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A Shortage of Special Education Teachers

Today, I am a Special Education teacher. However, I can still remember when I was young and back in graduate school matriculated in the social studies teaching program. Since I wanted to be a History teacher, not a Special Education teacher, it’s kind of funny that all these years later I am teaching Special Education. How did this happen? Well, the same way it happened for some others too I guess… I had friends who were Special Education teachers and also a few who were enrolled in Special Education teacher-preparation programs who talked me into giving it a try. They told me that Special Education is where the real need was. Basically, they told me that this is where a guy like me could do the most good.

Well, more than two decades later not much has changed. There is still a huge need for Special Education teachers here in the United States. According to the U.S. Department of Education, Special Education is among the most high-need fields in schools that service low-income students. The U.S. Department of Education also states that there is a Special Education teacher shortage in 49 out of our 50 states.

In addition, today there are more instances of students with multiple disabilities at a younger age. The National Education Association (NEA) says that there has been a 30% increase in Special Education students since 2006. Finally, throw in the high turn-over rate of teachers in such a demanding field and one can easily see that our country has a problem, and that problem is only going to get bigger.

So, why can’t we get enough Special Education teachers? Well, according to National Public Radio (NPR) our country is having this shortage because of the extremely long hours they have to put in and the crushing paperwork that they are expected to complete on top of their everyday teaching. I say we’re also having this shortage because being a Special Education teacher isn’t for everyone. Only a few people can handle the day-in and day-out uncertainties of the job, and the ever-changing roles they have to play. Not only do they have to take an enormous amount of time to learn the academic side of multiple subjects or scholarly disciplines, which could take five to ten years to fully learn, but they also have to learn about all the different factors that could impact academic performance, and learn the law too, as well as do many administration duties.

In a word, it’s overwhelming. Just considering the disabilities side alone, a Special Education teacher has to be able to accurately identify and treat needs that could be based on learning deficiencies or even different styles, as well as the mental, emotional, and even social deficiencies too. Furthermore, Special Education teachers also have to know what to do with the other side of the spectrum too with the gifted students.

Basically, not only do they need immense people skills in dealing with all kinds of students and adults, but they also have to love the unpredictability of the field, and must be a believer in possibilities, as well as possess the highest form of intelligence, which is called empathy. Not sympathy here, but empathy. There is a difference between empathy and sympathy. Special Education teachers need all of these mentioned skills and more in order to just survive the day, let alone an entire career in these education trenches.

So, what can we do about this shortage? Well, some school districts have been creatively working with their local universities and creating special programs where teacher candidates can work full-time as teachers for two years to get teaching experience while they go to school at night to get their degree. Some school districts have offered signing bonuses, stipends and tuition reimbursement in their efforts to attract more teachers. These are good ideas. However, these kind of initiatives are not being done enough. Some school districts are offering young teachers mentors to support their efforts and offer guidance in an attempt to cut down on the attrition rate. Again, this is another good idea, but not enough districts are doing this either.

I personally feel that one of the toughest things about being in this field is the lack of respect for what these unsung heroes do on a daily basis. The lack of respect is causing low teacher morale and driving a lot more teachers out of the education field than I think most of us are willing to admit. And this low teacher morale and lack of respect for our country’s teachers is something that is avoidable, and something that we can fix if we want to do it bad enough. Finally, just to get an outsider’s perspective, I asked my wife what she thought could be one of the solutions to the Special Education teacher shortage problem and she said, “More pay!”