Opinion: Solutions to Illinois’ teacher shortage


President, Illinois Federation of Teachers

Recently, we’ve been seeing headlines about a teacher shortage. This inability to fill teaching positions isn’t a new problem, but it has grown into a full-blown crisis.

When I started out, I pursued the job I dreamed about — being a high school English teacher. I wanted to help students, the profession seemed respected, and I felt I could earn a decent living and a secure future.

But something changed dramatically around 2001 with No Child Left Behind. It was packaged as “school reform” and pushed by many who hadn’t spent time in a classroom since they graduated.

It brought an overemphasis on standardized testing, biased teacher evaluation systems, a narrowed curriculum, loss of professional autonomy, and reduced funding for professional development. It established school accountability systems based heavily on student test scores, without any consideration for inequities in resources and opportunities.

And it made attacking teachers and our unions fashionable.


Sadly, Gov. Bruce Rauner has turned it into an art form. Under his leadership, teacher prep programs and MAP grants for needy students have been underfunded, reducing the number of students who are able to pursue higher education. In addition, implicit cultural bias in eligibility tests has kept many people of color out of the teaching profession.

Teachers and school staff have been asked to do more with less and blamed for things outside of our control, as we continue to make sacrifices for our students.

It shouldn’t come as any surprise, then, that many people are leaving the profession and potential teachers are choosing other careers.

Despite these challenges, there are ways to meaningfully address the teacher shortage, and the solutions fall into three categories: recruitment, retention and equity.


First, and this may sound obvious, but if we’re going to recruit more teachers into the profession, we must guarantee a livable wage. State law only requires a school district to pay a teacher (with a master’s degree) a minimum annual salary of $10,000. State Sen. Andy Manar has introduced a bill that increases the minimum to $40,000 per year. That would be a start.

We must also support and fund “grow your own” type programs that increase opportunities for paraprofessionals, parents and students to get teaching degrees and stay to work within their own communities. Unfortunately, the state is reluctant to fund this program.


Secondly, if teaching is to remain a lifelong career and not a short-term job, we must support new teachers and encourage them to stay. Research shows that new teachers who aren’t mentored have lower retention rates. My union has long run a new teacher professional mentorship program. I never would have survived those first years without it.

And, we must show teachers more respect by reforming the Performance Evaluation Review Act to focus on teacher learning and support, fixing the unfair Tier II and Tier III pension systems that make retirement security unattainable for new teachers (who get no Social Security benefits, by the way), and providing supportive school environments with smaller class sizes, support personnel, and diverse programming like the arts and vocational courses.


Finally, we know that education policies have unfairly penalized people of color for decades and that students benefit academically from a diverse school workforce. Illinois should prioritize equity by funding programs that recruit applicants from low-income communities, supporting sustainable community schools to address the effects of disinvestment, and providing professional development to increase teachers’ cultural competency.

It’s also worth taking another look at the tests that prevent minority candidates from entering the profession and the teacher evaluation systems that push them out.

These are steps in the right direction and entirely feasible — but only under a governor who believes in the promise of public schools and treats teachers with respect. Bruce Rauner has failed in this.

I believe in the potential of our state’s teachers and students, and I believe together we can stabilize Illinois’s education system, making it possible to attract and retain the excellent educators our children deserve.

(Reprinted from the State Journal-Register.)


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