student teacher smiling at her students

Alivia Meier, a senior elementary education major from Murphysboro and participant in SIU’s new Saluki Teacher Residency Partnership program, is student teaching in Tracy Landewee’s fourth-grade classroom at Carruthers Elementary School in Murphysboro this year. 

September 08, 2022

SIU creates new, faster pathway to teaching to address shortage

by Christi Mathis

CARBONDALE, Ill. — Eight Southern Illinois University Carbondale students are currently working in classrooms throughout the region for the inaugural year of the Saluki Teacher Residency Partnership (STRP), which provides financial, mentorship and experiential benefits to teacher candidates while also helping participating school districts and children. And the program gets the aspiring educators started on their careers several months earlier.

SIU is one of just five universities statewide chosen for $250,000 Teacher Residency Grant from the Illinois State Board of Education, said Christie McIntyre, director of SIU’s Teacher Education Programs.

“The teacher shortage is impacting literally everyone right now,” said Daniel Booth, superintendent of the Carbondale High School District. “Five or 10 years ago, there were dozens of applicants for every job. Now, positions are posted at districts, and sometimes there are no applicants. Or we have teachers moving from one district to another to get better pay or be closer to where they live and that just moves the teacher shortage problem around.”

The goal is to provide yet another pathway to get qualified teachers into the classrooms, and more quickly, according to McIntyre. SIU’s School of Education also conducts a traditional program and participates in the Grow Your Own initiative for nontraditional students. In addition, it is encouraging high school students to pursue education careers through the Scaling Education Pathways and Educators Rising programs.

Internship mirrors medical practice

McIntyre said in many ways, STRP is modeled on the medical residency physicians complete during their schooling as the program combines educational coursework with intensive, on-the-job training in schools. The emphasis is on clinical experience, allowing the future teachers to learn and train alongside veteran teachers for a full academic year via the plan developed in conjunction with the National Center for Teacher Residencies.

Their entire senior year of college, the teacher candidates are in the classroom with students. The students participate in a sort of “co-teaching/student teaching arrangement” four days weekly their first semester while still completing all of their college coursework online or in the evenings at SIU. The fifth day each week, they meet with instructional coaches, SIU faculty and their program mentors. During the second semester, they student teach Monday through Friday in one of these subject areas: early childhood, special education, secondary math and science or English /language arts. The idea is to give them extensive practical teacher experience under the close supervision of seasoned professionals.

This fall, Saluki teacher residents can be found in classrooms at Carbondale Elementary School, Carbondale Community High School, Murphysboro Community Unit School District and Vienna School District. The goal is to expand to the Cairo School District and the Meridian Community United School District next year, McIntyre said. Plans call for having at least three teacher candidates working in each district.

“We’re really grateful to our partners for their support and really excited about this program,” she said. “Our priority is to get teachers into high-need areas.”

Because of the way the program is set up, teacher candidates will actually be able to move into their own classrooms much sooner by participating in this program than they would through traditional teaching programs, 15 months versus two years. The program begins in the summer and wraps up the following summer semester.  

Learning to lead

Alivia-Meier_033-sm.jpgAlivia Meier, a senior elementary education major from Murphysboro, virtually “grew up” on the SIU campus and didn’t give it a second thought when it came to where she was going to college or what her career was going to be. While taking teacher education classes at SIU, she got classroom experience one day a week her junior year at the Parrish Elementary School District in Carbondale and the Trico Community Unit District in Campbell Hill. Then she discovered the new residency program.

“I almost thought it was too good to be true when I heard about it,” Meier said. “To be there in the classroom full time for the whole school year where you can learn the inner workings – the behavior and classroom management is great. Even the simple things like how to best handle bathroom breaks with the children is important. There is so much you can learn through personal experience, and I’m already seeing that for myself.”

Meier is part of SIU’s pilot group and already immersed in working in the fourth-grade classroom of Tracy Landewee at Carruthers Elementary School in Murphysboro. Landewee decided to become a mentor for several reasons. After 16 years in the profession, she believes teaching is “an underappreciated career in so many ways,” and she’s eager to show her support for teaching and the new program as it will help get more teachers into the schools and help them be as prepared as possible.

“The biggest advantage I see with this program is the teaching students have the opportunity to see the beginning and the end of the school year,” Landewee said. “They see how much the younger students grow over the course of the school year.”

She noted that with the traditional teacher preparation program, the teacher candidates are only in the classroom several days weekly for one semester, so they see children at the beginning or the end of the academic year but “to truly appreciate what a teacher does, you have to see both of those pieces.” 

Moreover, she said, building relationships with the students is one of the “most important aspects of being a teacher, and I see the Saluki Teacher Residency Partnership program making this more realistic for incoming teachers. By being in the classroom the entire year, it allows them to build better relationships and rapport with the students. The students see them differently, too. They see them as a real teacher rather than a visitor to the classroom.”

