Hartmann says, “When you don’t have people in positions that support the school, it puts too much pressure on the teacher. With a shortage of special education teachers and paraprofessionals, teachers are faced with increased mandatory paperwork and extremely varied needs in a classroom of 32 kids. It’s really hard for that teacher to address all of those needs at once.”
In the district Hartmann came from before McHenry, the lack of special education support roles caused the newest teacher hires to throw in the towel. “You could be a 22-year-old teacher, put in a class of high-needs autism, non-verbal students, aggressive students and you only had one chapter on autism in your whole four years of college,” Hartmann said. “That’s where they are breaking. Two teachers left in the first eight weeks of school because of the extreme circumstances they are facing.”
In addition, teachers are increasingly being recruited to jobs outside the profession. Durflinger had two mid-career teachers consider leaving the profession for jobs in a related field.
Hartmann explains how companies are marketing opportunities to teachers, illustrating that they can make the same amount of money or more and not have to deal with all the challenges, “It’s less stress. A lot of teachers go into it because it’s going to be good for the family lifestyle. The recent problems facing public education are causing headaches, anxiety, nausea, mental and physical exhaustion, forcing teachers to feel as though they no longer have the patience to deal with their own families.”
While there’s no straightforward solution to the social and political climate clouding education, the crisis is forcing communities to get creative surrounding what they can control. Durflinger is offering attractive ‘soft’ benefits like:
- Universal 15 days leave for all teachers;
- An additional 15 days paid maternity leave;
- Paternity leave;
- Teachers who opt out of insurance coverage get a cash bonus;
- Increased focus on building the culture of the district to make it the destination of choice for great teachers.
In other districts, Durflinger says they are paying teachers not to retire.
Similarly, Hartmann is working with area superintendents to build programs to recruit high school students for jobs like a paraprofessional. Her goal is to educate students about these types of jobs before they leave the county for other opportunities, “You can become a para and that’s going to help you become a teacher and you can do that program here, and you can save a ton of money, still live with mom and dad, and this program is going to cost you a fraction of the price.”
Hartmann says across Illinois, she’s seeing districts keep teachers past retirement age, fast-track teaching certifications for anyone with a four-year degree, and lower the requirements for positions like bus drivers and paraprofessionals. She’s also working with the communities she serves to change how positions like this are marketed, “There must be a why behind it beside the $17 an hour. You’re contributing to your community.”
In the end, the leaders I spoke with explain that education professionals just want to feel valued, even if it’s just a little bit. In a world where every day national news outlets are covering challenges facing education, a little bit goes a long way, and many leaders are looking into new ideas to do just that. Hartmann says, “It goes a long way just to make that staff feel appreciated and loved.”
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