Pekin Community High School opened its doors to students recently after spending the late spring and summer making sure classrooms are staffed with the personnel needed to effectively deliver relevant content and required curriculum. But, like most schools in Illinois and throughout the country, filling those teaching vacancies is becoming harder and harder to do. The teacher shortage is far-reaching and is impacting almost every school and district in some way.
Open positions that used to elicit deep pools of candidates are now resulting in single-digit applications and sometimes those openings are left without any candidates whatsoever. For the first time in our history, we will be filling out the Survey of Unfilled Positions conveying the fact that we, indeed, had positions we could not fill. A math, physical education and industrial education position were unable to garner an applicant that could fill the role. No content area is safe from this shortage. What used to be a “science” and “math” problem of lack of candidates is now true of every single content and grade level.
The good news in this is that through some creative thinking as well as continued lifting of restrictions/requirements, PCHS was able to fill two of those three positions. One position will be filled with a long-term substitute who has a degree in a separate field and another with a retiree from the industry who received alternative licensure. The third unfilled spot was absorbed by shifting current faculty and cancelling a few sections by increasing class size of sections we had teacher for, which is not ideal.
Districts all over the state are having to come up with creative solutions to filling teaching positions or face the unenviable choice of having to leave positions unfilled. Solutions to these vacancies include persuading retired teachers to return, using emergency long-term or short-term substitute teachers, or, in some cases, even asking paraprofessionals such as teacher aides to attend emergency training making them available to sub in the classroom as the content specialist/teacher. And, for those schools such as PCHS that have thriving Career and Technical Education Centers, are always looking for employees in the industry who, without a degree or a teaching certificate, would be a good fit in a classroom imparting their knowledge to younger generations.
How, you may ask, did we get to this point? Teaching, throughout history, has been a noble profession that allowed for a family-sustaining wage while, although not in line with other professional occupations, offered other perks such as a solid retirement plan, an alternative work schedule and, most importantly, the ability to feel that you were making a difference and impacting future generations.
But, little by little, various legislation and expectations have chipped away at the foundation of this profession. For instance, it is obviously important to get highly qualified individuals who want to be teachers. So, in that vein, prospective teachers were required to pass certain certification tests. As time went on these tests continued to be strengthened and implemented resulting in massive failure rates and prospective teaching candidates having to spend time and resources retaking these tests or making the decision to walk away from a profession that they aspired to over a test score. While this was going on, the Teacher’s Retirement System, which has historically been underfunded by the state took steps to try to “make up” some of the underfunding by creating a second tier pension system for newer teachers that is actually requiring them to pay more into a retirement system than they will ever get back when they are allowed to retire at age 67 (retirement age for Tier I teachers is approximately 55 years old).
And added into the mix is the increasing need for teachers to be able to handle/fix/support students with increasing social and emotional needs that teachers historically have not been trained to do. Teachers are expected to be everything to everyone, every day of the school year. It is taxing and tolling on a whole different level than ever before. In addition to keeping up with content area knowledge, teachers must continually integrate technology into their classes while also learning how to support children coming to school with various acute traumas they are dealing with outside of school. The desire to teach our next generation and have an impact is becoming harder and harder to see as a reality when faced with all of the mandates and stresses of also having to impact areas that are beyond a school’s/teacher’s control. The expectation to do all of this while feeling increasingly less respected by students, parents and the community as a whole can be disheartening to say the least.
The combination of all of these factors result in less and less young people seeing teaching as that noble profession so many of us have in the past. In fact, you have current educators not only not staying in education but also convincing their children to not consider it as a potential profession. Again, in the past this was unheard of as many of our current teaching professionals have come from whole families of teachers. So, at a time when the state has started to positively impact schools through a new funding structure that has begun to open doors in Districts that had to be closed due to lack of funds, schools are now in a position to fill/create teaching positions needed for some time, but now they cannot find the people to fill the positions.
So, as school commences, please keep these hard-working professionals in mind. Those still stepping up to make a difference with our next generation deserve our respect and adoration or least the benefit of the doubt!
We need these teachers to thrive in our schools and they need our support to do so. If not them, who?
Dr. Danielle Owens is superintendent of Pekin Community High School.