3 Problems Facing Special Education Teachers in Today’s Schools

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Retaining High Quality Special Education Teachers is Integral to Fulfilling the Promise of IDEA

This month marks the 40th anniversary of the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), the law guaranteeting the right for students with special needs to access a free, appropriate public education, just like any other child in this country. Over the last 40 years, the law has brought about extraordinary gains for students with disabilities and over 6 million students are now being served under the law.

Yet despite the integral role the law has played in granting students with special needs access to education and inclusion opportunities, it remains flawed and underfunded. Red tape and complicated financial provisions continue to make it difficult for school districts to efficiently and effectively serve students with disabilities while complying with the law’s rules and regulations. Furthermore, in part due to some of these problems, special education teachers are leaving the profession in droves, making qualified teachers harder and harder to come by.

A Dire Situation

As of today, 49 out of the nation’s 50 states report shortages in special education teachers and/or related special education personnel. Nearly twice as many special education teachers leave the profession as general education teachers. Districts across the country are struggling both to retain qualified special education teachers and to recruit them. Many are turning to alternative and often less than desirable alternatives in order to do so, such as pulling general education teachers into special ed.

In a recent story, David Pennington, Special Education Director at Ponca City Public Schools, told NPR in regards to replacing teachers who retire or leave the profession, “Forget about replacing them with someone of the same quality … I’m just worried about replacing them. Period.”

In 2004, IDEA was reauthorized under George W. Bush, with one of the provisions being a new definition of Highly Qualified.  All special education teachers providing direct instruction in one of the core academic subjects are required by law to be highly qualified.  Yet with new teacher shortages in special education in nearly every state, meeting the requirements of IDEA and ensuring that special education students have access to highly qualified teachers is becoming increasingly difficult.

What’s Behind the Teacher Shortage and How Can We Better Support Special Ed Teachers?

While teacher shortages in all subject matters have been reported across the country this year, the field of special education is particularly susceptible given the unique demands of the job.

Below are a few of the unique challenges special education teachers face, and some ways they can be better supported

  1. Excessive Paperwork: Many of the problems concerning the bureaucracy and red tape inherent in IDEA fall on the shoulders of teachers. In addition to the demanding work they undergo in the classroom during school hours, special education teachers in particular spend hours and hours documenting student progress on IEPs in compliance with IDEA.  As Pennington told NPR, It is not uncommon for a special ed teacher to tell me, ‘I did not get a degree in special ed to do paperwork. I got a degree to help kids.’ ”

    Access to Better technology that makes it easier for special education teachers to write standards-based IEP goals, collect data, monitor progress, and automate some of the required documentation can free up time for teachers to put more energy into instruction.

  2. Isolation: As is especially the case in small or rural school districts, some special education teachers are the only special education teacher in their entire school or district. Given the sometimes extreme demands of the job, attending to students with some of the most severe academic and behavioral needs, opportunities to learn from, share, and feel supported by colleagues experiencing similar challenges are particularly important.

    Professional Learning Communities are one possible solution to this problem.  The internet has made it easier than ever for professionals to communicate with one another online.  Ensuring that special education teachers have access to online communities of other professionals in their field and are given time to engage in these communities as a part of their professional growth can not only alleviate some of the sense of isolation that rural special educators can feel, but can also give teachers opportunities to share best practices and become more effective with students in their classrooms.

  3. Challenging Behavior: Special education students are much more likely to engage in challenging behavior than their general education peers. Challenging behavior is consistently the number one challenge teachers report facing in the classroom. Regularly addressing challenging behavior in the classroom can be exhausting and demoralizing for special education teachers. One of the major problems is that teachers feel underprepared by teacher preparation programs to meet these challenges, with 72% reporting they felt unsatisfied with their teacher preparation in classroom management.

    Professional Development, Coaching, and Support can go a long way in increasing teacher confidence in their ability to address challenging behavior in the classroom and make them more effective at doing so.  Ensuring that special education teachers have access to high-quality professional development in evidence-based strategies for addressing challenging behavior can increase confidence and competency and free up time for teachers to spend more time teaching and less time disciplining.

The challenges special education teachers face are enormous, and addressing these challenges can be equally as daunting.  But if IDEA is to accomplish what it set out to accomplish 40 years ago–to ensure that all students have access to a free and appropriate public education–having high quality teachers to teach our special education students is a non-negotiable. Reauthorization of IDEA is now 6 years overdue.  As policymakers rethink the law’s provisions, considering how IDEA is impacting teacher satisfaction and teacher quality should be a top concern. For now, districts must look at creative ways to address these challenges with the tools and resources available at their disposal.


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