NPR from Illinois State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Despite Fewer Job Openings, Educators Say Teacher Shortage Is Far From Over

sharondesmoulin.png
Sharon Desmoulin-Kherat, the superintendent of Peoria Public Schools, says her district is trying many strategies to recruit teachers, as with many other school districts in Illinois and across the country.

Illinois has fewer unfilled job openings in its school districts than it did last school year, according to the Illinois State Board of Education. But experts say they don’t expect the current solutions to the state’s teacher shortage will last much longer.

Districts across the state reported more than 4,800 job openings as of last school year. Data from this fall shows that number dropped a few hundred.

Mark Klaisner, president of the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools, said remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic gives teachers flexibility they normally do not have. That has kept some of them from leaving the profession.

“In some respects, while you're in a remote environment that solves some of the problems,” said Klaisner. “You can actually, as a teacher, you could serve more students in a remote environment.”

That means some teachers pick up more classes, which helps districts disguise the shortage of qualified teachers.

Klaisner said the practicality of the situation means districts need to do what is necessary to get the best educators in front of students.

“We've got to figure this out, because our kids deserve the best we can provide,” said Klaisner.

Klaisner said he doesn’t expect loading up teachers with extra class sections to be a permanent solution to the teacher shortage, especially as Illinois heads for phase 5 of reopening.

“I don't believe that the pool of qualified people grew,” said Klaisner. “I think we're going to see exactly the opposite in the summer of '21."

Klaisner said he expects the pandemic will make the shortage worse next school year.

“Teachers are choosing to opt out and retire, rather than come back into a perceived unsafe situation,” said Klaisner. “We can't find more adults, we can't find more qualified adults, and especially not those that are licensed to teach.”

How districts are managing

Larger school districts are feeling the struggle. Take Bloomington's District 87, where Suzanne Daniels is director of human resources.

“(The shortage) hadn’t hit us in the beginning,” said Daniels. “But now it’s even hit us.”

She said they’ve had to resort to increased short-term teacher approvals and last-second hires to make things work.

“There's just not as many educators out there, less people are going into teaching,” said Daniels. “It has put a real burden, strain on the system.”

District 87's Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Sherrilyn Thomas said she thought the district has been fortunate overall.

“Even when we have openings, somehow we figure out a way to make it happen and make it work and get bodies, get qualified individuals there in front of our kids,” said Thomas. “But it’s certainly not without challenges.”

She said the district has tried to take care of its teachers and employees.

“There has been consistent communication to our teachers and all employees throughout this pandemic, because we want to make sure that they know their needs are considered as part of this,” said Thomas.

When it comes to the overall shortage, Thomas said politicians and media that vilify teachers aren’t helping. She said she’d like to see loan forgiveness and fixes to the state’s teacher pension system.

“There's just a lot of things that should be happening to just honestly make going into teaching more attractive,” said Thomas.

Peoria Public Schools Superintendent Sharon Desmoulin-Kherat said her district is trying many strategies to recruit teachers. That includes moving around staff and looking internationally for teacher prospects, though that process has been on hold because of the pandemic.

Kherat said school districts in Texas and North Carolina have been using similar plans to deal with the teacher shortage.

"It's definitely a crisis,” said Kherat. “We’re all in this together, really."

According to Kherat, numerous PPS schools are either fully staffed or have no more than two job openings.

“We're definitely plugging away, but you have to be very intentional, very strategic,” said Kherat. “It has to be monitored at least on a weekly basis, if not sooner as it relates to staffing.”

Above all, Kherat said she wants to bring people already in the community into education.

“We have to continue to grow our own and make it attractive because it is, it is a very attractive profession,” said Kherat. “It's hard work, but it's such great meaningful work.”

Mark Klaisner of the superintendent association said ending the shortage will depend on drawing more people into the teaching pipeline.

“Everything else is short-term and band-aid,” said Klaisner. “People have to want to be teachers and commit time to it and get involved and get engaged.”

What it takes to find solutions

Districts are trying to find other ways to bring more teachers into the profession. That often means working with teaching programs at state schools. The National Center for Urban Education at Illinois State University, for example, used to work with Peoria Public Schools on a pipeline program. It stopped when grant money from the U.S. Department of Education ran out, though Kherat said she hopes ISU will find funding to resume it.

Maria Zamudio is the executive director of the center. She said Illinois State emphasizes community immersion and making sure teacher candidates have a chance to interact with community people and groups. Zamudio said she wants teachers to know their communities.

“I think we're always trying to find ways to become more proactive in thinking out of the box,” said Zamudio. “Times change, and we need to change with the times.”

She said the traditional college experience isn’t enough anymore for teachers.

“We need to meet halfway if we want to continue the growth,” said Zamudio.

Kelli Appel is the director of enrollment and transition services in the College of Education at ISU. She said the university has been pleased with continued strong enrollment in teaching programs.

Appel said keeping educators in the profession isn't the only challenge. Keeping high school graduates in the state long enough to major in education is another.

“One of our goals is how to make it more accessible for people, especially people who can't move to Bloomington-Normal or to some other universities,” said Appel.

Appel said shortages in some subjects and geographic areas have been going for years.

“We definitely need to try some different things because some of the avenues haven't fully been successful, clearly, or we wouldn't still have shortages,” said Appel.

Appel said expanding funds for teaching incentives would help people stay in the profession.

But in the moment, school superintendents are also glum about the situation. 86% of respondents to a survey say they expect the shortage to remain a problem at least two more years.

There’s no subscription fee to listen or read our stories. Everyone can access this essential public service thanks to community support. Help fund your public media with a contribution to WCBU or WGLT.

Christine Hatfield, a graduate student in University of Illinois Springfield's Public Affairs Reporting program, is WGLT and WCBU's PAR intern for the first half of 2021.