In the midst of a nationwide teacher shortage plaguing the country, studies show that the need for educators in Illinois is worse than ever. For English Learners (ELs) the stakes are especially high as these students deal with a language barrier in which their parents may not be able to assist with and a shortage of adults qualified to teach them.
“Because this is one of the fastest growing groups of children in the state, if Illinois is going to be successful, we need this group of children to be successful,” said Rebecca Vonderlack-Navarro, Director of Education Policy and Research at Latino Policy Forum.
The Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools found that in 2021 there were 2,040 open positions in Illinois school districts alone. The need for bilingual teachers is especially highlighted as the number of ELs in Illinois grows and the demand for educators certified to teach them continues to not be met.
In March 2022 the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) announced a $4 million grant intended to aid current teachers in receiving the credentials required to teach bilingual classrooms in Illinois. The funding is allocated from the American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief federal pandemic money.
The ISBE press release states that in October 2021 there were 98 vacancies for bilingual classroom teachers throughout Illinois.
Certain credentials are required to teach English Learners. Many of these bilingual teachers work with an Educator License with Stipulations with a Transitional Bilingual Education endorsement (ELS-TBE), which is provisional. The ELS-TBE is valid for five years, but non-renewable. In order to continue teaching, teachers must receive a Professional Educator License (PEL).
The grant can be used by those ELS-TBE holding educators who would like to pursue the Professional Educator License, as well as by teachers who already earned a PEL but are seeking an English as a Second Language (ESL) or Bilingual endorsement. The intention is to fund the bilingual teacher pipeline by ensuring teachers can remain eligible for these positions after the five year period, and by encouraging fully licensed teachers to take on the additional language licensure.
This grant is a huge win for the Latino Policy Forum, a statewide advocacy organization that encourages and fosters Latino voice and representation. Their education department has long been advocating to ISBE for this allocation of funds towards bilingual teachers.
“Everyone has known that the bilingual teacher shortage is one of the most severe of all the teacher shortages and so I think the administration was really open to ideas,” said Vonderlack-Navarro.
The 2019-2020 school year numbers reported by ISBE show that there were 261,454 EL students enrolled in Illinois, with 594 school districts implementing some form of Transitional Bilingual Education program (TBE). 72 percent of these students speak Spanish and 74 percent of them are Hispanic or Latino.
“It is my passion that we no longer view these kids through a deficit lens, but we see that language and culture are incredible assets to learning and given this research from the University of Chicago, when these kids are supported over the long-term with specialized teachers who know how to meet their needs, they will do well. They should be celebrated, instead of seen as a burden,” she said.
The way that these students are served can look differently depending on the type of program implemented in a school.
Vonderlack-Navarro feels that one of the most effective ways to cater to EL students is through the dual language model in which students receive core instruction in both English and Spanish.
“I think it’s critical because research shows that English Learners’ services work if a teacher is skilled with knowledge on how to build the home language while also building English, children over the long term will be more successful,” she said.
Although dual language makes up less than 14 percent of EL instructional design in the state, many educators vouch for the effectiveness of this method for their students as it builds biliteracy, rather than focusing solely on encouraging English skills. In the Elgin area U-46 District, only the dual language model is implemented across 32 of their schools.
Griselda Pirtle, the Director of English Language Learners at School District U-46 said, “We choose the dual language model because research suggests that that is the best model that serves our students. Especially our current student population, where 90 percent of our English Language Learners are actually born here in the United States. So they’re coming up from birth in bilingual environments and so dual language programs allow the students to access all of the languages that they have.”
“If we put them in English only environments or English only classrooms, it’s like we’re tying one hand behind their back. We’re not allowing them to access both of the languages that they have, and really that’s the beauty of dual language models, is that not only are you teaching both, but you’re also maintaining both languages. And again, that then requires a need for highly-qualified bilingual teachers,” she continued.
Only 28 percent of ELs in Illinois are enrolled in Chicago Public Schools, with 26 percent enrolled in Cook County, outside of CPS, and 33 percent in DuPage, Kane, Will and Lake counties. With this breakdown, Vonderlack-Navarro says that bilingual teachers are particularly needed in the suburbs.
“I think what you have in rural areas is there’s just a general teacher shortage and say you’re in a pocket, that maybe doesn’t look like a high number of ESLs, but there’s a decent concentration. There are certain areas that might have a meat packing plant or for various reasons, certain industries, they’ll have a population of ELs and no one will have the grounding to serve them at all in the district,” Vonderlack-Navarro said.
School districts across the country have gotten creative in their attempts to fill vacant bilingual teacher positions. In Connecticut, Hartford Public Schools started The Paso a Paso Puerto Rico Recruitment Program which relocates Spanish-speaking educators directly from Puerto Rico into full-time roles at their schools. In Georgia, Gwinnett County Public Schools offered a $4,000 bonus incentive to educators new to their district who either already held or could gain certification in Spanish, French, Korean, Vietnamese or Mandarin Chinese.
Pirtle says that the market for bilingual teachers is extremely competitive because the role is in such high demand.
“I think sometimes it’s not understood all the work that goes into recruiting and retaining dual language teachers. It is very difficult, again, because they can write their ticket,” she said.
In addition to recruiting bilingual teachers, districts have also found it challenging to retain them. Some often overlooked aspects of the role are the expectation to translate information to parents, or between parents and non-Spanish speaking administrators, as well as creating coursework that may not be readily available in all programs. It is additional work that they are not compensated for.
A small 2019 study by Cathy Amanti of Georgia State University found that bilingual teachers were not given the materials needed to teach in the other language, and would use personal time to translate the material provided in English, or create original material. Two of the six teachers included in the study left once the school year ended, with one leaving teaching altogether and the other leaving to a school that did not offer a dual language program.
“I wish I could tell teachers the grass isn’t always greener, because the reality is no matter what district you’re in, it is a tough job being a dual language teacher… It’s still up-and-coming, the field is still evolving and growing and you’re constantly learning new things, new strategies, etcetera,” Pirtle said. “So I think sometimes because that could become so much, dual teachers are like oh maybe in that district it’s better, or maybe in that district it’ll be easier or they have more this or they have more that and I’m just like no.”
She also says that it can be hard to keep an updated number of how many teachers are needed, or will be needed for the upcoming school year, because it is a moving target with aspects like retirement, maternity leave and resignation factoring into job vacancies.
While the battle towards employing and retaining more bilingual teachers in Illinois continues, at U-46 there is generally a positive outlook on the future of this issue.
“We’re very proud of the dual language program here at U-46 and it’s a great opportunity for our students and so we just need to find those teachers. There’s a shortage now, so on top of everything these types of things, programs and grants, can help us,” said Mireya Perez, Director of Human Resources at U-46.
Pirtle agrees, saying “I truly believe we are gonna see the day where hopefully, through having dual language programs, essentially we’re growing these bilingual students to potentially, hopefully, be teachers one day, or social workers that serve in our school.”