We can all agree that we should appreciate what our teachers do for our children throughout the region, right?

After all, teachers play a large hand in molding our youth. Most are underpaid. Most are underappreciated.

Two stories published in The Southern recently stood out to us: One highlighted what rural schools are doing to recruit former students back to their home districts to teach. And the other looked at what Herrin is doing with instructional coaches, who are helping teachers in the classroom.

It’s no secret that Illinois has a population crisis on its hands. Well, the same goes for teachers. Here in Illinois, the period 2010 to 2016 saw a 53% decline in graduates from teacher preparation programs, outpacing even the national downturn among young people.

And it’s probably even worse in rural areas.

That’s why recruiting was a major point in both stories. Two superintendents who talked to The Southern likened the process to running a football program.

“I played college football, and it’s a little recruiting, letting people know they’re loved and appreciated, and the impact they could have on our schools,” said Hardin County Schools Superintendent Andy Edmondson.

Added Herrin Community Unit District 4 Superintendent Terry Ryker: After the University of Alabama recruits its top players, the coaches don’t turn them loose and say, "It’s all yours from here on out. We don’t need to coach you."

We get it. Recruiting will get the best and brightest to our region to teach. But another thing that is happening in Herrin — and elsewhere — is our teachers are getting coached, too. We think that is a great thing.

For the 2018-19 academic year, the Herrin school district named eight instructional coaches, recruiting all of them from within its own ranks. The idea is simple: These are teachers who are designated to help coach other teachers, so that those teachers can, in turn, better coach their own students.

If done correctly, it’s one of those rare occurrences in life where it is a win-win situation. Who wouldn’t be for that?

So far, in Herrin, it’s going very well.

Last year, before the coaches were put in place, the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) labeled Herrin’s elementary and junior high schools as “underperforming” based on standardized test scores, poor attendance rates and other factors.

Instead of wallowing over the label, Herrin teachers and administrators did the commendable thing: They went to work. “We really just kind of embraced that underperforming category and took a close look at all of the pieces and developed a plan,” said Herrin Elementary School Principal Bobbi Bigler.

The result: Herrin Elementary School received an “exemplary” designation, meaning the school, where two of every three students comes from a low-income family, ranked in the top 10 percent of schools statewide. Herrin Junior High also grew to “commendable” — the passing label assigned to about 80 percent of Illinois’ schools.

This shows us that the coaching can work, and we think it’d help other school districts that don’t currently use them.

Instructional coaches aren’t new to Illinois schools, but they are rare among Southern Illinois’ districts. Last year, the Regional Office of Education No. 21, which serves school districts in Williamson, Franklin, Johnson and Massac counties, offered its first instructional coaching training program for area educators. And several districts participated in addition to Herrin's.

It should be noted that Herrin’s effort to provide teaching coaches was a result of the evidence-based funding system passed at the state level in 2017, which redistributed money to districts that struggle financially. Herrin’s success story shows that the increased funding is having its intended effect here in Southern Illinois. As legislators consider ways to ease the burden of property taxes — which make up the bulk of education funding — they continue to talk about how the state can provide even more funding to local districts. The infusion of cash already injected into local districts is clearly working, and more state money for education will help even more.

We encourage other school districts to follow suit with some of these ideas. We also encourage them to keep thinking of fresh ways to improve and maintain education in Southern Illinois. We have a long ways to go to fix education in the region and state, but fresh ideas like these are only going to help.

The Southern Illinoisan, Carbondale, Sunday

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