The shortage of special education teachers available to serve America’s six million children with disabilities is a significant concern that must be addressed. Thornton, Peltier, & Medina (2007) report that 98% of public school districts in the US do not have enough qualified special education teachers to serve our students. In addition, the circumstances become worse each year because of teacher attrition (number of teachers leaving the profession). In fact, the National Coalition on Personnel Shortages in Special Education reports that the attrition rate among special educators (12.3%) is higher in comparison to regular educators (7.6%) (Sutcher, & Carver-Thomas, 2016).
A lack of certified personnel and high teacher turnover can result in greater expenses in recruiting, training and supporting new staff and difficulty closing the achievement gap. More importantly, this can impede the ability of students with disabilities to reach their full potential and leave school prepared for adult life (Mason-Williams, 2015; Sutcher, & Carver-Thomas, 2016).
Commonly cited reasons for teachers leaving the profession include salary, excessive paperwork, limited resources, unsupportive leadership, student behavior, student motivation, and limited funding to attract and support graduate students. Many recommended solutions to the problem require financial investments such as increasing teacher salaries, providing teacher mentors, increasing professional development, and adding additional support personnel (Mason-Williams, 2015; Kolbe & Strunk, 2012).
As an experienced public school teacher, mentor and teacher educator, I agree that financial investments to improve quality of life and professional skills might make a difference in teacher attrition. However, I think there are also changes that can be made within the educational system to address attrition which might have an even more positive effect.
Every year teachers are asked to do more with fewer resources, yet I found that teachers are generally willing to do what they need to do for students. While frustrating, it is my experience that teachers work collaboratively and rise to the occasion to meet the needs of their students and schools. If all education stakeholders could teach, provide examples, and reinforce the need to integrate collegial and supportive communication practices into every day practice, teachers might feel greater job satisfaction and be less inclined to leave.
Each generation of new teachers enters the profession with enthusiasm, and content knowledge to meet diverse student needs. Teacher education programs reinforce the need to develop positive relationships with students/families, but they do not emphasize the need to develop and use positive and constructive people skills among colleagues. Nurturing these skills and relationships is directly linked to positive feelings about one’s own practice. Considering different perspectives, treating others as you would like to be treated and giving colleagues the benefit of the doubt could make a huge difference in school culture and overall job satisfaction.
I once had a principal in a high school with 2000 students and 200 staff who visited classrooms regularly. She would write personalized thank you notes when she saw teachers trying something new, helping a colleague or going above and beyond the call of duty. She encouraged teachers to recognize colleagues and share examples of best practices. Last year my administrator asked teachers to participate in teacher appreciation week to celebrate their colleagues. This resulted in an engaging and meaningful recognition of teacher efforts. We ended the week feeling great about our profession because we were acknowledged and appreciated by our school family.
The majority of teachers with whom I worked, mentored and taught came to the profession with a sincere desire to make a difference in the lives of students. Inadequate pay, limited resources and long hours have, for as long as I can remember, been an understood, albeit problematic, reality of the profession. I believe the best way to address teacher attrition and strengthen the profession is to better support the profession with kindness and thoughtful and persistence recognition for the work done day after day..
We must work collaboratively with teacher education programs, professional organizations, state, community, central office, and administrators to more effectively and publicly celebrate and support teachers by making them feel valued and reminding them what motivated them to become teachers. Let’s make a purposeful effort to meet the multifaceted needs of the current and future teacher workforce. All stakeholders in special education must make a commitment to celebrate teaching and collaborate with others to ensure teachers are prepared to meet their own needs as well as the diverse needs of their students in 21st Century schools.
Kolbe, T., & Strunk, K. O. (2012). Economic incentives as a strategy for responding to teacher staffing problems: A typology of policies and practices. Educational Administration Quarterly, 48(5), 779-813.
Mason-Williams, L. (2015). Unequal opportunities a profile of the distribution of special education teachers. Exceptional Children, 81(2), 247-262.
Sutcher, L., L. D., & Carver-Thomas, D. (2016, September 15). About the shortage. from http://specialedshortages.org/about-the-shortage/
Thornton, B., Peltier, G., & Medina, R. (2007). Reducing the special education teacher shortage. The Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas, 80(5), 233-238.
Glennda McKeithan is a lecturer and program associate with 20+ years of experience working in public schools, and she has taught at four institutions of higher learning. Glennda earned a M.Ed., and Ph.D. in Special Education from North Carolina State University. Her research interests include meeting the needs of students with high functioning Autism in general education settings, the practical application of evidence based interventions and developing effective online instruction.