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Why Do Special Education Teachers Quit?

Special Education

Why did you choose a career in special education? is one of my favorite questions to ask when I interview teachers because it usually prompts an immediate brightening of the eyes and a smile. And, let’s face it, that kind of enthusiasm is catchy!

Yet, more and more, special education teachers are leaving the field. The annual attrition rate for special educators is 13%, twice that of general educators. The 3-year attrition rate is about 25%, with an additional 20% transferring to general education or to another role in special education each year.1

So, an equally important question to ask special education teachers might be: have you ever thought about stepping down from your role as special education teacher? And, if so, why?

Well, we’ve got some possible answers to the “why” part. We recently asked some special educators and administrators about their biggest challenges: here’s what they shared.

What Are the Biggest Challenges in Special Education?

The special education teacher shortage in the U.S. is intensifying. Fewer teachers in classrooms puts added stress on those who stay, and stress contributes to burnout. As many as 40% of teachers experience burnout ― which negatively impacts IEP goals.2 And research consistently shows that burnout is a major contributor to teacher attrition. So, which work-related activities should school leaders monitor to decrease burnout in their special educators?

Unrelenting Paperwork

Special education teachers spend less than half of their day teaching. And one study showed that almost 50% of a special educator’s workday is spent on paperwork.3 For educators wanting to make a difference for students, spending up to half of your time on paperwork is disheartening, even when you know it’s a key part of student support.

 

Rebecca Cole, a behavioral specialist, discusses the challenge of staying on top of special education paperwork.

Behavior and Discipline Issues

Teacher retention is directly related to managing student behavior.4 Yet, many students with behavioral disorders present serious obstacles to successful classroom management because of their disruptive behaviors. Consistently managing students with behavioral issues can cause higher levels of emotional exhaustion in teachers, which has been shown to decrease student engagement and, in turn, lead to poorer IEP outcomes.5

 

Debbie Roybal, an executive director of special education, discusses the challenge of managing students with behavior and discipline issues.

All the Regulation Changes

Changes to state and federal regulations are a familiar part of life ― but that doesn’t mean they’re not disruptive. Tight deadlines from these changes can cause stress, even when you know to expect the unexpected. Stress directly and indirectly influences student learning outcomes and teaching quality.6

 

Debbie Gazaway, a director of special education, describes the challenge of navigating the many regulation changes in special education.

Key Takeaway: Focus on What Inspires You

So how do you support your special education team through these challenges? First and foremost, remember the impact your team is having on students’ experiences and attitudes. Take time to reminisce about happy memories, shared accomplishments and what inspires you.

Which stories from your time working with students bring a smile to your face?

 

Sandra Dixon, an educational diagnostician, shares an inspiring story of helping students with disabilities succeed.

Take some pressure off of your special educators with one intuitive software solution for IEP and special education management. Watch the Video.


References

[1] Wong, V. W., Ruble, L. A., Yu, Y., McGraw, J. H. (2017). Too Stressed to Teach? Teaching Quality, Student Engagement, and IEP Outcomes. Exceptional Children, 83(4), 412-427. Retrieved from http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0014402917690729.

[2] Wong, V. W., Ruble, L. A., Yu, Y., McGraw, J. H. (2017). Too Stressed to Teach? Teaching Quality, Student Engagement, and IEP Outcomes. Exceptional Children, 83(4), 412-427. Retrieved from http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0014402917690729.

[3] Vannest, Kimberly J.; Hagan-Burke, Shanna (2010). Remedial and Special Education 31(2):126-142. Retrieved from http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0741932508327459.

[4] Sabornie, Edward J., “Classroom and Behavioral Management of Students Who Are At-Risk” (2017). National Youth-At-Risk Conference Savannah. Retrieved from: https://digitalcommons.georgiasouthern.edu/nyar_savannah/2017/2017/97

[5] Wong, V. W., Ruble, L. A., Yu, Y., McGraw, J. H. (2017). Too Stressed to Teach? Teaching Quality, Student Engagement, and IEP Outcomes. Exceptional Children, 83(4), 412-427. Retrieved from http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0014402917690729.

[6] Wong, V. W., Ruble, L. A., Yu, Y., McGraw, J. H. (2017). Too Stressed to Teach? Teaching Quality, Student Engagement, and IEP Outcomes. Exceptional Children, 83(4), 412-427. Retrieved from http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0014402917690729.

Danielle Simbajon

Danielle is part of the global, award-winning content team at Frontline Education. She graduated from Emerson College with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Writing, Literature and Publishing, and has developed content to empower the education community for over 10 years.