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How Illinois is addressing the nationwide substitute teacher shortage


School systems across the country are grappling with teacher shortages. One of the most pressing problems in many places involves a lack of substitute teachers. In Illinois, school districts held one-day training sessions to try to recruit substitutes and move them into the classroom as soon as possible. From member station WNIJ in DeKalb, Peter Medlin reports.

PETER MEDLIN, BYLINE: Some schools are so desperate for substitutes they've tried recruiting parents. Others have asked local police officers and firefighters to come into the classroom. In New Mexico, they've even called in the National Guard. In Illinois, a short-term substitute license was created in direct response to the shortage. It allows potential teachers who only have an associate degree or 60 hours of college credit to become substitutes in public schools.

Mark Kleisner heads the group West 40, a service center for dozens of school districts near Chicago. He says this short-term option is a lifeline because the shortage in this state is worse than ever.

MARK KLEISNER: I'm hearing social workers covering English classes. You know, it's like, we're not serving our kids well, and we don't really have a choice. Our data point this year was over 2,000 educator openings were either unfilled or they were filled by someone not qualified.

MEDLIN: Sonya Spaulding is a professional learning specialist at West 40. She's trying to address the shortage by offering prospective substitutes an online crash course in teaching before they step into the classroom.

SONYA SPAULDING: We are here to provide you the state-approved short-term substitute training. I'm sort of the captain of today's ship, and I've got a wonderful crew that's going to help you get in the air and land to your prospective locations. We've got...

MEDLIN: This recent Zoom call is filling up with dozens of faces as Spaulding gets started. Some people watch on their phones while walking down hallways at work. Many have experience working with kids; others just need work. Depending on the school, the pay can range from $100 to over $200 a day. With the program, substitutes pay $50 to get their license, take the training, get a background check and can be in the classroom the very next day.

SPAULDING: It's a quick turnaround, but there's a high level of confidence that these are people who have a connection with the community, and they really want to step up and support the students in this time.

MEDLIN: Nicole Mister is one of the hundreds of new short-term substitutes they've already trained this year. Like most, she's interested in teaching because of her connection to education. She has kids in school and works at an education nonprofit. She says while her first day subbing was difficult, the one-day training actually did help her in the classroom.

NICOLE MISTER: It was nerve-wracking, but Dr. Spaulding was able to really give us some great pointers. She really just told us to, you know, go in with an open mind, and she gave us so many resources online, so it was really able to help.

MEDLIN: But some worry about lowering the barrier to get into the classroom. Desiree Carver-Thomas is a researcher and policy analyst at the Learning Policy Institute.

DESIREE CARVER-THOMAS: It's certainly a huge concern, especially when you hear stories of students who've had, you know, a rotating cast of substitute teachers all year in their math class. It begs the question of, you know, how much learning can really happen when the person in the classroom, you know, may not have subject matter competency?

MEDLIN: But she says in many states, substitutes aren't required to do any training at all, so anything is a positive. And when so many schools can't find any subs, it's better than canceling classes. But she and others say the long-term solution to the substitute teacher shortage isn't only about substitutes; it's about hiring enough credentialed teachers to fully staff classrooms.

For NPR News, I'm Peter Medlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.