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Desperately Seeking Special Ed Teachers

U.S. school districts seek qualified special educators. Offering supportive principals, strong mentoring programs and inclusive training programs.

It's no secret that the dearth of special education teachers has created huge headaches for district human resources departments, especially in suburban and rural areas. In addition to insufficient numbers of candidates applying for special education jobs, retention of special education teachers is an ever-greater problem, as research indicates that special ed teachers are two-anda-half times more likely to leave their jobs than teachers in other disciplines.

Although districts can’t wave a magic wand and produce massive numbers of special education graduates from universities in high-need areas, they do have tools to more effectively recruit and especially retain special educators. Creating a supportive school climate, providing mentors, and recruiting from within are three ways that districts can ease their problems.

Supportive School Climate

Money certainly is an issue in terms of retaining and recruiting special education teachers, but a supportive school climate and building administrator can play a more powerful role, according to research by associate professor Kathleen McCoy and lecturer Rebecca Gehrke of Arizona State University, who surveyed and interviewed veteran and beginning special ed teachers. “Overwhelmingly, the most important factor that was keeping them there as teachers was the support that they received from their principals,” McCoy says. Special education teachers appreciate principals who attend individualized education plan meetings and back them up in discussions with parents concerning discipline and interventions for students. “It’s very important for the teacher to feel that the principal will support her in the programs that have been developed, whether they are disciplinary or academic,” McCoy says.

"A lot of it has to do with being part of the school and the district and not separate and apart." -Diane Bruening, director of pupil personnel, Chandler Unified School District

“[The shortage] is often a result of rising caseload numbers and increasing expectations from district, state and national levels,” adds Meg Schnoor, director of special services at Huntley (Ill.) Consolidated School District 158. “Teachers cite feeling unsupported by their administrators, who often do not understand special education mandates. The administration may not necessarily view general education teachers as responsible for the achievement of special needs students, as they do with special education teachers. Combined, these issues lead to burnout of current staff or a lack of qualified applicants.”

Tackling that problem requires a variety of approaches, as the demands on special educators are growing. But in this era of tight budgets, districts should remember that salary is not the only method to solve their special education shortage problem.

Studies show that “it’s less about money and it’s more about support,” says Luann Purcell, executive director of the Council of Administrators of Special Education. “And so the more administrative support you provide that teacher, the more likely they are to stay in the program.”

Support can be offered in many ways, says Purcell, who provided support through a chapter of the Council for Exceptional Children. The chapter met monthly while she and her administrative staff attended regularly. Teachers knew they would see their supervisors at the meeting. Purcell supported them by approving their participation in the organization’s state and national conferences budgeted through the federal special education dollars each year.

Other areas of administrative support help lessen special educators’ workloads. By not burdening special education teachers with extra duties, such as serving on committees or bus duty, principals can free up more time for teachers to plan lessons or other activities.

In addition to administrative leadership, making special ed teachers feel that they are part of the school is key, as many of them can feel isolated from other divisions on campus, McCoy says. “The more isolated the special educators feel, the less likely that the special educator will stay,” she says.

Diane Bruening, director of pupil personnel at Arizona’s Chandler Unified School District, agrees that when it comes to supporting and involving special education teachers in the school community, “it starts at the top.”

“A lot of it has to do with being part of the school and the district and not separate and apart,” says Bruening, whose district serves a Phoenix suburb. Chandler principals ensure that special education education teachers are included in faculty and staff meetings and “core content” training sessions, which have included discussions about adapting new textbooks to specialeducation students.

In the past, many special educators did not attend faculty meetings because they had IEP meetings or other special meetings. But that was a mistake, Bruening says, because it made special educators “feel separate and apart.”

Principals have a vital role to play in ensuring that special education teachers have all the supplies and materials they need. Bruening believes that this requires principals to be advocates at the district level. She also thinks that they need to be familiar with special education issues, such as law and procedures.

“It is sometimes difficult for special educators to make the correct and legal decision when they are balancing family and student relationships,” Bruening says. “Administrators can support their staff by stepping in on such occasions. And this is much appreciated.”

The district also makes an effort to help special educators better run parent meetings, which can be a source of stress, Bruening says. The program, which Bruening created herself and calls “Professional Edge,” ensures that some leaders at school sites are trained in how to more effectively run parent meetings, which can easily drag on and remain unfocused for teachers who have no guidance on the issue, she adds.

