Overcoming challenges: Downers Grove schools rely on different solutions to deal with teacher shortages

DOWNERS GROVE - The COVID-19 pandemic has taken its toll on schools across the county as educators struggle to overcome myriad challenges including educating students remotely and overcoming a shortage of teachers.

The consequences for teachers vary from burnout and reductions in lesson planning time to increases in workloads.

Officials in Downers Grove Grade School District 58 are trying to overcome the challenges associated with the teacher shortage in different ways.

The school board recently decided to increase the daily pay rate for substitute teachers from $115 to $140 to help bridge any differences between what other districts are offering.

District 58, in partnership with its teacher’s union, has also made it possible for teachers to complete portions of their work from home that can be done in the absence of students and classrooms.

Jayne Yudzentis, District 58′s assistant superintendent for personnel and staff development, said staffing concerns prompted the district to do more internal subbing than is ideal. She said it led some teachers to be unable to get portions of their work done.

Internal subbing refers to faculty members filling in during their free periods for teachers who are absent.

“The challenge for staff is if we’re in a situation where we don’t have anyone to sub—and again now, here we are now versus where we were—it makes it harder,” Yudzentis said. “We did have teachers who were giving up their time to sub for others.”

District 58 has turned to offer substitute teaching positions to candidates with provisional certificates, officials said.

El Sierra School Principal Jason Lynde said he’s had a number of the district’s parents and families tell him how impressed they are with the effort the teachers are putting in.

“While this is not easy work, it is important work,” Lynde said. “The staff’s ability to embrace new technology along with a new math curriculum this year is equally impressive. We have not lost focus on the whole child and that makes me extremely proud.”

Lynde praised staff for all they do to support students.

“I have always been impressed with the staff at El Sierra because they are positive, resourceful and always student-centered,” Lynde said. “This has been magnified during the pandemic because now parents get to see them in action.”

Getting to know students in a digital learning environment has brought its share of challenges for teachers.

Kelly Wyatt, a fourth-grade student at El Sierra School, said the pandemic has prompted her to reimagine the way she supports students and their families.

“We have all been faced with the challenge of getting to know our students in very different learning environments,” Wyatt said. “Through communication with our students’ families and incorporating social emotional learning lessons, morning meetings and ‘getting to know you’ activities, we are continuing to make connections with our students and are building strong, supportive classroom communities both in person and while learning remotely.”

Staff members have been tasked with wearing multiple hats, which Lynde said is not ideal because his own duties get backlogged.

“I have been a substitute teacher over 10 times so far this year,” Lynde said “While it means my normal day-to-day work gets put on hold, it does give me the opportunity to experience what our teachers do each day.”

Lynde said he gets to experience firsthand how students are adapting to learning in a remote environment.

“They get to laugh with me and see that I am not just a principal, but a teacher at heart,” he said “Their excitement when I greet them at the door or let them in on the Zoom meeting is priceless. I know they miss their teacher, but it is nice to know that they enjoy it when I sub for them.”

Time is a commodity that some in District 58 do not always have.

“Our workflow is undoubtedly different than it was a year ago,” Wyatt said. “We are learning and utilizing new technology, depending on and communicating with our colleagues more than ever, partnering with our families more than ever and making the best decisions we can when there are still many unknowns ahead of us.”

Lynde agreed.

“In my opinion, teachers need more time in general,” he said. “They want to engage students in learning. Because teaching in a hybrid or remote model is new territory for everyone, the experienced teachers and the new teachers are all working hard to make this happen. Our district has promoted professional development from within and creates grade-level experiences where all of the district teachers in one grade meet with each other via Zoom periodically.”

Much like District 58, Community High School District 99 has had to overcome some of the same challenges.

Downers Grove North Principal Janice Schwarze said they haven’t needed many substitute teachers to fill in, given the district’s decision to pause the implementation of its hybrid learning model.

“People have been ready to chip in,” Schwarze said.

Joann Purcell, a teacher and an instructional coach at Downers Grove North High School, said internal subbing hasn’t become at issue. As part of a contract with the teachers’ union, district staff is required to fill in twice as a substitute twice a year, officials said.

Not all subbing is handled internally in District 99 schools.

Robert Lang, District 99′s assistant superintendent for staff services, the district relies, in part, on retired teachers to fill in, but since the pandemic took hold they have needed to turn to consider other candidates.

The district pays substitute teachers at a daily rate of $110, officials said.

Lang said it’s difficult to pinpoint why some people have opted out of working for the district.

Purcell said the school board and district’s administration remain committed to ensuring that teachers receive the necessary professional development. From trainings on student engagement and instructional technology, there is an array of offerings available to staff, officials said.

Schwarze said she believes teachers feel supported by the district.

“Our teachers are tired, but I think our teachers would say the schedule that we’ve created for them and the professional development that we have provided for them has made things as bearable as possible,” Schwarze said. “We’re very conscientious of the fact that are teachers are having to learn a completely different way of teaching and our students are having to learn a completely different way of learning.”

Wyatt said the pandemic has taught her a lesson about the community the school serves.

“During any school year, I always look forward to celebrating the successes of my students,” Wyatt said. “Seeing the look of pride on a student’s face when they have accomplished a task, mastered a new skill or reached a goal is still one of the best parts of my day.

“These days are not always easy and some are really difficult, but seeing our students continuing to learn and grow in such a different learning environment makes me realize how hard everyone is working together right now.”

Wyatt said she’s learned there’s power in looking for the bright spots.

“More than ever, parents, teachers, administrators, family members, daycares, neighbors and so many others are working together to support each other and do the best we can for our kids,” she said. “Now when we celebrate our students’ successes, we know that there is an even bigger army of people working together to support them.”