Teacher shortage could 'destroy public education' in western Illinois if it continues

Samuel Lisec
Galesburg Register-Mail
Galesburg High School teacher Craig Hillier speaks to his civics students on the first day of in-school learning at GHS on Monday, Sept. 20, 2021. Galesburg School District and other districts in west-central Illinois are struggling to fill teaching positions due to a teacher shortage caused by fewer students becoming teachers and many existing teachers retiring or leaving the profession.

GALESBURG — Ten years ago, a school district looking to hire a new physical-education teacher could net over 40 applicants. Now, superintendents in western Illinois say they are lucky to see more than five.

Such a decline in the number of people looking to teach — combined with other factors like an uptick in retirements, the stresses of the pandemic, the advent of new positions in schools — has contributed to a nationwide teacher shortage that is impacting school districts across west-central Illinois.

The Register-Mail spoke to superintendents in Galesburg, Macomb, Monmouth-Roseville and United schools, as well as the director of the Regional Office of Education and the assistant dean of Western Illinois’ School of Education, about the severity of the shortage in the region and what is being done to address the problem.

Galesburg using 18 long-term substitute teachers

Galesburg School District 205 now has 18 teaching positions filled by long-term substitute teachers. The district’s superintendent, John Asplund, said that is more than he has ever seen in his 25 years as an administrator.

District 205 Superintendent of Schools John Asplund

Smaller districts, like Monmouth-Roseville 238 and United 304, each have three positions filled by long-term substitutes, but, similarly, United’s superintendent Jeff Whitsitt said that is more than his district has ever seen.

Macomb 185 has all of its positions filled by certified educators but does keep on a substitute full-time for each school building due in part to the shortage, Macomb’s superintendent Patrick Twomey said.

All of the districts’ superintendents said they saw an above average turnover of teachers last year: 17 teachers retired in Galesburg 205, eight left United 304, three retired in Monmouth-Roseville 238 and Macomb 185 has added 20 new teachers this year alone.

“It's becoming a year round process trying to recruit and retain teachers, where we're constantly on the lookout for people," Asplund said. “A tenured teacher used to never dream of leaving their position but now they'll go and look for another position.” 

Jodi Scott, director of the Regional Office of Education 33 which represents Henderson, Knox, Mercer and Warren counties, estimates the region is also short about 12 paraprofessional positions and 12 bus driver positions.

A bus drops off students with a "Welcome Back" sign reflecting in the windows. A shortage of bus drivers has been a problem for schools in west-central Illinois.

‘People became unhinged’ over masking policy

A number of teacher retirements were typical and expected, but superintendents said the high turnover in their districts was also the result of teachers deciding to retire early due to pandemic pressures, teachers hopping to new districts or teachers leaving the education profession altogether.

Of these pandemic pressures, superintendents named the difficulty of teaching online, “elevated” student behaviors in the classroom, concern for students’ mental health and the politicization of COVID-19 masking policies or school curriculum.

“People became unhinged,” Twomey said of last February. “If you were mask-mandate then all the people that did not believe in the masks were very upset with you. For those districts who were mask optional, you upset the people who thought everyone should have a mask on. There was no winning that particular battle at that time and I don't think there could be a school district in the country that escaped that.”

School districts that are struggling to retain existing teachers must also grapple with the challenge of fewer applicants and the need to add new non-academic support positions to their buildings, like school counselors or truancy workers. 

More:Pandemic attendance. How bad was it in Galesburg schools? And is it improving?

Galesburg High School teacher Russ Ulrich gives instructions to students in his newly-renovated computer classroom on the first day of in-school learning at GHS on Monday, Sept. 20, 2021. Area superintendents say masking policies in the classrooms became a point of contention during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as forcing teachers to immediately teach remotely.

Enrollment drops at WIU mean fewer teachers for area

School districts in the region get many of their teachers from Western Illinois University, which was first established as a teacher college. Yet the university, like others in the region and across the nation, has seen a decline in enrollment over the past 10 years.

Fall enrollment of full-time and part-time students at WIU has dropped from 11,458 in 2014 to 7,455 in 2021, according to the university's website. The fall enrollment numbers for 2022 are not yet available.

Eric Sheffield, assistant dean for Western Illinois’ School of Education, said that he gets calls everyday from superintendents and principals from both public and private schools, asking for available teachers. But based on polls he has seen, Sheffield said high school seniors’ interest in entering the education profession has “dropped like a stone” over the past 20 years

“High school graduates do not want to be teachers,” Sheffield said. “As long as they are in schools where they are seeing teachers be treated rather disrespectfully by a whole host of society, that is certainly not going to convince them that that is a career they want to pursue.”

