Rochelle schools combating teacher shortage

Jason Harper, superintendent of both Rochelle school districts, said last week that the effects of a nationwide teacher shortage have been seen in town.

Harper: Specialized positions are biggest concern going forward

ROCHELLE — Jason Harper, superintendent of both Rochelle school districts, said last week that the effects of a nationwide teacher shortage have been seen in town. 

In both the elementary and Rochelle Township High School districts, the quantity of applicants for open teaching positions are down, Harper said. 

“It's not that we don't have qualified people to choose from, it's just that the depth and breadth of that candidate pool has become shallower,” Harper said. “I would say it's an equal concern for both districts.”

Harper said his biggest concern about the shortage going forward for Rochelle schools are historically hard-to-fill positions including special education and bilingual teachers. 

“Those were the smallest pools of potential prior to any shortage,” Harper said. “When there's fewer options in general, then there's few options for these specific areas. That's my biggest concern."

School psychologists, speech/language pathologists and other special related services are also a challenge to hire, Harper said. Statewide data is in line with the Rochelle area’s biggest hiring challenges. 

As far as the reasons for the teacher shortage, Harper thinks one of the biggest is that requirements to become an educator have become more stringent. 

“The state has choked off the stream of future teachers with the number of hurdles it has for educators,” Harper said. “New criteria like increasing the minimum standardized testing requirements to get into university programs, increasing the number of postsecondary graduation requirements to become a teacher and the controversy surrounding the edTPA state assessment process are just a few."

The best strategy to stave off the teacher shortage has been to be as “proactive as possible” in keeping already-hired teachers, Harper said. When openings come, Rochelle has realized it is not immune to the shortage of certified teachers. The districts are also implementing a variety of strategies to increase the number of quality candidates for open positions. 

The process has started with local high school students through a Grow Your Own Program for future educators. Harper said the Rochelle districts are also more aggressive than ever in working with colleges and universities to recruit educators to Rochelle. 

“This means building relationships and a presence on campuses so future teachers know more about what Rochelle has to offer,” Harper said. “We'd like to partner with universities and the state on more programs that allow future teachers to get into our district and then we support them with professional development and learning opportunities to become the educators they're going to be."

RTHS Principal Chris Lewis said combating the teacher shortage has involved a “very active” student teacher program. RTHS has a “strong” mentor program for teachers and he believes the atmosphere of the school and community is a draw for potential hires. 

But Lewis said the shortage has been a challenge. The number of resumes that come in versus 5-10 years ago is “a lot less” depending on the specialized area the school is trying to hire for. 

Over the past two years, RTHS has had 15 new teachers in the building, which is a lot, Lewis said. It has about 55 certified staff members. The new teachers have filled positions vacated due to retirement or staff leaving due to “a lot of different reasons.”

Lewis said hiring for positions “runs in cycles” and he doesn’t anticipate as much retirement and turnover in the near future. 

Attempting to get new teachers to come to Rochelle down the road can even start in classrooms today, Lewis said. 

“There's a lot of different aspects to getting more people to want to become teachers,” Lewis said. “I think a lot of areas are how do you groom kids and talk to kids in high school and get more people to want to be interested in this field. I think it's a great profession and a great job. As educators, we have to promote this as something people want to do."