The practical experience, Landewee said, gives them self-assurance that they know “the ins and outs of leading a classroom, building relationships and how to become an interactive component of the classroom. Students can only benefit from the confidence the resident teacher has gained from being given this opportunity.”

On a recent morning, Meier was helping keep the children in Landewee’s class on task as Landewee read them the final chapters of Kate DeCamillo’s “Winn Dixie.” Afterward, as Landewee was occupied with a class visitor, Meier quickly stepped up, unprompted, to lead a class discussion about the book. Landewee beamed and pointed out what was happening.

“Alivia has picked up on how to fill time with appropriate learning experiences,” Landewee said.  “She has done an excellent job of getting to know the kids, and she does well working and talking with them one-on-one. But she is also very comfortable walking up and taking control when she needs to. She’s a natural, and she’s learned my classroom routine and techniques very quickly.”

Participating mentor teachers receive a small stipend for their support of the program as well.

Booth did his student teaching at the district he now leads and is a huge believer in the value of hands-on training.

“I got indoctrinated into how things were done at Carbondale, and it made it so much easier to step in and be an effective teacher,” he said. “It’s great for the district, too. It’s really like they are getting a second-year teacher because the teacher residents have already spent an entire year working in a classroom. When you’re preparing to be a teacher, there are two areas of focus: theory and practice. The theory that you study is important, but sometimes it can go out the window pretty quickly when you’re standing in front of 20 or 25 students who are all in different places in their learning. Then, your most valuable experience comes from being in the classroom with the children, and the more time you can spend with them, the more you’re prepared to handle whatever may come your way as a teacher.” 

Intense but rewarding learning fostered by two mentors

Alivia-Meier_062-sm.jpgMeier admits that life right now is very busy, taking classes online by night and weekends while helping teach fourth grade by day, but she insists it’s worth the extra effort for the incredible amount of practical experience she’s garnering. She said being able to translate the extensive knowledge she’s getting from faculty at SIU into the classroom is invaluable and that Landewee is an excellent mentor teacher.

In addition to the teacher mentors, SIU is incorporating a unique element into its program that is already drawing interest from other grant recipients. Each Saluki teacher resident will also have a community mentor, in addition to the teacher mentor.

SIU program officials are currently in the process of working with the participating school districts to select community mentors. They may be school board members, local business people or any interested citizen who has connections to the region and who understand the resources and the value of mentorship, McIntyre said.

“We want mentors who can give them a diverse perspective, take them to football games, school board meetings, build relationships, community awareness and enhanced perspectives of what is happening in the areas the students are working in,” she said.

What’s more, the mentorship aspect of the program will continue for a year or two after the new teachers obtain their licenses and begin teaching their own classes.

Serving where most needed

Jessica Madden, assessment coordinator for the Office of Teacher Education, said that while the initiative is meant to address the teacher shortage, what’s particularly exciting about it is that this program is set in a more rural area while most such programs are established in urban locales.

That makes sense, officials said, because part of the goal is to prepare and immerse prospective teachers into classrooms where they can then find their homes as teachers, complete with continued mentorship.

“These are communities with larger diverse populations, and we’re trying to prepare teachers who can better work with students from varied and diverse backgrounds with the hopes that they will be a good fit, so they can work there for two years or more afterward,” said M Cecil Smith, dean of the School of Education. “This model provides a way for us to further engage and support their professional development.”

McIntyre said the exact implementation of the program varies from school to school, as officials adapt it to meet the needs of each district.

Need is great, program benefits participants

Booth said his district is willing to host as many teacher candidates as it can get, and he is hopeful that many of those working in his district will go on to find jobs at the school. For instance, one student is working in a special education classroom, and Booth said there will be a vacancy in special education next year at Carbondale.

“But it’s not just about us; it’s about filling the pipeline for the region,” Booth added. “SIU is a good community partner.”

The need for teachers is great, both regionally and nationally. Indeed, in 2020, more than 6,000 teaching and support staff positions statewide were unfilled, and the Illinois Teacher Retirement System showed a 50% increase in retirements over the previous year with fewer people entering the teaching profession.

“Anything we can do to get a pre-service teacher into an area where we have a need is amazing,” McIntyre said. “This is also important because it enables us to provide an additional pathway to the professional educator license for students of color.”

The program provides a package valued at $15,000 per teaching candidate. The grant allows the funds to come in the form of tuition waivers, stipends or both.

 “A grant of this nature is seed money for larger grants,” McIntyre said. “Once we prove our concept and program, we can apply for larger grants from the United States Department of Education. Additional funding can provide long-term, sustainable financial support for future Saluki residents.”

The financial and time-saving benefits notwithstanding, Meier is convinced the experience alone makes the program worthwhile for her.

“I believe getting this amount of additional experience does set me apart,” Meier. “I think it will make a difference on my resume.”

She hopes to get a job teaching in grades 3-5 in the Murphysboro area after graduation, continuing to work in the region she loves, and where she and her husband already reside.

“We have roots here, and I’m really excited about teaching here,” she said.