Media alerts announce another school shooting with lives lost. Another extended teachers’ strike is called to protest inadequate pay. Another round of standardized test results show that American students are falling behind. Another cut made in funds earmarked for public education cripples school districts struggling to keep pace with changing curricula and technology.
ISU College of Education Dean James Wolfinger will tell you the regular recurrence of such reports sparks mounting negative sentiments toward the teaching profession as a whole, which results in one more equally troubling headline: America is facing a critical shortage of teachers.
“The problem is serious, it is real, and it is not overblown by the media,” said Wolfinger, who became dean at Illinois State July 1. Having worked years in higher education as an administrator and professor, most recently at DePaul University, he has carefully monitored what he calls “a perfect storm” intensifying across the country and leaving school districts struggling to fill vacancies.
“Part of the issue is about teacher salaries and insecure pensions, another part is the declining high school demographic in the Midwest and dropping enrollments in colleges of education at the same time teachers who are baby boomers are reaching retirement age. And yet another part is seasoned teachers and parents increasingly discouraging high school graduates from pursuing a career in education,” Wolfinger said.
“There is consequently,” he said, “no one magic-bullet solution.”
The growing shortfall is well documented. The Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C., reports that the shortage of teachers nationwide from preschool through high school worsened from 64,000 in the 2015-2016 academic year to 110,000 just two years later. The agency projects the shortfall will reach at least 200,000 by 2025.
Statistics within Illinois are also troubling. According to the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE), there were 1,407 teaching vacancies unfilled in 2018 across the state, which has approximately 130,000 teachers. The board report documents that 562 of the positions left open last year were within the Chicago public schools. Rural areas also struggled to attract applicants, as confirmed by the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools. It surveyed schools to discover that 85 percent experienced difficulty filling teacher positions in 2018.
The greatest need for teachers is consistently within the subject areas of special education and bilingual education, including classes where English is a second language. Foreign language, math, reading, and science teachers are also among the most in demand, with elementary education positions the easiest to fill.
Hope for an improved hiring scenario in the near future is hard to sustain.
The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE) revealed in a report released last year that the number of people completing teacher preparation across the country dropped 23 percent between 2008 and 2016. From 2010 to 2016, the number of individuals who finished a teacher preparation program in Illinois dropped by 53 percent.
Illinois State University is seasoned in meeting the challenge of preparing educators, as that was the institution’s sole mission upon its founding in 1857 as a teachers’ school. In the decades since, the University’s College of Education has been a leader in the field nationally.
From 2013 to 2017, it ranked as the 4th largest producer of teachers in the country. It was 7th largest in the U.S. in number of special education majors in 2017, and 8th largest for elementary education majors nationally that same year. At least one alum works in 87 percent of the state’s public school districts.
The University has approximately 42,000 living education graduates, with teachers and administrators working in every state, as well as 62 countries. And yet, enrollment has dropped over the past five years in ISU’s teacher education programs from around 5,000 to 3,600 education majors. The percentage of decline is greater at other education programs across the state, with fewer prospective teachers attending the 1,689 colleges of education nationwide, according to the AACTE.
“Illinois State has held remarkably steady compared to most schools when there has been an industry-wide decline, with many programs down in enrollment between 30 percent and 50 percent. This shows the problem is pervasive, and that ISU is weathering the challenges because of its strength and reputation,” Wolfinger said. The University offers 28 undergraduate teacher options; nine graduate programs, including four at the doctoral level; and nine certificates.
All students preparing to teach at the secondary level— as well as all planning to teach grades K-12 in art, physical education or music—earn a degree in the college that offers the subject area they wish to teach. All others are enrolled in one of three areas within the College of Education. They are Special Education; the School of Teaching and Learning; and Educational Administration and Foundations, which focuses on graduate programs.
There is ample evidence that Redbird graduates are recognized as holding stellar credentials, and that the energy exerted to hire teachers is intense. For example, ISU consistently draws recruiters from 172 districts in Illinois and 15 other states during educator hiring fairs organized by the campus Career Center.
The College of Education’s ability to remain strong in the storm is a credit to the efforts of faculty, who are at the forefront of working to remove barriers to entering the field. For some students, included on the list of obstacles is the cost of a four-year degree. The average teacher salary is $52,000 annually, with entry-level teachers earning less.
