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Student teachers rarely get paid. New plans in the Illinois General Assembly hope to change that.

 DeKalb High School
Spencer Tritt
DeKalb High School

Megan Lavery almost had to let go of her teaching dream -- twice. As an undergrad, she changed her major when she realized she couldn’t afford to spend a semester paying for school, but not being paid to work.

Before they can get a teaching license, students spend months working in classrooms as “student teachers.” But they typically don’t get paid.

Years later, she held onto the dream. She worked as a school paraprofessional by day and took classes by night to finally get her teaching degree. But she still had to complete student teaching. And, now, it was even harder, since she was raising a young daughter and utilizing state benefits.

“I really had to make a decision,” she said. “I had to give up my home and move in with extended family to be able to swing that unpaid semester. It was not a great choice for me or a great living situation, but it was what I had to do because I just couldn't afford to be unpaid for that.”

She finished her student teaching and has been a teacher for over 15 years. She teaches at Libertyville High School now.

There are over 5,000 student teachers in Illinois every year. Chris Lowe is the director of student success for the College of Education at Northern Illinois University. He says that NIU can’t directly compensate student teachers in their program.

“That's partly because it is considered coursework," he said. "So, they're enrolled in a class, they're paying for the class, and that class is that experience. That muddies the waters a little bit when it comes to compensation."

Lowe says their students can get paid by the district they’re student teaching at, but it’s rare for that to happen. Most don’t get directly compensated at all.

He says Rockford Public Schools is the only district in the region that he knows of that pays student teachers.

Vicci Gartner is the recruitment coordinator at RPS. She says they have two different programs. The district has been running its “Aspiring Teachers” program for eight years.

Student teachers in that program work for the entire school year, as opposed to the usual semester or so. Gartner says their 18 aspiring teachers are all at the elementary level. They make $20,000 for the year and are eligible for health benefits.

“While it’s certainly not what a full-time teacher makes," she said, "it's a heck of a lot more than traditional student teachers make."

The “Aspiring” program is funded directly from the district’s budget and also compensates the cooperating teachers -- they’re the full-time teachers who house the student teachers in their classroom and coach them through the process. But, through Aspiring Teachers, they’re compensated because they also take on a larger leadership position in their building.

RPS also has a new program funded by the state’s Teacher Vacancy Grant.

It pays $6,000 for one semester and includes other amenities to try to attract student teachers from schools outside of northern Illinois.

“We also have free apartments available where the individuals would pay for some utilities, but the rest of it we are covering,” said Gartner. “They're fully furnished, they're fabulous.”

Right now, RPS is the exception. State Representative Laura Faver Dias, a former teacher, says some Illinois universities prohibit student teachers from taking compensation, even if the money comes from a school district and not the college. She’s the sponsor of one of two bills in the state legislature that aim to compensate student teachers.

Her bill, if fully funded, would provide all student teachers with a $10,000 stipend for a semester of work. If they don't receive full funding, the program would prioritize low-income student teachers.

She says student teaching experiences usually take between 10 and 18 weeks, which is how they got to that dollar figure.

“If you were to base it on a $15-per-hour minimum wage which, in my opinion, teachers are much more valuable, including student teachers, than a $15-per-hour minimum wage, it would be about $7,800,” she said. “So, the $10,000 mark, where we started, is to hit that minimum wage threshold along with allowing for some variance of cost of living.”

The other bill, from Representative Barbara Hernandez, is very similar.

State Representative Anna Moeller is another co-sponsor of Faver-Dias’ bill. She also went through student teaching. She compared traditional student teaching to an unpaid internship that creates significant financial barriers for low-income students.

“They are performing a service, they are working with students, they are performing a job," she said, "and therefore they should be paid."

Lavery, the Libertyville teacher, is glad to see it. Even though she’s well into her teaching career now, the legislation makes her wonder what her life would be like if she’d been paid to student teach those years ago.

“Everything would have been different,” she said.

Lavery has been a cooperating teacher too, and says she’s never been compensated for that either.

Another part of Representative Faver-Dias’ bill creates a stipend for cooperating teachers. Her bill would distribute up to $1,500 for them.

She says those teachers can set up a student teacher for success.

“If you have an effective cooperating teacher who is effective in the classroom and mentoring you," said the representative, "you can enter the profession teaching at a third-year level, even during your first year.”

She says that paying student teachers not only helps them, but also helps the students who get more engaged teachers, ones who may not have to work odd jobs when they’re not in the classroom. And it could bring more potential teachers into the field who otherwise couldn’t afford the financial burden of student teaching.

Copyright 2024 WNIJ Northern Public Radio. To see more, visit WNIJ Northern Public Radio.

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.