBM 12 years ago and now serves as a substitute teacher at Normal Community, Normal West and University high schools in Normal.

He said he tried subbing at the junior high level, but found that wasn't for him.

“You (could) describe the girls as mean girls and the boys as stupid boys in junior high,” Styczynski said tongue-in-cheek. “Mean girls are only mean to each other. They aren’t mean to teachers at least. Stupid boys are stupid to everyone. It wasn’t something I enjoyed having in front of me.”

At 6-foot-6 and 260 pounds, Styczynski has little trouble commanding the classroom, but he said earning students' respect right away is essential. He takes classes at Heartland Community College, in part to stay sharp on any of the various subjects he might have to teach.

Styczynski makes clear to his students, it's not a free period when he’s subbing.

“When I come into a French or a Spanish or a German (language) class and I speak to them in the language that they are learning, they realize it’s not a day off and that disappoints the students,” Styczynski said. “It also means they don’t try to get away with anything by talking in French or Spanish or whatever in front of me and thinking I don’t understand.”

Styczynski added he finds substitute teaching intellectually challenging, but about three to four days a week is enough for him. He explained he only gets frustrated when he’s unable to connect with students who have already given up on themselves or get involved in gangs or drugs.

“You can’t always read the signs when they are into drugs or when a kid responds to my classroom management as a challenge to his or her, primarily his, masculinity,” Styczynski said.

Styczynski isn't teaching for the money. He makes between $80 and $105 per day. But he understands why that's a turnoff for some who might seek to sub as an entry point into a full-time teaching job.

“As the pay goes up, the number of candidates will go up,” Styczynski said. “Right now, the supply is low and demand is high but that comes and goes as the economy changes.”

Unit 5 and District 87 offer the lowest substitute teacher pay in the county at $80 per day. U-High, Illinois State's laboratory high school, pays the highest at $105 per day.

The IARSS survey said a majority of school districts face a serious substitute teacher shortage, and a majority said the problem has gotten significantly worse in the last five years. It was about that time when the state increased the cost to become a substitute teacher and required them to pass a background check.

Illinois' Regional Offices of Education handles licensing for substitute teachers. Mark Jontry, regional superintendent for McLean, DeWitt, Livingston and Logan counties, said he hopes the new evidence-based funding model will enable schools to not only pay substitutes better, but to better prepare them for the classroom.

“Subs that go through professional development that is provided either through our office or at the district level (is intended to) ensure that they are able to provide an adequate level of instruction and support in the classroom,” Jontry said.

Illinois has also relaxed some guidelines for substitutes by reducing the cost of a license (from $200 to $150), enabling candidates with 60 post-graduate credit hours, as opposed to a four-year degree, to sub on a short-term basis, making it easier for out-of-state teachers transfers their license to Illinois and allowing retired teachers to sub longer without jeopardizing their pensions.

Private vs. Public Schools

Karen Hertzner
Credit Eric Stock / WGLT
Karen Hertzner said she had a lot more freedom in the classroom after leaving the public school system to teach at Central Catholic.

If pay is a worry for teachers in the public school system, it would seem to be even greater issue in private schools, where teachers generally make less.

Karen Hertzner taught math for one year at her alma mater, Normal West, before the district planned to eliminate the job and transfer her to Normal Community. Hertzner suggested that's when divine intervention took over.

“I remember praying, I said, ‘Lord I have no time to apply anywhere else, so if you want me to apply, I heard there’s an opening at Central (Catholic) you are going to make that happen,’” Hertzner said, “The next day, the electricity went out at Unit 5 and literally Unit 5 called it an ‘Act of God’ day. So I went and applied at Central and got the job.”

Hertzner is about to begin her fifth year teaching geometry and algebra at Central Catholic High School in Bloomington. Looking back, she said she's glad her job at West got eliminated because she finds the private school system to be far more liberating.

Not only can she be more open about her faith in school, she’s been given more flexibility to teach the way she wants. 

“If my students aren’t ready for a test day, I can take an extra day,” Hertzner said. “I have a lot of freedom with how I plan and with the curriculum and how I teach it and that’s awesome.”

Hertzner added teacher evaluations and professional development, while they still exist in the private school system, are far less burdensome, while class sizes are generally much smaller too—typically 20 students are the maximum.

“I can handle this amount of kids. I can give everybody a lot of good attention during the day, and you don’t leave class thinking, shoot, I didn’t talk to this person,” Hertzner said. “Everybody gets your attention and that’s really, really nice.”

Hertzner is on maternity leave with she and her husband's first child. Her husband is an account manager for an insurance agent in Bloomington.

She said while it's more of a strain making ends meet as a private school teacher, finding joy in her job is most important.

“We make a little less but we just live by our means. Honestly, as a single person it was totally easy to live off of that as well.  You make a couple of cuts and sacrifices, but it was just so worth it.”

Unit 5's Daniel says while most of his teaching positions have already been filled, there's always a need for teaching assistants as some classes more than 30 students. Starting pay is between $10 and $12 an hour.

You can also listen to the full story below:

GLT's full story.

Coming Thursday: Today's teachers must balance business model standards while also being an educator, parent, nurse and friend to their students.

BONUS: Listen to Unit 5 Superintendent Mark Daniel talk with GLT's Eric Stock about teacher turnover in his school district.
BONUS: Listen as Regional Superintendent of Schools Mark Jontry discuss the results of a teacher shortage survey.

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