'It really is eye-opening': District 204 school board president learns the ropes of being a substitute teacher
For all the high-pressure presentations Laurie Donahue delivered during an engineering career in the telecom industry, nothing prepared her for standing in front of a room full of fourth-graders.
In terms of importance, though, the moment rings familiar.
Donahue is the school board president in Indian Prairie Unit District 204 -- the state's fourth-largest district serves Aurora, Bolingbrook, Naperville and Plainfield -- but on this particular day, she's in a classroom at Fry Elementary School in Naperville working as a substitute teacher.
It's part of her mission to draw attention to the shortage of substitute teachers that exists in District 204 and throughout the state. Not only is she shining a light on the issue, but she's diving in to help.
According to District 204 officials, the district has fewer than 600 substitute teachers. With 2,000 licensed teachers and the desire for a 2-1 ratio with subs, the district ideally would have 1,000 substitutes.
Donahue knows her help is a drop in the bucket, but she hopes the effort leads others to join in.
"It really is eye-opening what substitute teachers do every day," Donahue said. "When I was at (Neuqua Valley High School) for that first time, my stomach was just rolling. It's not easy, but it's worth it."
Before school begins for the Fry fourth-graders, Donahue has to go through the seven pages of instructions and 23 slides of information emailed to her by the students' regular teacher. Then she has to make sure she knows how to use the technology in the classroom.
Donahue takes attendance and lunch orders for the entire classroom and eventually weaves through numerous academic subjects within a detailed timeline. All the while, she wears a lei for Hawaiian Day and roams the room stamping papers for good work.
Needless to say, Donahue savors her lunchtime break.
"I was wiped out," she said.
As Donahue now can attest, being a substitute teacher isn't easy. And the pay rate of $100 a day in District 204 hasn't been enough of a motivator to fill out the roster of needed workers.
Donahue began noticing the dip in substitute teaching numbers before the pandemic, and the situation in the district worsened during the transition from remote to in-person learning.
According to a 2021 study by the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools, 96% of surveyed school districts believe they have a substitute teaching shortage and 90% expect the shortage to worsen.
Districts, meanwhile, are scrambling to fill classrooms. According to the IARSS study, existing teachers are being used as substitutes during their prep times, administrators are filling in, and some classes are being converted to study halls.
"I've managed huge multinational teams in my job, and this is still definitely a learning experience for me," Donahue said. "It's tough just jumping in."
Give it a try
Against the backdrop of a 40% shortage of substitute teachers in the district, Donahue, who is retired, announced during a March school board meeting she was signing up. District 204 rules dictate she's allowed to earn up to $1,000, and then she'll need board permission to earn an additional $1,000.
So far, Donahue has subbed five times, and she'll be adding a preschool and middle-school assignment in the near future.
"I just kept contemplating why I wasn't doing more to help this situation," she said. "I felt it was time to do something."
One of the issues holding her back was the belief that teaching certification was necessary. Although a few brief online classes are required, anyone with a bachelor's degree can apply to be a substitute teacher.
"I think a lot of people don't know they can do it," Donahue said.
This week state legislators attempted to address the shortage with a bill, signed into law by Gov. J.B. Pritzker, that will allow retired teachers to work as substitutes 140 days per school year. The current limit is 120 days, and the expansion will help keep more experienced subs in classrooms.
For Donahue, she aims to continue subbing and using her platform as school board president to talk about the shortage.
Near the end of the school day at Fry Elementary School, Donahue gives the students a chance to ask questions. The fourth-graders don't know exactly what a school board president does, but they know she's important.
"It was cute ... they asked me my favorite color and things like that," she said. "Then they asked if I could get tacos in the school."
As tired as she is, it's the perfect cap to a satisfying Hawaiian Day.
"I hope people give (substitute teaching) a try," she said. "I'll continue to help out. If they get enough substitutes and they don't need me, then that's a great thing."