Report: Illinoisans worried about staffing shortages in schools

Alex Piron teaches math at both H.C. Storm and Alice Gustafson elementary schools in Batavia. Piron is a 2017 graduate of Batavia High School.

Knowing the pool of teacher candidates isn’t what it used to be, Steve Pearce visited job fairs at two state universities this week in hopes of finding the right candidates to fill anticipated openings next school year.

In his 10 years with Batavia Public School District 101, teaching positions for the coming year normally would post after the March school board meeting. This year, the jobs were posted in February, said Pearce, who serves as chief human resources officer for the district.

“We’re trying to be more proactive,” Pearce said. “Five to 10 years ago, we could post a position, and we would have hundreds of applicants. Now, we’re finding we have to be more purposeful.”

The Illinois Education Association’s state of education report released Thursday makes special note of staffing shortages in schools across the state. Its poll shows 87% of Illinoisans are worried about teacher shortages, while 79% are worried about a shortage of school support personnel, such as teaching assistants.

“We found Illinoisans see a direct connection between the shortages and student performance,” IEA President Kathi Griffin said Thursday. “They realize that if we do not have enough talented professionals in our schools, it will impact our students’ ability to learn.”

The poll, which surveyed 1,000 residents, showed Illinoisans ranked having a good public education system higher than lowering taxes, economic growth, balancing the state budget and pension reform. It also showed 74% of those surveyed believe teaching has become more difficult in recent years.

According to the IEA report, 1 in 3 teachers surveyed in September 2021 said they were considering retiring and felt burned out. According to the report, 12,000 teachers have retired since the start of the pandemic.

“We are continuing to struggle under the weight of a teacher, education employee and substitute teacher shortage,” said Griffin, adding that the shortages are at a “crisis level.”

Bilingual and special education teachers also are harder to find.

Although the pandemic shined a spotlight on staffing levels, districts began noticing a decrease in qualified teaching candidates around 2015, said Louis Lee, assistant superintendent for human resources in Indian Prairie School District 204.

“This problem has been around and has just been building for the past eight to 10 years,” he said, noting that there has been a drop in the number of students entering the educator pipeline.

Last year, District 204 started a “grow your own” program with the goal of encouraging students to consider a career in education. The program spans all age ranges. Fifth-graders, for example, were able to participate in a Q&A session with the district superintendent to learn more about careers, while middle school students can participate in a “Teachers of Tomorrow” after-school club.

“We are continuing to struggle under the weight of a teacher, education employee and substitute teacher shortage.”

—  Kathi Griffin, IEA president

At the high school level, students are paired with and able to spend time observing teachers and helping in classrooms. Last year, the program drew 90 high school students. This year, 130 high school students are involved in it.

The IEA survey showed public support for efforts such as “grow your own” programs to help attract more teachers. The survey also showed respondents supported increased funding for public schools and that many believed teachers and teaching assistants were underpaid.

In a written statement Thursday, the Illinois State Board of Education noted efforts to shore up the teacher pipeline but acknowledged challenges remain in harder-to-fill positions and underfunded schools.

“We have made significant investments in the teacher pipeline, which have grown the teaching profession, increased teacher retention, and increased teacher salaries,” according to the ISBE statement. “But like the IEA report shows, there are still persistent shortages in underfunded schools and hard-to-staff subjects.”

A proposed Teacher Pipeline Grant program would provide $70 million a year for the next three years to help districts with the greatest shortages.

According to ISBE, 80% of the 3,500 unfilled teaching positions statewide are concentrated in 20% of the state’s school districts. Of those districts, 60% are in rural areas and 40% are in urban areas, and all are considered to be underfunded.

Alicia Fabbre Daily Herald Media Group

Alicia Fabbre is a local journalist who contributes to the Daily Herald