A Quiet But Growing Problem

Special education teachers ensure an equitable education for millions of students around the country. With 14 percent of our students requiring some type of special education service, special education teachers play a critical role in helping all students to have an opportunity to thrive academically.

But unfortunately, the shortage of qualified special education teachers continues to climb. The sad truth is that these shortages have persisted for years, jeopardizing the education of our nation’s most vulnerable students.

The Office of Special Education Programs currently lists the national shortage at 8 percent. This expansive and growing problem affects districts across the country.

To give the special education teacher shortage a bit more context, consider the following statistics:

  • Forty-eight states and the District of Columbia lack sufficient special education teachers.

  • Special education teachers leave the teaching profession at almost double the rate of general education teachers.

  • More than half of all school districts struggle to staff well-qualified special education teachers.

  • Ninety percent of high-poverty school districts struggle to staff well-qualified special education teachers.

  • Up to 29 percent of vacated special education teacher positions are due to attrition.

To further complicate matters, COVID, with its many, varied, and often unpredictable ramifications has wreaked even further havoc. Resurgent demand for special education teachers, in conjunction with a dwindling teacher preparation pipeline, has fomented a shortage of crisis proportions!

What to Do When the Future is Now!

Although comprehensive and systemic solutions must be devised to address the root causes of shortages, many schools and districts no longer have the luxury to wait for long-term strategies to bear results.

Instead, they need just-in-time strategies to hire, prepare, support, and ultimately retain individuals who appear to be promising special education teachers.

To put it bluntly, schools and districts often have no choice but to hire individuals who have not completed a full special education teacher preparation program and lack the appropriate credentials.

And yet, while there seems to be no other option, hiring underprepared teachers presents its own unique set of challenges. These teachers need more resources and support than their fully prepared counterparts require.

What’s more, these teachers are more likely to leave the field of education and are less likely to be effective in working with students with disabilities.

While the situation may appear dire, there is no reason to despair. Even in this “emergency mode,” SPED Directors need to hold onto their hats and proceed with wisdom and caution, albeit quickly!

Following these three effective tips from the experts will mitigate some of the pain, helping SPED Directors to surmount this most daunting challenge.

1. Hire Candidates With the Most Potential

When onboarding teachers certified through fast-track or alternative routes, SPED Directors need to look for certain characteristics and experiences that will increase the likelihood of the candidate’s success as a special education teacher, such as:

Experience as a Paraprofessional

A capable paraprofessional understands students, curriculum, and instructional strategies. Additionally, paraprofessionals are likely to live in the geographical vicinity that the school serves.

Experience with Children

A teacher who has had some prior experience with kids likely has developed some skills and knowledge in child/adolescent development, which will be invaluable in a teaching role.

Experience with Individuals with Disabilities

A candidate who has some prior experience with children with disabilities will likely have some awareness and facility engaging with those children with disabilities he/she is assigned to assist.

Experience in Schools

A candidate who has some prior experience in schools, either as a student-teacher or in an auxiliary role (such as lunchroom personnel or as a parent volunteer), will likely have some understanding of the systems and cultures of schools.

2. Provide Intensive Professional Learning Supports

Plan A

All novice special education teachers, regardless of their path to certification or preparation experience, will require on-the-job support to learn both the instructional and non-instructional responsibilities of being a special education teacher.

However, teachers certified through fast-track or alternative routes will probably have gaps in their knowledge and skills that need to be addressed. This means that more time and resources will need to be invested to support these teachers than those who are fully prepared.

Strong induction and professional learning supports can help resolve these gaps and facilitate long-term teacher retention. Effective induction programs provide systematic professional learning opportunities and utilize experienced mentors in a collaborative, supportive, and positive school culture.

Plan B

When such mentors experienced with high-quality induction and professional learning systems to support these new special education teachers are unavailable, there are alternative options to provide teachers with both special-education-specific support and context-specific support, such as:

Virtual Mentors

Virtual mentoring with an experienced teacher who has a similar teaching assignment but works elsewhere in the district

Contextual Mentors

Contextual mentoring within the school with someone who isn’t necessarily a special educator but who has knowledge of the school context and can provide immediate support

3. Team Up Novice Teachers with Paraprofessionals

However, matching novice special education teachers with appropriate mentors may not always be an option. In such cases, paraprofessionals can be helpful resources for novice special education teachers.

Paraprofessionals have often been working in schools and classrooms for years, and as such may have valuable information on specific students and school contexts. It is quite common for schools to employ multiple paraprofessionals to support teachers and thereby ensure student success.

However, paraprofessionals vary greatly in their experience, skills, and knowledge. So it is important to find those paraprofessionals with experience and knowledge who often have existing relationships with students, the community, and experience with strategies that may be effective for working with particular students.

It has been found that partnering with such a paraprofessional can be invaluable to a novice teacher and can reduce teacher stress, increase teachers’ job satisfaction, and facilitate those necessary connections with students, parents, and the community.

There’s No Time to Lose!

These short-term strategies are merely stop-gap measures designed to meet the acute demand of supplying special education teachers to those children in need. And they must be paired with long-term, systemic strategies to attract, prepare, and retain effective special education teachers to facilitate comprehensive shortage solutions.

At the same time, it is important to appreciate how crucial the “temporary” solution is. Because if these essential strategies are not implemented, and the children are not served adequately in the short run, many children will fall further behind while others may suffer irreparable damage!

Picture a “Special Education Paramedic!”