Special Education

5 Ways to Reduce Burnout for Special Education Teachers

7 min. read

When I became principal for a specialized school with various sites throughout a borough in New York City, one of my first priorities was to develop a plan of action to better support my special education staff.

Here’s why:

At the time, I was struggling in my newly assigned school. I had just hired two new administrators, opened a new inclusion site and hired twenty-one staff members, including teachers, paraprofessionals and related service providers.

Just as I thought the year was settling in, one of my first-year, highly qualified special education teachers came to me in tears. Her dream was to be a teacher. She loved children and was so thrilled to be an educator in the field of special education. She kept telling herself that things would get easier ― however, the sleepless nights and spending all of her free time planning lessons and materials for her students was just too much for her.

Although we did have curricula that offered tiered level materials, this teacher needed to break down instruction even further to meet the needs of her students. And there were other challenges she had to conquer:

  • Training her paraprofessionals to support instruction and collect data daily
  • Scheduling instructional days to meet mandates around related services
  • Navigating a myriad of emotional challenges in her classroom

She was spiraling downhill trying to coordinate her own emotions and keep up with paperwork, and it was taking a toll on her physical and mental health.

“She was spiraling downhill trying to coordinate her own emotions and keep up with paperwork, and it was taking a toll on her physical and mental health.”

Though special education teachers are often passionate and resilient individuals, they are twice as likely to leave the profession as their general education colleagues.[1] One of the reasons they leave is because they simply burn out.

Unique Challenges Faced by Special Education Teachers

With the national push to take students with disabilities out of self-contained environments and provide them with opportunities to spend part of or all of their days in general education classrooms, the ability to effectively teach students in special education is more critical today than ever before.

Each student brings with them their blueprint, as documented in their Individual Education Plan (IEP), which may include mandates to provide a variety of related services to help support students to progress. Many students have multiple services and classifications and are often years behind academically. Some of these students are mandated for mainstreaming or inclusion services in general education classes. This means even one small, self-contained class can have students within a three-year age span, with multiple individual needs, learning at different levels and with different styles. What a daunting task for any educator!

I needed to create an inclusive culture and climate that was beneficial to adult and student learning.

5 Ways School Leaders Can Reduce Burnout in Special Educators

As an administrator and an educator for over 35 years, I have been through the changing mandates of teaching students with disabilities, and I have experienced how these changes affect the passionate educators with whom I work.

My goal as a school leader was to support and empower teachers to collaborate, and to provide coherent, rigorous instructional and social-emotional support to the school community. This new kind of school environment improved the emotional state of many teachers, including special educators, and allowed me and my administrative team to focus on improving teacher practices and student achievement.

Here are five strategies we used to turn the tide in our school.

1. Emotional Intelligence

Creating a bond of trust gives insight into what others may be feeling or thinking; it helped me, as a principal, understand how and why members of my special education staff were reacting to situations in certain ways.

As a leader, it was necessary for me to have self-awareness and manage my emotions, to move the school community to a desired, cohesive vision by making informed decisions on how to communicate and support teachers and provide staff development.

2. Teacher Surveys

Through teacher surveys, we were able to consistently offer differentiated professional development opportunities and provide meaningful feedback to our special education teachers. We sought input from all members of the school community through regular meetings. Teachers are not superheroes. They can’t possibly be effective without the support and collaboration of a school-based team. Our school motto was, “Teamwork in the best interest of children.”

3. Examining Data

Teacher inquiry teams through distributive leadership — in collaboration with the instructional cabinet — examined trends and targeted student and teacher supports needed through the use of a wide range of formative assessments. The teams provided opportunities for veteran special education teachers to mentor new teachers to look at data and identify trends.

Data revealed an overwhelming pattern of challenging behaviors that would require intervention across all of my sites in order for teachers to effectively manage their classrooms and ensure successful instructional outcomes for students. It was important that the entire school community implement both a coherent school-wide, positive-behavior system and best instructional practices.

“Data revealed an overwhelming pattern of challenging behaviors that would require intervention across all of my sites in order for teachers to successfully manage their classrooms.”

4. Proactive Teamwork

We established two academic teams, one for Alternately Assessed Students and one for Standardized Assessed Students. Staff worked together to create a lesson-plan template that embedded instructional shifts, coherent instruction and best teaching practices that reflected a clear set of beliefs. This helped ensure all students had entry into learning that demonstrated high levels of thinking, ownership, participation and behavior expectation.

Working as a team provided support and opportunities for special education staff to look at student performance data and calibrate the results. Team members researched best practices together to implement strategies and support instruction throughout the day, promoting positive student outcomes.

Innovative scheduling was implemented as a necessary step to providing individual or small group support for students during class instruction, rather than students being pulled out for a related service one-to-one session – which would have resulted in instructional time loss. This scheduling technique involved assigning related services staff to specific classes and delivering services within the classroom, as long as the sessions were not therapeutic and could be carried out in a classroom setting.

5. Role-based Training for Paraprofessionals

It was also essential that special education teachers were given additional time to meet specifically with paraprofessionals to train and plan for the instructional day. Training paraprofessionals to implement instruction and adapt materials to support students was a needed component to assist in daily instruction. This training would allow the teacher to have more time to teach without stopping in the middle of a lesson to direct paraprofessionals on how to support students.

Key Learning: An Inclusive Work Environment & Clear Expectations Reduce Burnout in Special Education Teachers

Monitoring, adapting and modifying instruction for students with various classifications on multi-grade levels every day is exhausting — there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Providing tools to empower staff to work together to create a coherent, positive school environment with clear expectations for both students and staff reduces frustration for special educators.

Will it always be easy? Absolutely not. However, teachers don’t have to do it all alone. School leadership can use creative scheduling and teamwork to help support teachers in identifying entry points of learning — and assist in closing the achievement gap for students. Collaboration lets staff take ownership of researching academic and emotional strategies that can be embedded into instructional best practices.

With the help of your staff and the use of round-table decision-making and emotional intelligence strategies, it is possible to create a great support system for your special educators using existing school resources!

Want to reduce the likelihood that your special educators will leave their posts due to burnout? Learn how Frontline Special Ed & Interventions helps them spend less energy on paperwork and re-engage in delivering innovative student support.
Ilene Goldstein-Harnett

Ilene Goldstein-Harnett

Ilene Goldstein-Harnett is a retired principal from an urban specialized school in NYC, a city in which she has spent most of her career in education. Ilene’s experience ranges from teaching students with myriad disabilities face-to-face in the classroom as a teacher, to working as an administrator overseeing grades Pre-K – 12, and students up to the age of 21 years old. Ilene was honored by The NYCDOE Office of Teacher Recruitment and Quality in 2011 for her efforts to support teachers and her unwavering commitment to a new generation of educators. Ilene continues to be passionate about education in her retirement and is excited to share the knowledge she has picked up along the way.