The SPED Teacher Shortage Crisis

The special education teacher shortage in the U.S. is intensifying. Fewer special education teachers in classrooms put additional stress on those who remain, and stress contributes to burnout. One study suggests that the turnover rate is 25% every year.

In an interview with NPR, David Pennington, superintendent of Ponca City, Oklahoma public schools, didn’t mince his words when discussing why teachers leave: “This crisis has been coming for a long time. Forget about replacing them with someone of the same quality. I’m just worried about replacing them. Period.”

Honestly, it is difficult to blame them for burning out. We might also, if we had to deal with intense feelings of isolation, an insufficient amount of time during the day to do the level of work we could feel good about, and a paucity of affirmation for our hard work.

3 Reasons Why SPED Teachers Quit

1. Lack of Appreciation

A study suggested that, contrary to the expectation that the main reason for the high turnover rate for special education was the abundance of paperwork, rather it was an emotional component — insufficient acknowledgment and appreciation.

Generally speaking, special education teachers do not receive as much appreciation as their general education colleagues. In times where teachers everywhere are working to validate their jobs, the need for special educators is that much more.

2. Behavior and Discipline Issues

Teacher attrition is directly related to difficulties in managing student behavior. Unfortunately, many students with behavior disorders become serious obstacles to successful classroom management due to their disruptive behaviors.

Challenged with consistently managing students with behavioral issues causes greater emotional exhaustion in teachers, which decreases student engagement and, in turn, leads to poorer IEP outcomes.

3. Lack of Support from the School

Jeff Mendenhall, a former special education teacher who was recently hired as the dean of students at an Indianapolis-area middle school, said, “People might complain about paperwork, parent phone calls, things like that. If you’re getting into it (special education), you should probably have a pretty good understanding those are part of the job.”

What Mr. Mendenhall found most frustrating was that “as a special education teacher, I rarely felt respected as a teacher by the other teachers. I would often hear from them, ‘We don’t even really know what you guys do.’ It took a while to realize, but this wasn’t a knock on us as resource teachers. They truly just didn’t understand what we did.”

If special education teachers aren’t understood by their colleagues, how can they possibly expect to be supported by them?

3 Ways to Get them to Reconsider

1. Forging Connections

School leaders need to make special efforts to keep special educators connected to other teachers in their schools. Lori Lacks and Heather Andersen, both special education teachers at Foster Elementary School in Hingham, Massachusetts, praised their principal for creating a schedule that enables them to have time to talk to their general education peers about their students.

Before that change, connections between the special education and regular teachers had been somewhat strained, Lacks said. Andersen said special educators sometimes have a tendency to isolate themselves. For example, the special education teachers at her school used to eat lunch amongst themselves. The principal encouraged them to eat together with the general education teachers whose students they shared.

Another way to forge the connection between special education and regular teachers that is gaining popularity is co-teaching. In this format, the special educator and the general educator collaborate to instruct and assess students. While general educators are the experts in the curriculum and content, special educators devise and implement a plan for addressing students’ individualized education programs.

“When done well, co-teaching should enable students with disabilities to receive the general education curriculum and special services that they need in the same setting,” said Sara Cook, an assistant professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, who researches special education.

2. Visitation

If you want to combat your special education teachers’ feelings of isolation, then you need to find the time to visit your special education classrooms. It goes without saying that this is a difficult request to make of administrators who are already feeling overwhelmed with their tasks.

The unfortunate reality is that special education classrooms are rarely visited by the administration. As a result, many of these teachers feel as if they’re off on an island somewhere and that they don’t matter as much as the other teachers.

Feelings of isolation and unimportance are serious and significant feelings. And if left to fester, the damage could become permanent. If you find that you just can’t find the time to check in with those classrooms on a regular basis, then ask yourself how much time you would need to devote to finding and onboarding a new special education teacher.

And while you are there, be sure to get just a bit personal with your special education teacher. Ask how she’s doing, what’s going well, what might be causing her to feel exasperated, and how you can help. Be assured that letting her know she is valued and cared about will mean a lot to her.

3. Affirmation/Appreciation

Closely aligned with the benefits of visiting the classroom is affirming your special education teacher’s worth by expressing your appreciation of her efforts. More often than not, tangible signs of growth come very slowly with children receiving special education services. Before long, days become weeks and weeks become months, as teachers get the sense that they aren’t making a difference. This is a recipe for burnout and the countdown to quitting.

It often doesn’t take very much to make someone feel appreciated. Sometimes it is as simple as a genuine thank you, a well-placed compliment, or — if you’re interested in a home run — a handwritten note. Sincere words of affirmation have immense power and could prevent burnout for longer than you think.

Conclusion

The unfortunate reality is that special education teachers spend less than half of their day teaching. One study showed that almost 50% of a special educator’s workday is spent on paperwork. For teachers who are drawn into the field by the hope and desire to make a difference in the lives of their students, spending up to half of their time on paperwork is debilitating.

“They get into teaching to teach, and they don’t always have an opportunity to do that,” said Elizabeth Bettini, an assistant professor of special education at Boston University. Bettini, a former special educator. “The truth is that there are many other responsibilities that take up their time.”

You can’t change the picture itself. But you can change the context, the periphery, and even some of the colors. As their supervisor and mentor, you need to do this for your teachers, for your students, and for yourself!