In Arizona, for instance, where districts reported a 29 percent increase from 2013 to 2014 in the number of positions that remained vacant, special education was one of the areas with the highest vacancy rates.
Special educators serve students with significant learning and behavioral needs. To effectively serve their students, they must have sophisticated knowledge and skills about content, pedagogy and students' learning. Special educators who are fully qualified in special education through a teacher preparation program provide more effective instruction, resulting in stronger achievement among their students.
When no qualified special educator can be found, open positions may be filled by substitute teachers who are not qualified to teach at all, by prospective teachers who have not yet completed their teacher preparation or by teachers who are licensed in other areas, but have no specialized preparation for special education.
Dr. Loretta Mason-Williams from Binghamton University (SUNY) analyzed a nationally representative survey of teachers; 16 percent of special educators were not certified in special education. This rate was higher in high-poverty schools, which have greater difficulty attracting and retaining all kinds of teachers.
So the question is, why do special educators leave their schools?
Here’s why we left
In the mid-2000s, we began our careers in education as emergency certified teachers – that is, we were hired to teach students with disabilities through “provisional licensure programs” (such as this one) that allowed prospective teachers to be considered highly qualified without full preparation or licensure.
We both served as special education teachers for students in middle and high school settings in high-poverty, urban communities – Elizabeth in Tucson, Arizona, and Kristin in New York City.
We served students who qualified for special education because of emotional disabilities. Most of our students had been identified with mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder and anxiety disorders. Many had histories of trauma and abuse.
Our students relied on us to teach them grade-level standards in all areas. They also relied on us to teach the foundational skills they had missed, such as phonics and math facts. In addition, they relied on us to help them develop the social and behavioral skills necessary to live healthy lives and build positive relationships.
In other words, in our first year as uncertified teachers, we were responsible for the totality of our students’ learning experiences during the school day, for everything they needed to know to be successful in school and beyond.
We struggled to meet these responsibilities with sparse resources – we had few books and curricula, limited mentorship and minimal professional development opportunities. We were planning and delivering instruction in all content areas completely on our own, despite the fact that we had never been trained to do so. We knew our students needed far more than we were capable of providing.
We both improved our skills over time, yet within five years, we both left our schools. We were committed to our students, but we left because we knew that no matter how hard we worked, no matter how much we grew as educators, we couldn’t provide high-quality instruction in all content areas – the kind of instruction our students deserved – without better support.
Our failure to adequately meet our students’ needs was not our failure alone – it was the failure of an educational system that systematically places unqualified teachers in classes serving students with the most significant needs. And then it fails to support them.
As academics, we now study the systems that lead to difficulty recruiting and retaining effective special educators, including how schools can support them, so they can better serve students.
And here are stories of teachers
In our research, we find that our own experiences are not unique.
In one study, we interviewed eight special educators in classes for students with significant emotional disabilities. Like us, they felt deeply committed to providing high-quality instruction and being a constant source of safety for students with serious social-emotional needs.
They also spoke about the challenges of planning high-quality lessons in all content areas for students in multiple grade levels while meeting students’ social-emotional needs and fulfilling all of their other responsibilities as teachers, such as bus duty, lunch duty, administrative paperwork and so on.
These challenges left them feeling as though they were failing their students.
Take Diedre (name changed), an elementary school special educator. She was responsible for teaching all content areas to students in kindergarten through fifth grade. Diedre had no scheduled planning time, limited curricular resources (e.g., math and reading curriculum) and no lunch break away from her students.
Whereas the general education teachers in her school coplanned instruction for all students within a single grade level, Diedre was planning, completely on her own, for students in every single grade level. She didn’t have colleagues with whom she could share resources and ideas, or go to for help when a student struggled with a standard.
Further, she had extensive extra responsibilities – she planned professional development for all of the teaching assistants in her school, supervised afterschool activities and did bus duty, among other things.
In her interview with us, she shared,
[As a consequence], I end up feeling like I’m never really doing my job, and I’m always letting the kids down.
Other studies confirm that Diedre’s experience is not unique.
For instance, when Dr. Susan Albrecht and her colleagues from Ball State University surveyed 776 special educators who teach students with emotional and behavioral disabilities, they found that more than half felt they had inadequate time to fulfill their responsibilities.
In a recent (not yet published) study, we worked with Dr. Nathan Jones from Boston University and Drs. Mary Brownell and Maureen Conroy from the University of Florida to analyze data from a surveyDr. Peter Youngs from the University of Virginia conducted with 245 special and general educators who were in their first three years teaching in urban districts in Michigan and Indiana.
Unsurprisingly, teachers who felt more overwhelmed were more likely to be emotionally exhausted, and more likely to plan to leave. And, new special educators were significantly more likely to report feeling overwhelmed than new general educators.
Working conditions matter
A growing body of research indicates that, when teachers work in more supportive conditions, their students show better academic achievement gains.
For instance, when Dr. Susan Moore Johnson and her colleagues at Harvard University analyzed data on all schools in Massachusetts, they found that schools in which teachers rated their administrative support and their school culture more highly had stronger student achievement gains in reading and math. This was so even when controlling for school demographic characteristics, such as the proportion of students living in poverty.
Teachers whose schools had more collaborative cultures become more effective more rapidly than teachers whose schools were less collaborative.
Studies have shown that special education teachers are also more likely to want to continue teaching when they work in a culture of collective responsibility for all students, when they can trust their colleagues and have opportunities to collaborate with them.
In our study of new special educators in Michigan and Indiana, we found that special educators felt less overwhelmed when their schools had cultures of collective responsibility for students with disabilities, and when they interacted with their colleagues around instruction more frequently.
Teachers need support
Special educators often choose to teach because of their commitment to serving students with more significant needs.
And, as we know through our research and experience, they often leave, not because of their students, but because of the unsupportive conditions in which they are expected to serve those students.
Retaining special educators in their schools over the course of their careers is essential for ensuring that students with disabilities are served by qualified and skilled special educators.
For that to happen, our educational system must fulfill its commitments to them – by providing them with adequate time to do their jobs, administrative and collegial support for learning to teach, high-quality professional development opportunities and the material resources necessary to teach.