Besides recommending that teachers call parents beforehand to learn of their hopes for a meeting, the training program calls for developing and sticking to a set agenda to make everyone’s time more productive and efficient. “I think leaders who can assist in running these meetings need to be identified in every school,” Bruening says.

Not Separate but Equal

In an effort to welcome and retain quality special education teachers, the Naperville (Ill.) Community Unit School District 203 has developed a mentoring and induction program to support teachers and make them feel more included in the district community.

The 19,000-student district, which serves a suburb of Chicago, makes sure to include new special education and general education classes in the same teacher orientation and induction sessions, says Kitty Murphy, the district’s assistant superintendent for student services and special education.

Too often special educators undergo separate orientation and induction, she says. By avoiding that trap, the district hopes to ensure that special educators understand that “we are one system,” Murphy says. “We are not special ed over here and general ed over here,” she says. “And then when they know that is the case, they feel more supported. And I think too often special ed and general ed are run as two separate systems.”

At least every other month, the district also holds discipline meetings to give special education teachers across the district the opportunity to meet and discuss issues, such as curriculum adaptations and modifications. “That’s really an opportunity to network with their fellow teachers,” Murphy says.

The district has also enlisted retired and active special educators and special ed supervisors to mentor new special education teachers to provide guidance and sources of feedback, Murphy says. In most cases, the district can match a special education employee with a mentor in the same specific field. Mentors help beginning special education teachers in areas such as time management and organization, getting through tough parent conversations and how to work best with general education teachers.

"It's probably as great or more of an issue than people leaving the profession." -Mark Schalock, associate professor, Western Oregon University, Teaching Research Institute

In addition to practical advice, a mentor can also provide an emotional outlet for teachers struggling with the complex, demanding responsibilities of special education, Murphy says. The mentorship makes special education teachers feel less isolated.

“They need someone that they can talk to, that they can bounce things off of and that they can vent to,” she says. “So the more support they have—the more they don’t feel alone, and they feel like they can turn to someone for help—[the more they] tend to stay.”

Mentoring programs, combined with strong induction processes, are effective in boosting retention of special education teachers, according to a 2007 report by the National Association of State Directors of Special Education, which noted that “some mentoring programs achieved a five-year teacher retention rate as high as 80 percent.”

Grow Your Own

Districts recruiting special education teachers look to university programs by going to job fairs or conducting outreach. But why not look closer to home?

Newberg (Ore.) Public Schools, a district located about 20 miles southwest of Portland, used two types of state grants to give scholarships to provide district employees with the opportunity to pursue a career as a special education teacher.

The first type of state grant provided scholarships for general education teachers and classified staff , such as educational assistants, to begin or complete a special education program at a university, says Anne Wylie, director of special programs for the approximately 5,000-student district.

A second Oregon state grant is meant to address the severe shortage of speech and language pathologists statewide.

Students who obtain undergraduate degrees in speech and language disorders receive restricted state licenses to teach, but they must eventually complete a master’s program to obtain a full license in speech-language pathology to be able to continue teaching.

The problem in Oregon is there are so few spots in master’s programs that it is difficult for aspiring speech-language pathologists to take that next educational step in their career, Wylie says. The shortage is so bad that Newberg has had speech-language pathologist job openings for four years—with no applicants.

To help overcome that, a state grant provides scholarship money to select districts so that employed speech-language teachers on restricted licenses can study for their master’s degree in a distance learning arrangement with Nova Southeastern University in Florida. The program has helped four Newberg teachers study for master’s degrees. “We now have very, very excited young speech-and-language pathologists involved in the program and doing a very nice job for our districts,” Wylie says.

Such “grow your own” programs—recruiting and assisting internal candidates in getting the proper education—are very useful, especially in rural areas, which have more trouble in attracting and retaining special education teachers, according to Mark Schalock, an associate professor at Western Oregon University’s Teaching Research Institute.

A big advantage of such programs “is that you can really target people who have strong ties to the community and are likely to stay there,” Schalock says. “There is a huge turnover of special educators moving from district to district. It’s probably as great or more of an issue than people leaving the profession.”

Honesty and Confidence

“If administrators value their employees and their profession, are honest, and confident, the teachers, the speech-and-language pathologists, nurses, school psychologists, related service providers, and para-educators will feel supported,” Purcell adds, “and will maintain the type of loyalty that takes for a stable workforce.”

Kevin Butler is a contributing writer for DISTRICT ADMINISTRATION. Christy Chambers, who is past president of CASE, contributed to this report.