Speaking from Experience: Special Education Teacher Retention

Photo on 8-18-13 at 5.46 PM

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:

Billingsley, B. S. (January 01, 2004). Special Education Teacher Retention and Attrition: A Critical Analysis of the Research Literature. The Journal of Special Education, 38, 1, 39.


12 thoughts on “Speaking from Experience: Special Education Teacher Retention

  1. This is such an important conversation. In my early days as an ABA therapist, all my new energy filled me with pride. “I love what I do! I can’t imagine leaving!” Six years later, and still loving the students, but I am actively preparing a career in a different field. I work in a great school environment with amazing people, but I’m wiped out on a core level. It’s taken me a bit to look at that wiped out-ness objectively and not feel shamed by it. Structurally, the field needs better support.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t know if it is just the nature of women, or perhaps more the nature of the kind of women who are drawn to our field, but I know so many special education teachers who blame themselves or feel as though they are failures because they can’t handle the stress of the job. The reality is that the expectations of the job are not sustainable. Thanks for the comment.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I have to say that I’ve been fortunate to have had a variety of opportunities to teach in different positions which have keep me excited to stay in the field that we are all discussing. I began as a Speech and language therapist, then I worked with the Deaf populations of our system, then I was traveling continuing to do Speech and Deaf as our students were at different schools. I did a year of Pre-K and then several years of Elementary Resource and the last 12 years I’ve worked in CDC classrooms at the middle school level and High School. Variety is the spice that keeps you in Special Ed. I do believe you’re right Becca when you say “It is the nature of the kind of women who are drawn to our field”. Not everyone can do what we do day in and day out. It takes a special type of person male or female to deal with the variety of circumstances we encounter everyday. How many teachers do you know in the Gen. Ed. population would go to school every weekend and work all day doing paperwork, and preparing for the next week be it recording grades, doing progress reports or just planning and making things to be prepared for our students the next week? I and my colleagues have done many, many, many hours of weekend planning away from our families to be able to take care of our students because that is the type of women and teachers we are.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Thanks, Georgia, you are right that all the opportunities to do different types of work within special education has also been part of what has kept me motivated and excited about what I do. And I certainly know how many extra hours you put into your classroom. I wonder how many people in our system know all that you do? Probably not many.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I currently teacher 5th grade general ed. But my first ever teaching position was a self-contained room of 9 primary boys who were identified as BD/ED – probably not the politically correct language now, but all the same, they had a really difficult time fitting into the world, as others perceived it. And, holy smokies, I was WOEFULLY unprepared.

    I pursued an endorsement in Special Ed when I received my Masters Degree, thinking that the preparation would make my resume appealing to the gen ed hiring body. But, given the state of education when I was first looking, I was fortunate to receive an offer at all. It was clear from the beginning that those who hired me were not convinced of my ability. I was their last hope, and I take comfort in the fact that I saved the day. But I cried every day for the first 3 months. I had substituted but never student taught in a special ed class – not even clinical experience. By all means, I was unprepared. And, as you said, teaching and supporting students with special needs takes special training, preparation and skill – not to mention special individuals. I look back with a bit of embarrassment at how I performed in that first position.

    However, until university endorsement programs that include only18-20 semester hours with no real-world experience are no longer considered sufficient preparation for a special ed teacher, we/they will continue to be badly prepared. Until special education programs and teachers are considered just that – special – we will all have to fight for you. A licensed teacher merely a SpEd endorsement should no more be placed in a class with high-risk students than I should be placed as a teacher in the art class because I took a painting class over the summer and make by own jewelry.

    AND – yes, yes, yes to your position about the overwhelming paperwork and case-loads and class sizes and meetings. I agree that better preparation is not the only answer. I did leave the field, but not only because of my weak preparation. Given how much I had to learn just to teach and then add the paperwork, etc.? I just couldn’t do it.

    Becca – I hope that my ramblings sound like they support every point you made. Because that was my intent. We are different only in that you were thoroughly prepared, devoted, dedicated and committed to special ed, while I was merely qualified. Shame on the whole system for believing that those two descriptions are equivalent. Bless your heart and soul for what you love. You go…


    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Nancy, your comments are always so insightful. The report I linked to does discuss that many of the people who leave special education in the first year or so do so because they feel underprepared or unqualified. You make an important distinction between getting a basic qualification and actually studying with the intent of becoming a special education teacher. I think it is exactly because our field is under-esteemed that systems believe it doesn’t take much training to do what we do, so they hire anyone to fill vacancies. With this as the prevailing belief, no wonder systems don’t provide reasonable support or compensation for qualified special education teachers.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I love this article and as a general education teacher who has loved teaching for 40 years, I am fortunate that I’ve been close friends with several special education teachers. I have always been sad that Special Ed teachers, music & art teachers, GT teachers are not treated with more respect by regular classroom teachers. Of all the types of teachers I’ve always thought Sp Ed teachers have had the much harder job. But then I think most of the good SpEd teachers I’ve known were born with a talent and immense love for children with learning & behavioral disabilities other teachers don’t have. This is totally off the subject but your picture with your glasses on your nose sure does remind me of Sissy!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Beautiful work as always, Rebecca. Our HS sped teachers (both of whom are veterans and fantastic teachers) are actually getting burned out due to responsibilities with gen ed students. In addition to their caseload of 23ish sped students, they each have three classes of “at risk” (or not) students, which gives them 60 gen ed students they also need to monitor and support. They get burned out trying to keep up with it all and get professionally drained just finding the time to support the sped students when they have these additional responsibilities. Is this the same by you?


    • While I love the concept of special education teachers also serving general education students and doing our duties as part of a big inclusive family, I suspect that the move toward more integration between general and special education is all a pathway leading to more duties for special education teachers, because administration often perceives special education teachers as not pulling our weight because our class sizes are smaller. Never mind that all the students we serve are those that gen ed can can’t accommodate and the duties we perform are far broader than those of general education teachers. It is all part of the de-valuation of special education teachers that must change if we are ever to attract and retain enough teachers to fill the need and make sure our students have qualified teachers.


  5. Hi Rebecca, thanks for the article. I’m still in Singapore and continuing my now “unofficial Fulbright journey” in learning more about the educational system here. I do miss teaching and having my own SPED class. As an elementary Mild/Moderate SPED teacher I sought out general ed. students to do projects with my class but, then again, it was on my terms and not mandated by my school or district. Like most, I too hated the paperwork that took me away from my students. But as far as retention goes, I believe I stayed in the ‘game/class’ so long and found a measure of success in it because I had WONDERFUL paraprofessionals who were just as committed. I would rather have a class of 30 gen. ed. students on my own than be assigned six students in a SPED setting with a lousy assistant. For me, having a strong in class team is key and necessary for sanity’s sake. A great assistant is worth their weight in gold!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. It’s so exciting that you are still in Singapore. I would love to hear about issues of respect and classroom support for special education teachers there. And I am in 100% agreement about the classroom team and assistant support. Several of my former assistants went on to become special education teachers and they are some of the best and most committed teachers out there.


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