Scholarships to reduce the debt load are consequently an important incentive. The college distributed more than $500,000 in scholarship funds during the 2018-2019 academic year, and is working to increase that amount of aid going forward. A total of $14.25 million has been received by the college as a result of the University’s ongoing campaign, Redbirds Rising, with a percentage earmarked for student support.
Christy Borders, assistant dean and director of the college’s Cecilia J. Lauby Teacher Education Center, knows that financial help is just one tool in the fight to offset the hurdles prospective education majors must overcome. With low pay, long hours, and work that is no longer as respected as in past generations, Borders realizes she and her colleagues “face an uphill battle” to entice students.
“They see that we have a black eye,” she said, with attacks from multiple directions making it hard to heal. She is determined to bolster enrollment and the profession as a whole by focusing on what can be changed versus nonmalleable factors such as the dropping high school population.
What remains and must be addressed are issues such as requirements for a degree in education, content standards, and the option of eliminating a standardized academic proficiency test requirement that deters students from the major. Many educators, including those in ISU’s college, are involved in efforts to see regulatory and policy changes made. They are, however, cautious with the worry that steps taken to increase teachers on the supply side could negatively impact the quality of preparation.
“We are working closely with legislators in Springfield to address the quantity and quality piece of the problem together,” Borders said, including options for students to gain more than one teaching endorsement as they complete the major.
“The state is paying attention,” she said, by “admitting, seeing, and understanding that we have a problem.”
Borders is also encouraged by ISBE’s actions. The board completed a yearlong Teach Illinois initiative that resulted in seven recommendations released in 2018 to improve the profession, prepare a more diverse cohort of educators, and ultimately alleviate shortages across the state.
The college’s own planning to bolster enrollment does not include any consideration of lowering standards. To the contrary, administration and faculty advocate that education degrees must remain rigorous, with significant clinical hours and content requirements. Undergraduates at ISU are provided options to complete a full year of student teaching, with the college providing a strong pipeline to underserved communities.
Preparing students for dealing with the increasingly diverse population by encouraging international study remains a priority. The college also offers 23 organizations and multiple service opportunities for students to hone their leadership skills and explore career options. There are poverty simulations that impress upon teachers-in-training the reality that a percentage of their students will come to school hungry. Some will be dealing with abuse or neglect. These students need an intervention before any subject can be learned.
“Teachers have been swept up in the social and cultural shift that has taken place across the country in the last couple generations. Families are increasingly struggling economically at the same time that distrust in authority figures has become more prevalent. Teachers thus have to help many students from limited means, while educators are perceived as being part of a system that has left too many Americans behind. It’s a difficult position that requires historical understanding, social analysis, and a significant amount of empathy,” Wolfinger said.
“I tell my students that if they think their job is simply to deliver content, they will hate the work and should go for another career,” Wolfinger said. “It is an intellectual occupation, but only part of it is content knowledge. Teachers also have to know all of the students in their classroom. What motivates them? What are their strengths and weaknesses, their home situations, their learning styles?”
Instilling the need for such a holistic approach to teaching is integral to graduating individuals capable of soaring in the classroom instead of feeling overwhelmed. “We have courses that examine collaboration with families and the school social worker and school psychologist,” Borders said. “We view education and teaching as meeting needs on all levels.”
This teaching model is designed to increase the rate of retention—which is yet another reason for the nation’s shortage. The AACTE 2018 national study found that only 10 percent of graduates with a bachelor’s degree in education were teaching four years after joining the profession. Fifty percent stay no longer than three years. ISU works to reduce the loss by providing an annual conference for teachers early in their career to gain insight into surviving the challenges, and build a network of professional support that is crucial to their success.
These offerings by the college help fill the gap as work continues at the state and national level to address problems in the profession. Some changes already implemented by the Illinois legislature have gotten mixed reviews. Kelli Appel, director of enrollment and transition services within the College of Education, gives as an example the decision to allow a person who holds a teaching license in any other state to receive one within Illinois as well.
She considers the policy change to be short-sighted in that it creates another incentive for high school students to attend college out of state. While they know they can return to Illinois for their career, it is very difficult to lure them back.
