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New Unit 5 High School Class Offers Homegrown Solution To Teacher Shortage

Students at one-room schoolhouse
Unit 5
Unit 5 high schoolers on a recent field trip to the one-room schoolhouse on the west side of Illinois State University's campus.

Illinois has a teacher shortage, and policymakers are trying some big ideas to fix it. That includes raising the minimum teacher salary and getting rid of the Basic Skills Test requirement.

But in Unit 5’s two high schools, a more homegrown solution is taking root. A new class called Intro to Education is giving 40 high school students hands-on experience with their potential future career, years before student-teaching. They’re learning key concepts and issues impacting the American education system, like economic circumstance and childhood trauma. Then they’ll spend next spring interning alongside professional educators at central Illinois schools. 

"This isn't just a job you do for your Christmas break or your summer off."

The class is part of a broader approach in Unit 5 to build career paths for students, especially through electives, by giving them insights into how their passions may lead to a job, said Normal Community High School family and consumer science teacher Margherita DiVita. 

DiVita teaches NCHS’ Intro to Education class, which is also offered at Normal West. Juniors and seniors in the class can get credit through Heartland Community College in Normal, part of a growing number of dual credit courses being offered in Unit 5.

DiVita said she and the other creators of the class think about the teacher shortage a lot. The class doesn’t dwell on the negative aspects of the teaching profession, DiVita said, but it’s honest.

“We want to keep it as real as possible,” DiVita said. “We’re not sugar-coating anything related to Illinois policy, or retirement, or base wage for teachers. We’re definitely keeping it 100% real. With the focus being, if this still truly is your passion, the reality is at the end of the day, teaching is about that passion with kids. It’s about building relationships.”

By giving possible future teachers hands-on experience early on, the course may also help students realize teaching is not for them. That’s better than wasting four years of college tuition only to sour on the job after a couple years in the workforce, DiVita said.

“This isn’t just a job you do for your Christmas break or your summer off,” DiVita said. “You do it because you want to build relationships. You do it because you want to make a difference. You do it because you’re passionate about learning. And so for a lot of them, that’s been the background of what we’ve done: Can you see yourself, even through some of the struggles in the education world, still waking up every morning wanting to do that? 

“In my perfect world, we’d all be colleagues someday,” DiVita said.

This fall the students are taking several field trips, including to a one-room schoolhouse, an education technology conference, and a future teacher conference, all at Illinois State University. In the spring they’ll choose one or two internship locations in elementary, middle, or high school. 

Junior Grace Alcozar of Bloomington is taking the inaugural course. She wants to teach eighth grade, inspired in part by her own eighth-grade literature and composition teacher.

She’s known she wanted to be a teacher since kindergarten. 

“I’m really excited to move onto the clinical part of the class, but so far I feel like I’ve already learned a lot about educating children of different backgrounds and ability levels,” Alcozar said.

NCHS senior Elisabeth Wells said she’s fascinated by elementary education, especially second grade. 

“I’m really excited about this class. It’s one of my favorite classes already. I love the discussions. I think they’re very valuable, things that I can incorporate into my future classroom. We talk about (teaching) philosophies, which is really fascinating,” Wells said. “I’m really, really, really excited for when we start to actually be in the classroom, because we have clinical hours, so we get to go to the schools and be in classrooms and interact with the children.” 

Wells said she knows teaching isn’t an easy job. 

“Long hours and all that. You take work home with you. Behavior problems can get to you. I know the pay isn’t all that good. Reputation, all of that. I know all of that,” Wells said. “But I’m so passionate about what I want to do and helping children and creating those relationships with kids who feel kind of lost is so important to me, I think it’ll all be worth it.”

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Ryan Denham is the content director for WGLT and WCBU.