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Special Education’s Challenges

Isolation and lack of administrative support can challenge special ed teachers.

Feelings of isolation, too little time with students, lack of administrative support, and increasing demands are challenges facing special education teachers and contributing to teacher shortages. If we are to provide the high quality programs necessary for our children and youth with disabilities, while ensuring that they make good progress toward attaining their goals and meeting increasingly rigorous academic standards, the recruitment and retention of qualified, committed and talented teachers is essential. As leaders in our educational system, all too often we make well-intentioned decisions that have unintended consequences. We ask ourselves what we can do to address the teacher shortage crisis, and yet we increase the requirements for earning special education teacher credentials while at the same time offering enhanced incentives to experienced teachers to elect early retirement. We are directly contributing to the severe teacher shortage we are facing in special education. As school districts compete for the same special education teachers, administrators must use strategies that give their district an advantage by learning what compels a teacher to work and remain in a district.

Increased Isolation

The design of special education delivery systems in many schools leads to increased isolation when special education teachers enter their classrooms and close the door. These educators become isolated from the teams and collaborative instructional models of education in the 21st century and in a digital age when we are all so personally and professionally connected through technology. As leaders in special education we must find new and creative ways to connect our teachers to their resources and supports. The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future (NCTAF) is convinced that the isolation of the classroom is more than a relic of an industrial-age model: “It is a factor driving many of our best teachers out of the classroom and driving new teachers from schools that need them the most.” As we look at today’s digital-age generation of teachers, one that is mastering the use of multiple technologies—the Internet, cell phones, PDAs and more—we find that these educators are often working alone.

Teachers in Need

I became a special education teacher to work with children with disabilities and make a difference in their lives. I chose special education because I wanted to work with the children with the greatest challenges and who needed me the most. I believe that we fail our teachers and subsequently fail to retain them when we repeatedly remove them from instruction and assign them to conduct assessments, attend meetings, complete paperwork, and work with other educators and the community. Although these assignments are important and necessary, they should not consume the significant portion of a special education teacher’s time that they do today.

Where’s the Support?

Genuine administrative support is also seen as a key need by Luann Purcell, former assistant superintendent of the Houston County (Ga.) School District and now executive director of the Council of Administrators of Special Education. Calling upon her 18 years of experience as assistant superintendent, Purcell notes that “no matter what teachers or speech pathologists have to do, if they perceive that they are supported, genuinely supported, they stay!” In her experience, the number one reason that special educators were not retained was not money, but rather the level of support they received.

I believe we fail our teachers and fail to retain them when we repeatedly remove them from instruction and assign them to conduct assessments, attend meetings, complete paperwork, and work with other educators and the community.

“Many teachers are overwhelmed by the intense demands, especially in their first few years,” says Mary Kealy, assistant superintendent for pupil services in the Loudoun County (Va.) Public Schools, a growing district serving about 58,000 students and increasing by 3,000 students annually. Despite participating in coursework and professional development to give them the knowledge and skills needed to be effective in their new roles, new teachers experience high levels of stress. Kealy adds that she sees “high turnover due to increasing demands, impact of school budgets on salaries, challenging students with little training on how to meet their needs, time commitments for meetings and paperwork and professional development.”

What Districts Can Do

Given that teachers need administrator support, professional development, time with their students, and connections to resources and materials, what can districts do to successfully recruit and ultimately retain special education teachers?

The Council for Exceptional Children (CEC), headquartered in Arlington, Va., is the largest international professional organization dedicated to improving the educational success of individuals with disabilities and gifts and talents. CEC advocates for appropriate governmental policies, sets professional standards, provides professional development, advocates for individuals with exceptionalities, and helps professionals obtain conditions and resources necessary for effective professional practice. CEC surveyed over 400 veteran special education teachers in Kentucky to determine what keeps them in special education. Knowing that factors inherent in school and in the professional climate (lack of administrative support, role conflict, difficulty working with colleagues) are often associated with attrition, veterans ranked the influence of several items on their decision to stay in a particular school and in special education. Working with students, seeing students progress, and feeling a sense of personal accomplishment were the three most influential reasons. These were followed by positive school climate, administrative support, collegial support and collegial friendships. At the bottom of the list were salary and benefits.

Kealy administers a successful “grow your own special education teachers and administrators program” in Loudoun County Public Schools. This cohort approach, in collaboration with local universities, targets teacher assistants with bachelor’s degrees, professionals interested in making a career change, other teachers seeking licensure in special education, speech and language assistants, and substitute teachers. These cohorts are specialized and include special certificate programs in fields such as autism and special education leadership, as well as special education master’s degree programs. Master’s degree programs offer advanced degrees with salary incentives to bachelor’s level teachers who are interested in becoming special education teachers but are not interested in earning a second bachelor’s degree.

Beginning at initial steps of recruitment, administrators must demonstrate that they provide technical supports and ongoing professional development with financial support. In addition to assignment and salary information, the savvy recruiter will advertise and explain the technical assistance and ongoing professional development and organizational support provided to special education teacher applicants. Special education teachers need supervision from administrators with knowledge and experience in their specialty areas.

End the Isolation

We must end the isolation to end the exodus. In this digital age, administrators should promote and provide technology supports and access to learning communities and to communities of practice such as those offered by the IDEA Partnership, a collaborative community of 55 national organizations with cross-stakeholder work supporting professionals, parents and communities. Online supports such as “How I Survived the Paper Snowstorm of Special Education” and “How to Get Help to You and Your Students” are also accessible through the CEC Web site. In addition to online activities, offering a balance of face-to-face mentoring and networking through professional organizations and ongoing professional development can provide the web of support and the opportunity to reach beyond the isolation of the classroom. Above all, administrators must ensure that teachers have access to software applications to support instruction and monitor progress, interventions matched to their students’ needs, and adequate instruction time.

High quality programs not only promote student learning but also support teacher retention. When their students achieve, special education teachers feel they are making a difference in the lives of their students and their families, and in their schools and communities, which was their motivation to become special education teachers in the first place.

Christy Chambers is past president of the Council of Administrators of Special Education and a consultant for Beyond the Box LLC, an education consulting group providing technical assistance and training.