The university is a particularly valuable source of teachers in that it provides the school districts with people who want to live in the area. 

“Illinois State, a lot of those folks are going right back to the suburbs when they graduate,” Asplund said. “Western was always a good place for us because it was a lot more local people who would want to stay in the area, so it was a lot more reliable to keep those folks. But now there's just so many fewer people going into teaching that that pipeline of people has really dwindled to an alarming degree..”

Teacher Teresa Powell points to a whiteboard during seventh grade English class in Galesburg on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021. Some school districts have started offering tuition reimbursement to help entice teachers to join their districts.

Some districts offer tuition reimbursement

In order to attract applicants, Asplund said that the Galesburg District 205 is offering teachers up to $1,400 a year in tuition reimbursement and a competitive wage that can increase for experienced teachers. Monmouth-Roseville is offering a similar program for teachers with up to $2,000 in tuition reimbursement.

Whitsitt said that United 304 has not gotten to providing new incentives yet, but does offer a competitive wage. Twomey said that Macomb 185 has not had to provide new incentives yet either due to its proximity to Western Illinois University.

But perhaps the larger shift that has taken place in how school districts are securing teachers lies in their approach to the certifications of the people they hire.

Sheffield said that the old model of hiring teachers involved WIU reaching out to school districts with the names and qualifications of students that had graduated from their program. But now, Sheffield said that school districts are reaching out to the college first, in some cases hiring undergraduates even before they have completed their student teaching.

Sheffield said that WIU is also seeing an unexpected amount of growth in its new alternative licensure program, in which teachers gain a two-year provisional license to teach that counts as their student teaching toward a master's degree. 

The Regional Office of Education is also offering a series of job fairs. Scott said the intention of the job fair is to help people learn what incentives each school district is offering, what licenses they need to become a substitute teacher and connect them with resources for testing. 

Many no longer see teaching as a noble profession

In order to continue offering the same classes while operating with fewer teachers — particularly in fields like science, foreign language and special education — Whitsitt said school districts have to be more creative in how they fill vacancies. 

Which is to say, in light of struggling to find a science teacher, United and Macomb are now both satisfying the state requirement of providing students three years of science by hiring a teacher who studied agricultural studies. 

And though United is still currently providing all of its offerings in person, Whitsitt said the district “would be silly not to prepare” for new methods in the future. As in once United’s calculus teacher retires, Whitsitt said the district may have to bus children to Monmouth-Roseville or get online with Abingdon-Avon or Sandburg’s calculus teacher.

“The plug and play just is not going to be sustainable until there's some changes, until there's some incentives for people to go into the profession and we start seeing some greater turnout from our teacher prep programs,” Whitsitt said. “And I'm not blaming them — when I came out of school being a teacher was a noble thing to do and people looked up to it and right now I don't feel like that is the case.” 

More:ROWVA Board accused of not hiring teacher due to her statements supporting challenged book

Teaching staffs get younger as experienced teachers retire, leave profession

Another consequence of the uptick in retirements and people leaving the profession is that school districts have suddenly replaced their roster with a much younger staff.

Twomey said this has a both good and bad side for a district — the good being you “inject your system with new ideas and there’s some excitement,” but the bad being districts lose a lot of institutional knowledge.

Asplund affirmed that having less experienced teachers makes it difficult for new teachers to get the support they need to learn how to grapple with increased student behavior issues.

“As you have fewer and fewer veteran teachers in a building it gets harder and harder, it's like a flywheel, it starts spinning in a bad way where if you have a lot of teachers that are leaving the profession,” Asplund said. “Now you have a lot of new people that really haven't been seasoned on how to handle student behaviors.”

‘Something has got to be done’

Whether school districts can continue weathering a teacher shortage without eventually gaining larger class sizes or offering fewer education opportunities for kids remains to be seen.

"I couldn't tell you it's sustainable long term because we've never fully dealt with this kind of problem before so I don't really have a past to base it on,” Asplund said. “I would tell you that I don't see it as a positive for education if the problem just remains as bad as it is, let alone gets worse." 

“My personal take on the long range impact of a contracted teacher shortage that has been getting worse and worse is that it very well could be catastrophic both in terms of individual education for students, but also bigger socio-political,” Sheffield said. “I mean it could destroy public education if it continues in such a direction. Something has got to be done.”