SHELBYVILLE — Living and working in a small town is all about community.
“You know you teach in a small town when you go into Walmart and see nine of your students,” said Russ Tomblin, principal of Moulton Middle School in Shelbyville.
Shelbyville schools are part of a pilot program with Eastern Illinois University that invites college students who plan to become teachers to visit small communities, tour the schools and talk to the staff.
As part of the pilot program, a group of Eastern students visited Shelbyville schools and were welcomed with open arms. The staff and administrators in Shelbyville wouldn't trade their close-knit community, and they wanted to help the young teachers-to-be to see it through their eyes, Superintendent Denise Bence said.
“Every teacher in every building knows every kid's name,” she said. “If that's the kind of atmosphere you want to teach in, a rural school is the right place.”
Illinois schools had more than 2,800 teaching, administrative, support staff and other positions that were unfilled as of Oct. 1, according to the State Board of Education. A survey conducted by the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools in 2015 found that 60 percent of districts in the state had difficulty filling all their teaching positions. Small districts can be overlooked because so many new teachers are drawn to larger communities, which can have higher pay or more amenities.
“This is something that's pretty important to all of us,” Tomblin said to the Eastern students. “We have representatives from Moulton Middle School, our new high school principal, teachers from our elementary building, and really, what I want to stress is that these people all care about education and they're excited about you going into education.”
Even if they don't choose Shelbyville, Tomblin said, he hoped they would consider rural districts.
“Why should you consider going into a rural setting? And for all of you, the reason you're going into education is because of your students, and you're excited to work with kids," Tomblin said. "The reason you should consider a rural location is because of the community. Our community is outstanding and you get a chance to feel that you're really a part of it.”
Many of the Eastern students are from small communities, said Doug Bower, dean of education at the university, and some of them suggested creating the Teacher Corps, as they're calling the pilot program, to make these trips to rural districts.
“The whole idea is for them to get to know faculty, get to know students, get to know the staff, and get to know the community,” Bower said. “To us, the most important part of a rural school is that partnership between school and community and how it all co-exists.”
Bower is from Charleston, so he knows firsthand how important those relationships are and how the support of the community makes all the difference to a school, he said.
“I'm 33, so I'm a nontraditional college student, and I have two girls,” said Holly Pitts, who is from Mattoon. “I'm looking for a strong community base, so when I'm done with school, I can move my family there and be there forever. You can't have that kind of security in a bigger school. In Shelbyville, or Mattoon, everybody knows each other and there are strong bonds.”
The district's music teacher, Joe Amato, is from Lockport, and was drawn to Shelbyville because of that community spirit, he said. In tough budget times, the arts are often the first thing to go when cuts are necessary, but Shelbyville taxpayers support the arts and want their kids to have that opportunity. Because he teaches fourth and fifth grade music and middle and high school choir, he sees students all the way through their schooling and gets to watch them learn and grow, he said, in a way that wouldn't be possible in a large district.
One of the most critical teacher shortages is special education, in all districts, but it's especially acute in rural schools.
“I chose special ed because there's a demand for it, and I see the need,” said Valerie Kuhns, who is from Arcola and a student at Eastern. “I grew up in a rural district and I love it. I love how close-knit the communities are and there's a family feel for the rural area.”