When Cristy Meyer was in elementary school, she spent a lot of time with deaf and hard-of-hearing students as part of a special program her school offered.
She found she enjoyed it, and was so influenced by the experience that she ended up teaching special education for 18 years.
“I think that matters, that you can relate to experiences you have as you’re growing up,” Meyer said Thursday, explaining how vital it is to “spark an interest” in young people to enter the teaching profession.
Now, the director of student services for the DeKalb School District 428, Meyer is leading the charge to recruit and retain teachers despite a teacher shortage in Illinois. New data released by the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents this week said the state is in an educator-shortage crisis. The data were based on survey responses from 527 out of 858 district superintendents in Illinois.
Crisis or not?
The concept of an instructor crisis is not new to the state, or even DeKalb County. School district boards and administrators across the county have begun tackling the issue head-on, and have evolved the ways they are recruiting and retaining teachers.
“As an employer, I look at people’s résumés and I think ‘What did you do with children outside of going to school and your student teaching?’ You have to know children; it doesn’t just come from a college classroom,” Meyer said.
Officials from both District 428 and Sycamore School District 427 said their staffing levels are not quite critical – but they have the potential to be in the near term.
“Not today, not this year,” District 428 Superintendent Jamie Craven said. “But we know the crisis is on the horizon.”
District 427 Superintendent Kathy Countryman echoed Craven’s assessment.
“I don’t feel like we have a shortage with regard to our teacher positions,” Countryman said Friday. “We run between 89 and
90 percent retention rate for our teachers.”
Substitute teachers needed
There’s an important distinction to make, however. Although full-time classroom instructors, and even more specialized roles such as counselors, speech and language pathologists and school nurses are filled on a more regular basis, it’s more difficult to find people to fill necessary roles such as substitute teachers and teacher’s aides.
“The substitute teacher piece is a piece that I think is also very difficult at this time,” Countryman said. “It’s gotten a little better since the state did some changes in regard to licensure, but we struggle at times.”
Craven said both positions are vital.
“I can’t stress the importance of both [enough],” Craven said. “They are critical to our daily operations.”
In July, the state adopted a law that allows people with an associate degree to get a short-term substitute teaching license.
Recruitment efforts for substitutes are more than just making it easier to get a license, however. The regional superintendents’ survey analysis also shows that 64 percent of districts use an existing teacher to fill in places where substitutes should be, impeding the teacher’s class preparation during the day.
DeKalb’s latest responses
Meyer said District 428 began to address the problem by hiring building substitutes in 2018.
“It’s a guaranteed, five-day-a-week job,” Meyer said. “At about 5:30 in the morning, our principals are texting each other saying what the [building] needs are.”
Meyer said the district has about 15 building substitutes, one for each elementary school, and a couple assigned to the middle and high schools. They can be moved around to other buildings based on need.
On the agenda for Tuesday’s District 428 Board meeting, human resources director Sarah Abate will present proposals for a new compensation structure for substitute teachers.
In District 428, substitutes make $95 a day for the first 10 consecutive days of their assignment. After 15 consecutive days, they make $135 a day. In Sycamore, it’s $90 for the first 10 days, and then $150 a day after 10 consecutive days in the same assignment.
According to Abate’s presentation, District 428 draws on a stable group of 115 certified substitutes, who are eligible to receive $100 bonuses when they reach certain milestones, such as stepping in on 30, 60, all the way up to 150 attendance days. The latter would be a lot like teaching full time, as a school year typically has about 176 attendance days.
Recruitment, Meyer said, is a complex conundrum, but district officials are being proactive with their hiring efforts.
“We put together a recruitment committee, and we have been really working hard to diversify our efforts,” Meyer said.
District 428 also unveiled a diversity plan in the fall. And DeKalb High School Dean of Students Maurice McDavid has joined a statewide network through the Illinois State Board of Education to better recruit and retain minority candidates.
“When I go out and recruit, my statement to them is, ‘We can offer you a diverse urban experience in the middle of a cornfield,’” Meyer said.