Stuart, Werden lead talk of teacher shortage solutions in Edwardsville

EDWARDSVILLE — Teacher shortages remain a problem in school districts throughout Illinois, and a local lawmaker and education leader are identifying possible solutions.

State Rep. Katie Stuart (D-Edwardsville) and Madison County Regional Superintendent of Schools Rob Werden (R- Prairietown) have combined forces to address the issue.

On Wednesday afternoon, Stuart and Werden hosted the 2023 Madison County Teacher Shortage Feedback Session at the N.O. Nelson Campus of Lewis and Clark Community College.

“Rep. Stuart asked me if I would be able to participate in this session and I asked if it was OK to go outside of just her district and include all of Madison County, which she was willing to do,” Werden said. “We’ve invited a diverse group of educators from across the county, including teachers, school nurses, paraprofessionals, and administrators.

“We want everyone’s perspective on trying to solve this problem. We’re looking at teacher retainment and teacher preparation and we also want to look at the unfilled vacancies. The state is trying do some things to help, as is our county and our local districts.”

Action at all levels

Werden said many local districts have started a “Grow Your Own” program, featuring introductory teacher-level classes for high school students.

“If any of those students have interest in becoming teachers, we want to encourage that and watch it grow,” Werden said. “We’ll work with our local colleges and their education programs to get those students enrolled at those colleges. We want young people at the k-12 level to start thinking about a career in education.

“Some schools are offering dual-credit classes. I’m a former agriculture teacher, so Future Farmers of America (FFA) is in my blood. Our office is giving $500 in seed money toward Future Teachers of America (FTA) programs to get those programs started.”

Stuart, meanwhile, welcomed the opportunity to get feedback from the attendees of Wednesday’s session.

“I want an opportunity to hear from actual educators,” said Stuart, whose husband, Steve Stuart, is the principal at Edwardsville High School. “I was an educator myself for almost 20 years before I ran for office in 2016 and people claimed they had solutions to problems, but they weren’t consulting those of us in the classrooms.

“I’m hoping to gain some insight from these folks. If they have had colleagues that have recently left the teaching profession, we can hear anecdotally why it’s happening and what we can do to show young people that education is a great career and what we can do to encourage them to come to Illinois or to stay here.”

Pay is an obstacle

Even after Stuart and other legislators spearheaded efforts to raise the minimum teacher salary in Illinois, teacher pay remains an issue. In addition, many teachers feel they are being asked to do more than ever, often without additional compensation or training.

“Salaries aren’t keeping pace with the cost of living and there are increasing stresses and burdens that we keep putting on teachers,” Stuart said. “They feel like it just keeps piling on them.”

Werden added that Madison County has seen an uptick this year in unfilled teacher positions, which mirrors a statewide trend.

“The regional superintendents in the state have an organization called IARSS and have conducted a survey for the last five years that studied all of the school districts in Illinois,” Werden said. “Our county has had 100% participation almost every year and we’re seeing trends that are similar to the state level.

“In 2018, we had a lot of unfilled teacher positions, it trended down for a year or so, and when COVID hit, it started to trend upward again.”

On the other hand, Werden said that the most recent survey from 2022-23 showed that teachers weren’t leaving the profession as much as anticipated due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There are other reasons they might be leaving, but everyone assumed that with COVID and all the changes, we thought that would be a bigger reason for teachers leaving,” Werden said. “What we’ve found, though, is that educators are very adaptable. All the tricks they learned through COVID, they’re incorporating in their classrooms now.”

‘We can be creative’

While Werden’s remarks focused on what is being done at the county level to address the teacher shortage, Stuart talked about what the state can do to help fix the problem.

“I think we can be creative and think differently when it comes to (teacher) certification, especially those folks who are shifting from another career to an education career,” Stuart said. “There can be issues with changing certifications from one state to another and for teachers in other states, we’d like to make it easier to become a teacher in Illinois.

“There are always job circumstance issues and the salary, but there are also many other things that come along with the job, such as retirement age and things like that. For this event, I wanted teachers who are new to the profession, veteran teachers and administrators at all different levels and folks from different disciplines and grade levels.”

For Werden, getting direct feedback from educators across the county regarding teachers and their concerns is an invaluable tool in finding ways to solve the teacher shortage.

“I like to talk, but today is more about Representative Stuart and I listening,” Werden said. “These people are the real experts. I want to hear from the folks that are in the trenches every day who are working hard every day to educate our students.”

After opening remarks by Stuart and Werden, the floor was opened to comments from attendees of the feedback session. The speakers ranged from young teachers to educators nearing retirement to superintendents.

Among the issues they discussed were:

  • More support staff for teachers
  • Smaller class sizes
  • More counselors to deal with students with behavioral issues
  • The difficulty in finding substitute teachers
  • Restrictions on using retired teachers as substitutes
  • The lack of mentors for young teachers
  • The stress on teachers overloaded with additional responsibilities
  • Finding ways to keep qualified teachers in the classroom
  • Truancy issues

Salary cap, retirement age noted

Among the subjects brought up by the educators was the 6% salary cap increase for teachers in their final three years before becoming eligible for retirement.

“The thought process behind that was that some school districts were giving 11% to 12% increases the last few years before retirement, causing the state to have to pay more (money in pensions),” Werden said. “They put on a cap of 6% to try to control those costs at the state level.

“The problem is that if you’re a coach or subbing classes for extra assignments to get paid a little more, that counts against your 6%. The 6% cap makes things a little tricky and I’m not an advocate of completely doing away with it, but maybe we can raise it a little bit to entice people to stay on. Right now, we have people wearing three or four hats and they need to be compensated for that.”

Another issue is the retirement age of 67 for Illinois teachers who are under Tier 2 in the state’s Teacher Retirement System (TRS).

“If you were hired after 2011, you’re automatically part of the Tier 2 TRS and the stairsteps are different than for those of us who were hired earlier,” Werden said. “Under Tier 2, teachers must be 67 before they’re eligible for full retirement. For Tier 1, it’s 55 with different stairsteps after that.

“As a teacher dealing with students from the time you’re 21 until you’re 67, that’s a long time.  The changes affected people in the Tier 1 system as well, but it’s not as harsh as that Tier 2 cutoff.”

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April 13, 2023 at 05:22PM

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