Hard Lessons On The Teacher Shortage
While Illinois is struggling with a teacher shortage, some potential teachers are finding barriers to getting a license. Our education reporter Dusty Rhodes introduces us to one of those aspiring teachers.
It’s Tuesday morning, and at East Moline Middle School, Kelly McConohy checks in with a special education student who seems even more reluctant than usual to go to class.
“You don’t wanna be here… but you’re here,” she says. “There’s not that much school left, you know?”
“Twenty-eight days,” the student says.
“Okay so you know exactly!” McConohy laughs. “This is approaching the end of your 8th grade school career. Can we just enjoy the time we have? It’s not that bad is it?”
“Not really,” the student says.
Having acknowledged his feelings, she’s now nudging him toward a more positive attitude.
“I mean summer’s coming. At least it’s not snowing anymore. The weather’s nice...”
They’re standing in the hallway, just outside the classroom — the spot McConohy has countless such conversations with students.
“Okay, take some energizing breaths,” she says.
They’ve obviously gone through this routine before; the student does exactly as she says.
“Alright, have a nice day,” she says. And they walk into the classroom.
This is a student she’s worked with for several years. Some of McConohy’s students are harder to reach.
“You know, they’re oppositional,” she says. “They may be laying on the floor in the hallway refusing, or cussing or punching things.”
She’s been cussed out, called names, threatened and hit. And over the 11 years she’s been on the job, she’s had to break up a few fights.
But McConohy isn’t a teacher. Her job title is paraprofessional. This position used to be called teacher’s aide, and duties typically included copying worksheets. Not anymore.
“No, that would be a wasted opportunity to have another human being work with our children. So everyone makes their own copies these days,” says Kristin Humphries. He’s superintendent of East Moline schools. McConohy is one of about 45 paraprofessionals working in the district.
“There’s a continuum of services that our paraprofessionals offer in East Moline schools and probably across most school districts,” Humphries says. “We have paraprofessionals that work with kids that are struggling readers all the way to paraprofessionals that work with emotionally disturbed children.”
McConohy works at the latter end of the spectrum, with students whose behaviors are too disruptive for a traditional classroom. It’s a job she stumbled into with zero training.
“What happened was: My daughter was in elementary school, and I ended up picking her up from school at five at night in the winter and it was dark,” she says. “And I was like, I can’t do this.”
At the time, McConohy was working at a lab filing insurance papers. But she had 60 hours of college credits
“In art. But hey, they took it! So…”
In Illinois, having 60 hours of college credit is one of three ways to qualify to be a paraprofessional. The other two involve having a high school diploma or GED, and passing a fairly simple standardized test.
“I applied, and I was hired,” McConohy says. “Well, I ended up being good at it,”
In fact, she felt she’d found her calling.
“You’re helping them with social skills — how to get along, and how to behave. I mean the reason that they’re having problems is because they’re trying to process the world, and that’s hard for everyone, but especially for sensitive people,” she says.
After seven years, she realized she wanted to move up from assisting teachers to being a teacher herself. One motive was money. Parapros in Illinois make as little as $8.25 an hour. The average wage is $14 per hour, even for parapros with years of experience. McConohy — a single mom — celebrated achieving an annual income of $20,000 for the very first time in 2018.
However, money was not her only motive.
“I want to be a teacher because I’m a leader,” she says. “I have ideas and gifts and insights and instincts, and it’s hard to be a paraprofessional when you’re a leader. The teachers here are great; they do use my ideas.”
But it’s like she’s stuck being a nurse, when she wants to be a doctor.
So without leaving her job, she enrolled in online courses through Western Governors University, majoring in special ed and primary education. Everything was going fine until she had to take Illinois’ “basic skills” test, currently required for before student teaching. It’s a five-hour standardized test that covers reading, writing, language arts, and math. McConohy knew math would be the most difficult section; she didn’t know it was going to include 60 story problems.
“There’s several parts to each question, so even if you happen to read it right, and decode the function...it’s a lot,” she says. “And then let’s say you accidentally don’t catch the fact that it’s a negative number... There’s just a lot that can go wrong, to me, personally.”
She’s not alone. Only 31 percent of college students pass the math portion of this test on the first try. The "basic skills" test has been in use since 1988, and redesigned multiple times. This version of the test is tougher than the basic skills test many current teachers took decades ago.
McConohy, undaunted, hired a retired math teacher as a tutor. He worked with her more than an hour a day, seven days a week, for three months. McConohy then took the math portion of the test again, and improved her score by 40 points. That brought her within 19 points of a passing grade.
She continued working with the tutor for another three months. But the third time she took the math test, her score actually fell by three points.
That’s when she decided to try another option. Illinois accepts certain scores on the ACT or the SAT in lieu of this basic skills test. McConohy chose the SAT, and scored a 990. However, Illinois demands an 1110.
“I felt defeated and I was embarrassed and humiliated,” she says. Her chin trembles, and she fans herself with her hands, but she can’t beat back the tears. “I have a lot of people that believe in me, but it’s heartbreaking.”
All these tests were costly — both financially and emotionally. Eventually, McConohy accepted the fact that she couldn’t qualify for an Illinois teacher license, and reluctantly changed her major to educational studies (which required an additional 21 credit hours). She graduated last weekend, but her diploma came with $40,000 of debt.
“Because I thought I’ll just do what people do: They go to college, they get the degree, they get the license, they get the job, and they get the student loan forgiveness for teachers, and… that just didn’t happen,” she says.
Now, she’s not sure what to do. So she’s giving herself the same kind of pep talk she would give her students.
“It’s hard. It’s taught me how to not resent things. It doesn’t help me to be resentful of how much I don’t make,” she says. “I chose this. When they hired me, I knew how much they paid, and I chose this.
“So I have to be grateful. I have to say: I have this job that I love, I have these students that respond to me. I just have to look at what I do have,” McConohy says. “I had to practice that a lot though.”
With the state in the grips of a worsening teacher shortage, policymakers are scrambling to find ways to bring more people into the education workforce. The most critical area in this shortage is special education — the exact area where paraprofessionals work. But currently, there’s no clear path to help parapros like Kelly McConohy become teachers.
“You know, Miss McConohy wants to teach special education to our students in an elementary or middle school setting. She’ll never need that math that they need on that basic skills test,” Kristin Humphries says.
“Now if this is a high school teacher that’s going to be teaching math? Absolutely. But we have that. There’s a content test in the state of Illinois,” Humphries says. “We’ve got to get rid of the basic skills test. And I can stand by Miss McConohy and I can stand by many others. That basic skills test is unnecessary for many of the professions that we have within education.”
I asked Humphries how he, as a superintendent, would justify asking taxpayers to send their students to a teacher who can’t hit certain benchmarks in math.
“It’s a good question,” he says. “I will take the individual who has the right mindset, that believes in the growth mindset that all kids can learn and they can be somebody special over someone who has those technical skills. Because I can’t give someone a heart. I can give them those other skills that we need for them to be successful to help our kids. Kelly — the skills she has can’t be taught.”
Lawmakers have noticed. Two different bills pending in the General Assembly would remove the requirement for these tests. Teachers would still have to pass specific exams for the subjects they want to teach, plus another test called the edTPA, and succeed in student teaching.