Teaching For Tomorrow: Stateline battles teacher shortage

ROCKFORD, Ill (WIFR) -- A nationwide teacher shortage is affecting the environment in which kids learn. The Rockford area is not new to it.

The future of the education industry

"Unless something changes, I don't foresee more teachers coming on," says Betty Foss, a kindergarten teacher at West View Elementary School. "But I know kids need us."

Foss started her career in education in 1989, and it's been her passion ever since.

"Teaching to me means helping the little people, because I have the littlest," she says. When asked why she thinks there is a shortage, she paused, and says society plays a role.

"If it weren't for teachers, would anybody be able to do the jobs they're doing? No." -Betty Foss, Kindergarten teacher West View Elementary School

"I think if you really look deep into society as it is now you kind of see the reasoning behind the why," she starts. Foss says there is a stigma behind the education industry. She believes it's not as respected among other professionals as it used to be.

"If it weren't for teachers, would anybody be able to do the jobs they're doing," asked Foss. "No."

The Rockford Public School district has 81 open positions going into the school year.

"Most of them are between special ed, math, bilingual, science and some early childhood," says Matt Zediker, RPS 205's human resource director. "We have about a third less college students actually going into the field of education, our numbers are drastically lower for people who are in college who are taking the basic skills to become certified in the state of Illinois."

Illinois lawmakers passed legislation in August to eliminate the basic skills test because it lacked data to back up its effectiveness. Zediker believes the test might have hindered some people from gaining their teaching certificates, which could play a role in the shortage.

RPS 205 has 81 vacancies out of thousands of positions. Other districts like Freeport have 11 openings, and Elgin's district U-46 has 41 it's looking to fill.

If RPS cannot fill positions before school starts, they use substitutes.

"You start to panic a little bit, making sure we're getting qualified teachers in front of the kids on the first day of school." -Don Rundall, Principal Jefferson High School

"All of our building principals when they have to fill a vacancy with somebody who may not be 100 percent certified in that particular course, they set up plans to support those teachers," says Zediker.

Jefferson High School principal Don Rundall understands the concern.
"You start to panic a little bit, making sure we're getting qualified teachers in front of the kids on the first day of school," he says.

RPS and Rockford University run a program called Education Pathway. It's designed to encourage students to enter the industry by offering scholarship incentives up to $200,000.

"We have a number of students every year, they go into a program to become teachers," says Rundall. "We're extremely hopeful they'll come back and stay in the Rockford school districts, so we can grow our own."

Zediker agrees. He says it's not just selling people on teaching, it's selling them on Rockford.

"Once we have an opportunity to tell Rockford's story, to understand how they're going to be treated, how we value our professionals I think we have a story to tell," says Zediker. "But the challenge is getting them to listen to the story. That's going to take more than RPS. It's going to take people in the community."

A community that shows gratitude for it's teachers, and pride for it's city.

"Look at each individual student, and know that what they're going to do will make a difference." -Betty Foss

Another potential factor into the local shortage, was something the RPS HR department found internally. It would take up to five days to contact applicants, which could give them time to accept other offers. HR set a new goal to contact all applicants within 48 hours, 80 percent of the time.

"That's going to take more than RPS. It's going to take people in the community." -Matt Zediker, Human Resource Director RPS 205

Some school board members say 80 percent is not a high enough goal, especially in a shortage situation. That goes for all applicants, not just teaching positions.

"We certainly continue to look at that, this has been an ongoing process within the HR field," says Zediker. "I took over almost three and a half years ago, and that was something that we as a team identified as a huge gap."

Whether it's HR, lack of interest or a stigma behind the profession, Foss says she tries to remain hopeful for those who will one day take her place.

"I hope they can look beyond society's thinking of teachers, and look at each individual student, and know that what they're going to do will make a difference."