Bilingual teachers' dilemma

Many now face unpaid stint to retain certificate

Bilingual teacher John Lyman of Chicago faced a costly dilemma. If he wanted to keep teaching after five years of leading his own Spanish-speaking classroom at Field Elementary School, he had to quit his full-time job and spend four months as an unpaid student teacher.

Lyman was able to make the financial sacrifice and satisfy the state’s requirements. But he suspects many others in his position would not be willing or able to give up a paying job. It’s a dilemma that could face hundreds of “transitional” bilingual teachers across the state in coming years as they seek to convert their temporary certificates into permanent certification.

In 1978, facing a shortage of bilingual teachers, the state changed its rules to allow qualified beginners six to eight years to complete their certification. The state waived most bilingual teachers’ student-teaching requirements if they had been teaching for five years or more.

But last spring, the Illinois Board of Education made a push to create more consistency in teacher-certification programs. As part of the reform, the student-teaching waivers were essentially eliminated.

Now officials fear the tighter requirements could exacerbate the teacher shortage.

“We understand it’s a major issue, and we understand it’s an issue that can push people out of the profession,” said Frank Llano, deputy superintendent of professional preparation for the Illinois Board of Education.

“We’re beginning to question the credibility of a requirement that someone who has been in a classroom for as many as eight years must leave that classroom to spend 10 weeks as an unpaid student teacher,” Llano said. “There are not many who can afford to do that.”

Every year for the last three years, about 375 bilingual teachers statewide converted their temporary certificates into regular credentials, Llano said. It’s not clear how many of these teachers will be affected by student-teaching requirements because some university programs allow their working student teachers to fulfill the requirements as “paid interns,” essentially continuing their classroom work with enhanced supervision.

“I’m a single parent, so this is very hard,” said Diana Gonzalez, 40, who left an accounting career seven years ago to become a 2nd-grade bilingual teacher in East Aurora. She has a year and a half before her temporary certificate expires, and she doesn’t know how she’ll be able to complete a master’s degree she is pursuing in bilingual education in the next 18 months if she must spend a semester working unpaid.

Gonzalez pursued a master’s degree rather than another bachelor’s degree because school districts pay more for the advanced degree. Had she known the rules would change, she might have saved her money instead.

“I don’t know where I stand with my certificate,” she said. “But I might not have a choice. I love teaching. I love being with the children.”

Lyman, 36, said he didn’t have much choice either. After a career in tourism, he became a teacher in 1996, taking over a 4th-grade bilingual classroom at Field on the Northwest Side. Two years later, he started a bilingual master’s program at Northeastern Illinois University.

At the time, he said, he was told the state would waive the student-teaching requirement. When the rules changed, Lyman was caught in the middle despite appeals from school administrators to let him fulfill Northeastern’s 16-week student-teaching requirement under supervision in his own classroom.

“I like teaching. That’s why I did all this,” said Lyman, who borrowed money from his parents to pay his bills during the last four months. “And I wasn’t about to go through three years of a master’s program and not finish it. But if there is such a grave teachers shortage, how can the state ask people to resign and give up almost half a year’s salary to be able to ‘become’ teachers?”

Joaquin Villegas, a Northeastern bilingual education professor, acknowledged that this requirement is a hardship for his older students, especially those who have run their own classrooms for years.

“We don’t have a choice. As of now, we just go along with what the state stipulates,” said Villegas, who added that about eight transitional bilingual teachers in the master’s program this year must quit to complete the unpaid student-teaching stint.

State officials are looking to fix the problem, although any changes in state rules aren’t expected to take effect until nextfall. After meeting with bilingual-program administrators from universities and school districts last month, state education officials are considering a change that would allow experienced teachers to be paid during student-teaching stints.

A handful of university teaching programs already have that flexibility for their students because these universities requested waivers from the “unpaid rule” years before it became an issue. These schools include Columbia College, the University of Illinois and Chicago State University.

John Struck, associate superintendent for personnel at East Aurora School District 131, said the state’s student-teaching rules–if left unchanged–could be disastrous for districts that rely on these transitional teachers to staff their fast-growing bilingual programs.

Of the 200 bilingual teachers in East Aurora, 60 percent are working with transitional certificates.

“This could have a devastating impact,” Struck said. “It would cause not only a financial hardship for the teachers, but create a big problem for school districts.”

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