Her strategy in recruiting for the college is to take a more proactive approach with students long before they near their college years. “Getting to students earlier is really important. We have even on occasion planned visits for classes from the fifth, sixth, and seventh grades. We want to start to make an impression on them,” Appel said.
The focus for youth is to plant a seed of interest in teaching. The visits are intended to spark enthusiasm for continuing their education by creating a comfort level while being on a college campus. It is one method being used at ISU to attract a more diverse population to the profession.
Appel has also intensified her outreach, working with educators across districts to launch future teacher clubs and introduce knowledge of teaching as a career pathway in middle schools and high schools. The college is planning its first Future Teacher Conference for high school students that will be held on campus in October. The college has also begun arranging signing days at high schools to celebrate seniors who are pursuing an education degree.
Such moments create an opportunity to shine a positive light on the profession, which the college does when high school students visit campus. There are Redbird Education Days that include conversations with faculty and current students to understand the wide spectrum of career options.
Prospective students also begin to envision the rewards of teaching as they hear about moments of life-changing impact that can never be reflected in an educator’s paycheck. They are what offset the negatives for those who invest in the lives of others by choosing to teach.
“Teachers pursue a career that lets them make a difference in the world,” Wolfinger said, describing the work as a calling. Individuals who rise to the challenge are motivated to be change agents who empower one child at a time.
He and his peers know the trials of preparing the next generation, and yet they persist with a passion despite the many challenges confronting education. Wolfinger answers how and why they persevere with one simple statement: “A good day teaching is better than the best day I’ve had doing anything else.”
Education alumni are sought as cooperating teachers for clinical experiences, to serve on advisory boards, to provide financial support, and to advocate for the profession. Contact the College of Education at Education@IllinoisState.edu to get involved.
Proud of the profession
Ask educators what they do, and the answer typically falls into one of two categories. Half will say they teach a specific subject. The others will reply with a grade level. Brandon Thornton falls somewhere in the middle.
“I don’t feel like I teach math. I teach students,” he said in a conversation repeatedly interrupted by the teens he has connected with at Bloomington High School. Now in his eighth year at the school of 1,500, Thornton remains energized by work he readily admits is difficult.
“It is the happiest job on earth,” he said, while explaining his approach to teaching sophomore geometry and co-teaching an algebra class where half the students have an Individualized Education Program. He also coaches the school’s speech team, and uses what should be planning periods to connect with students who know his door is always open.
“I wear multiple hats, including counselor,” said Thornton, a Rock Island native who attended ISU as a Golden Apple Scholar. He completed his undergraduate degree in math teacher education in 2011. He earned a master’s in 2016 in the College of Education’s Department of Special Education, and is now back on campus finishing a doctorate in the same subject. His goal is to remain at the high school where he did his student teaching, and was hired before he finished his bachelor’s degree.
“I knew at a very young age that I wanted to teach,” Thornton said. “I just wish everyone could see that it’s hard work, and its definitely not about the money.” It’s also not always about students grasping the content.
“My work goes much deeper than math. There are days where the math lesson just didn’t happen for everyone because I don’t put math before the needs of the kids,” Thornton said, sharing that youth shoulder a heavier burden than most realize.
“I have students worrying about their next meal, wondering if the water will be on at their home, or where they will find the money for track shoes,” he said, noting that some are caring for younger siblings.
Add pressure to succeed in school and stay on a college track, cyber bullying, and addictions fueled by new fads such as JUUL—a palm-sized e-cigarette—and it’s no wonder Thornton warns that students today are “emotionally overloaded.”
Teachers can be as well, which is why he preaches the need to be transparent about the work and inevitable fatigue. He blogs about his teaching experiences, both the joys and challenges. He follows those he considers to be “superstar teachers” to fuel his own creativity and motivation. Ultimately, he works to celebrate teaching and “help make the profession cool again.”
Positive messaging is one way that will happen. “Our own people, teachers, need to be careful about the messages we are sending. Education is already tarnished by politicians and social media,” he said, acknowledging that reform is needed to address significant issues.
“I worry about the shortage of teachers overall, and the shortage of teachers who are passionate,” said Thornton, who senses a duty to help bring change by representing all that is good in his profession. “I want people to know how happy I am because I teach math, but most importantly, that my happiness stems from everyday interactions with my students.”
Follow Thornton’s blog at bgthorn.wordpress.com.