Even as students return, metro-east school districts are running short of teachers

School bells rang throughout the metro-east Monday morning as several districts began their school year, but many are operating amid an ongoing teacher shortage.

According to the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools’ educator shortage survey for the previous academic year, more than 30% of open teacher, support staff and special education positions went un- or underfilled, the highest percentage in the six years the association has been conducting the survey.

For the southwest region of Illinois, the survey found that 82% of districts had problems with teacher shortages and 71% of districts were not adequately staffed. The report for the 2023-24 academic year will likely be published in the winter.

“We’re all feeling the crunch of the lack of qualified teachers out there,” Harmony-Emge District 175 Superintendent Dustin Nail said.

As of Monday, Aug. 14, the Belleville News-Democrat counted 37 teacher vacancies in St. Clair County alone.

Elementary and special education positions appear to be hit hardest by the teacher shortage in the county, as do high-needs school districts like East St. Louis District 189, which currently has 11 teacher openings, and Cahokia District 187, which has 18.

Sydney Stigge-Kaufman, the executive director of communications and strategic partnerships at East St. Louis District 189, said the district has implemented numerous measures in recent years to attract more candidates for open positions, including increasing teacher pay and adding a $3,000 hiring bonus for hard-to-fill positions like math, science, foreign language and bilingual teachers.

She said that starting this year, the district fully covers teachers’ contributions to the retirement system, which is 9% of their pay.

The district has also formed a “grow-your-own” partnership with Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, mirroring efforts by Sparta District 140 and Collinsville District 10, according to Stigge-Kaufman. This program builds the educator pipeline by identifying certification programs in hard-to-fill areas like special education and allowing student teachers at SIUE to do their practicum work at East St. Louis schools.

The district continues to recruit and hire for the open positions, she said. In the meantime, it’s filling the positions with substitute teachers or assessing whether someone in a different position within the district would be qualified.

East St. Louis District 189 is far from alone in grappling with the burden of the teacher shortage. Several other districts in the county said they were filling positions in the days and weeks leading up to the first day of school.

Nail said that while Harmony-Emge District 175 has filled all three of its recently vacant teacher positions — working through some alternative endorsement methods to do so — he was worried the district would be going into the upcoming school year “short-handed.”

The district — which comprises Ellis Elementary (pre-K-3rd grade), Harmony Intermediate (4th-6th grade) and Emge Jr. High (7th-8th grade) — has had to reorganize its entire special education department because of the shortage, he said. Special education students used to be co-taught in classrooms with one special education teacher per grade level. Now, the district has adopted a resource room model because there aren’t enough teachers.

Nail became superintendent at Harmony-Emge this summer and was previously superintendent and principal at Damiansville District 65 in Clinton County. He said the teacher shortage situation is the same there.

He has been working in school administration in the metro-east for nearly two decades and said applicant pools have drastically changed over that time.

While finding special education, math and science teachers was challenging at the beginning of his career, Nail said finding elementary teachers in general is now a struggle.

Districts used to get hundreds of applicants for elementary teacher positions, he said.

“Now if you get 10 applicants, you’re lucky,” he said, adding that some positions get as few as one or two applicants.

He said teaching is a different job than it was 20 years ago, and the stresses of the profession have become so overwhelming that even longtime teachers have left for the private sector, walking away from their retirement benefits.

Nail is currently writing a dissertation on teacher retention in Illinois schools for his doctorate of education from SIUE.

First and foremost, he said work needs to be done to improve the perception of the profession for young adults.

Districts have to create an environment and culture where they enjoy coming to work and can “get back to what they love to do, which is helping kids,” he said, which means reducing the burdens placed on teachers and ensuring they don’t walk away from work feeling defeated.

“Some days it’s thankless,” he said.

An empty special education classroom at Harmony Intermediate on Aug. 16, 2023. Harmony-Emge District 175, like other districts in the metro-east, is grappling with Illinois’ teacher shortage.
An empty special education classroom at Harmony Intermediate on Aug. 16, 2023. Harmony-Emge District 175, like other districts in the metro-east, is grappling with Illinois’ teacher shortage.

Current teacher openings in St. Clair County

The BND reached out to public school districts in St. Clair County by phone and through their websites to confirm the following 37 openings for certified teacher positions. This list does not include openings for substitute teachers since most districts are accepting applications for substitutes on a continuous basis.

Belleville District 118 has two openings on Indeed:

  • Multi-Subject Teacher at West Junior High School

  • Part-Time Elementary Music Teacher

Brooklyn District 188 has one opening posted on its website:

  • Elementary Teacher (5th-6th grade combination)

Cahokia District 187 has 18 teacher openings posted on its website:

  • Eight Special Education Teachers

  • Two High School Math Teachers

  • Two Middle School Math Teachers

  • Two Middle School Physical Education Teachers

  • One High School Spanish Teacher

  • One High School Science Teacher

  • One Middle School Language Arts Teacher

  • One Visually Impaired Teacher

Dupo District 196 has three openings posted on its website:

  • ESL Instructor

  • Two Special Education Instructors

East St. Louis District 189 has 11 openings posted on Applitrack:

  • Preschool Teacher at Vivian Adams Early Childhood Center

  • Bilingual Teacher and Special Education Teacher at James Avant Elementary School

  • Special Education Teacher at Wyvetter Young School of Excellence

  • Preschool Teacher and Special Education Teacher at Dr. Katie Harper-Wright Elementary School

  • Science Teacher and Special Education Teacher at Lincoln Middle School

  • Science Teacher, Math Teacher and Social Science Teacher at Gordon Bush Alternative School for Education

O’Fallon District 90 has one opening posted on Applitrack:

  • Special Education Autism Teacher at Estelle Kampmeyer School

Whiteside District 115 has one opening posted on the St. Clair County Regional Office of Education’s jobs page:

  • Special Education Teacher at Whiteside Elementary School