Back to School: Illinois schools fight teacher shortage

Some students going back to school this fall will find fewer teachers in their classrooms.

Class sizes in Illinois are, on average, 16 students to every teacher, according to the National Educator’s Association. But, some schools in the state say their class sizes are much larger, from 25 students all the way up to 35 kids for every teacher.

But while schools struggle to find a high number of qualified candidates, colleges are struggling to get their students into teaching programs. Southern Illinois University Carbondale is partnering with schools like Murphysboro High School to change that together.

In one week, students in Murphysboro will head back to class for the year. Principal Tony Wilson says the enrollment numbers are rising, and they can’t always find enough good teachers to keep up.

"There is a teacher shortage. There’s no other way to say it," says Wilson.

Tight budgets over the last few years and budget uncertainty around the state have teachers like Jeff Weaver-White doing more with less.

"We try to incorporate Shakespeare and the things we used to offer as a separate course in to the curriculum," Weaver-White says. The English teacher has been with the school for 20 years. When he started, he says the school had 10 English teachers, but now they’re down to just five.

Wilson says with money tight, they’ve been all about hiring quality teachers instead of just filling their quote. He says that all starts with getting good student teachers from SIU.

“Ask anybody in their office of teacher education, they’d be the first to say that building a good, collaborative relationship with the local schools is definitely a way to boost your numbers and the quality of teacher candidates that are being produced," Wilson said.

"By virtue of admitting our students and working with us, they basically pay it forward and make a commitment to preparing the next generation of teachers, and many of those teachers will then become their colleagues in their own schools,” said Nancy Mundschenk, director of the Teacher Education Program at SIU.

Mundschenk says their program has been dealing with major declines over the past five years as more students decide not to go into teaching.

In the fall of 2011, there were 120 students in the teaching education program or TEP. In the fall of 2015 there were 66. This past semester, the spring of 2016, there were just 33 students enrolled in TEP.

Mundschenk says through re-branding and focusing on retaining the students they have at SIU and interesting them in the TEP, they’ve been able to boost this fall’s enrollment numbers to 65. She says there are a few days left to enroll, and they hope to see another 10 students join the program. She says they’re focusing on the students they have now and turning them in to quality teachers for schools.

And with more students invested in student teaching programs in southern Illinois, many choose to stay in their hometown schools or the schools they student teach with. Weaver-White says it’s always great to see new faculty come in that used to be sitting in the desks.

"There’s a lot of the faculty now that used to be in my class, and they still will call me Mr. White," Weaver-White said.

Wilson says if SIU turns around their recruitment and they can boost interest from schools, they hope to turn their teacher shortage in to a surplus.

Mundschenk says the state’s budget impasse is adding to this problem. They say many of the students graduating from their program decide not to apply for jobs in state in favor of positions in neighboring states for the job security they can’t find right now in Illinois.

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