This post is part of a series called “Speaking from Experience”. You can read an introduction to the series here.
I’m something of an oddity. Ask anyone – especially my teenaged students. But as much of an oddity as I am on a personal level, I’m even more so on a professional one. I’ve been a classroom special education teacher for over 20 years. According to several sources I’ve read (here’s one), special education teachers leave the field at a rate nearly twice that of general education teachers, with a large number moving from special education to general education. Those figures are pretty astounding considering that almost half of all teachers leave the field of teaching within the first five years.
Why do so many leave? Of course, some people leave for personal reasons. I took some time off here and there while raising children, and I had to change systems when our family moved 15 years ago, but I always come back to special education because I just love teaching that much.
Unfortunately, the teaching part is only a small piece of the job. Overwhelming paperwork, meetings, and non-teaching duties are always cited among the primary reasons special education teachers give for leaving. I don’t know anyone who ever went into teaching because they loved paperwork, although I’ve been surprised by a few who’ve told me that they have learned to like it. Not me – I dread every minute of it. Even more than hating the paperwork itself, though, I hate not being given time to complete it and I especially resent the expectation that I’m to get the paperwork done at the expense of teaching my students. But I wrote about all this before in a post called “Doublethinking Special Education”, so I won’t go into that here.
Another reason often cited by those who leave is the lack of respect. All teachers face disrespect, but special educators are particularly belittled. Not only do politicians and the media feel free to put us down, but often the general education teachers and administrators in our own schools assume that we are less competent than our peers.
There’s something of a cycle here though, because, due to teacher shortages in special education, many unqualified teachers are hired to fill the vacancies. Despite the generally held belief, teaching young people with disabilities takes a high level of skill. Unprepared teachers give our field a bad name all around. While we might think that the poor results of unqualified teachers would call attention to the fact that a qualified special education teacher is an asset to be valued and protected, it doesn’t seem to work that way in our schools. There have been many times in my career when I have considered leaving, and every time it was because of a lack of respect within my school system.
So why haven’t I left? I did move around from school to school several times, and it’s taken a number of job changes for me to find a comfortable home. In my early years, I was lucky enough to work with some truly wonderful teaching assistants who helped me juggle the heavy workload. Whenever I start to feel down about my own low pay, lack of respect, and unrealistic workload, I remember the smart, hard-working assistants I’ve worked with and figure if they can stick it out, then so can I.
It also helps to get a little respect and recognition whenever it comes along. At times I’ve had the opportunity to teach under some truly supportive principals, and I now teach within a supportive special education department. I taught many years before receiving much recognition at all, but last year I was honored with a Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching that sent me to England to learn about upper secondary special education settings there. When I chose to go into special education, I knew better than to expect much recognition, but now that it has finally come, it has bolstered my commitment to my work.
What about money? I have changed my job to seek higher pay in a different county before. But in the end, I returned to the county I work in now because working conditions were better. While I feel that the work I do is worth more than I am paid, money has not been one of the reasons I have thought of leaving teaching.
There are no financial incentives in my school system for taking hard-to-fill positions. The teaching job I have now stood empty for months before I was the first sucker to apply. I am paid on the same pay scale as all other teachers. That is to say, we are all equally underpaid. I think that some of the special education teachers I know who have changed to general education might have stayed if there had been incentive pay to do so.
Strangely, the proposed solutions to the teachers shortage problem often focus on ways to attract new people into teaching special education and ways to better prepare teachers for the immense challenge of the job. I rarely hear anyone state the obvious – reduce the paperwork load, give special education teachers more help with the paperwork and ancillary duties so they can focus on teaching, and provide smaller class sizes so we don’t get overwhelmed. We also have to find ways to give all teachers, and especially those in areas with high turnover, paths for advancement, leadership, and recognition that don’t require leaving the classroom.
We don’t have a shortage of people certified to teach special education. We have a shortage of people with the certification who actually want to teach special education given the current conditions. New teachers will continue to leave the field at the same rate as previous teachers until we solve the problems that are driving them away.
For further reading: