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New Law Removes Big Barrier For Aspiring Teachers

Courtesy of Kelly McConohy

In an attempt to relieve Illinois' severe teacher shortage, state lawmakers last year voted to remove a requirementknown as the "basic skills test." That test has proven to be a stumbling block, especially for people pursuing the profession later in life, as a second career. This change, enacted just five months ago, has already opened the door for a would-be special education teacher in the East Moline School District.

Kelly McConohy has spent 11 years working as a paraprofessional, assisting students with special needs at Glenview Middle School. She wanted to become a licensed teacher.

But even after earning a degree in educational studies, she couldn't pass the state's Basic Skills Test. The math portion, with 60 story problems, gave her the most trouble. That’s partly because, at age 52, McConohy hasn’t taken a rigorous math class in decades. But it’s partly because the test is tough. Only 31 percent of college students pass the math portion on the first try. 

When the legislature eliminated that test, it cleared the way for McConohy to move to the next requirement — student teaching — which she began this week. When I spoke with her on Monday, after her first day, she sounded positively giddy.


“I love this job,” she said. “I've never loved a job before, I can honestly say. And this is a truly just so... it's so my thing. I love it.?” 

McConohy is still with the same students, in the same program, working with children who have emotional disabilities. At Glenview, it’s called the Success program, “because it’s more positive,” McConohy said.

Middle schoolers  — especially those with behavior problems — might sound like a big challenge. McConohy said whenever she tells people about her job, they typically respond by saying she must be a saint.

“Yes, that's me, I'm a saint,” she joked. “But honestly, it's a great job to me. I like the small classes, I like to help them with these basic, core skills, so they can move on with their lives and be successful and feel good about themselves. What is more valuable than that?"

Still, during the legislative process, McConohy refused to allow herself to hope that lawmakers would remove the Basic Skills barrier.

“It was hard for me to trust or have hope because even now, it's still so traumatic what was going on. This process of me getting my license has been two years of struggling and trying and testing and just... two whole entire years,” she said. “To have one test decide your entire situation ... it's too much pressure. Why can't they just take my work — the essays that I've written and the things that came directly from my head and directly from my own creative instincts?”

Those 11 years she spent working as a paraprofessional didn’t count — not toward her degree, not toward her license. Neither did her job as long-term substitute, leading her own classroom, during the Fall 2019 semester.

“I had to do 60 hours of observations [as part of student teaching]. I've observed thousands of hours,” McConohy said. “But I'm trying not to complain. I'm really grateful.”

She has already passed her content area test for special education, and has one more test remaining. It’s called the EdTPA, and involves producing a portfolio plus a videotape of herself teaching a class. While McConohy isn’t exactly looking forward to it, she also isn’t dreading it.

“At least it's more of a holistic assignment. I'm actually using my skills,” she said. “So I would say that’s at least relevant.”

But again, she can’t afford to get her hopes up.

“I'm in the final stages. I just have these projects to do and I could actually get my license. I'm still so … what do I say ... traumatized? I mean, it was so extreme what I went through with the testing,” she said. “I can't get too excited.”

In order to focus on preparing for that test, McConohy quit her part-time job, which was, somewhat ironically, working in an after-school program as a math tutor.


After a long career in newspapers (Dallas Observer, The Dallas Morning News, Anchorage Daily News, Illinois Times), Dusty returned to school to get a master's degree in multimedia journalism. She began work as Education Desk reporter at NPR Illinois in September 2014.
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