Special Education Teacher Burnout

Special Education Teacher Burnout Aspire ES

Tackling Unique Challenges for Special Education Teachers and Preventing Teacher Burnout


Defining the Problem

The purpose of special education is to create an environment that does not limit students with standardized lessons and testing. Exclusion is not good for development. There have been adaptations made to include special education students in the school community and split time in their general education classes through inclusion and co-teaching. There are still gaps between special education and general education programming in schools across the country. Since special education departments operate differently from the rest of the school, they are often treated differently. Because the individualized needs of students in special education vary so much, teachers have to be advocates for their students during staff meetings. Otherwise, the special education department is often forgotten about or made a lesser priority within the school.

Isolation in the School: The unique nature in special education teachers’ curriculums should not translate to social isolation from their co-workers at the school. For those students in lower incidence disability classrooms, specials may be in their self-contained classroom. Outside of the classroom, special education teachers may feel alone in the school, which makes for a completely unhealthy work environment.

Competing Educational Goals: Having an isolated curriculum can also stir up some professional problems. The unique nature of an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for every student demands a lot of attention for a lot of different developmental/academic/behavioral criteria. For special education teachers, the pressure comes from both administration and parents to meet all IEP goals. On top of it all, special education departments may have additional administration for teachers to answer to, above and beyond the principal, to include special education directors and supervisors.

Limits to Lesson Plans: After all of those pressures a special education teacher faces, everything they try to do for their class needs to be validated by someone higher up on the school’s hierarchy. Since curriculum and field trips may run a little differently than the ones for general education students, administrators are more prone to question the special education teacher for specifics and make planning things a drawn out process. The differences the administrators see, and maybe some misguided perceptions about student’s abilities, can limit a special education teacher’s possibilities for lessons.

Treatment of general education and special education teachers is noticeably different, even from a student’s perspective. Special education teachers rarely get school-wide acknowledgements or even a chance to know the rest of the school. Special education teachers are widely underappreciated in our schools, and the effects are diminishing the country’s pool of special education teacher candidates. According to an article for an education news site, the number of special education teachers in the US has dropped 17% in a decade. Teachers in other departments are growing and the total of special education students has only dropped around 1% in that decade. The number is alarming but the result should have been expected. More teachers are leaving their jobs disheartened from the combination of having a mountain of responsibility, receiving pressure from administration, and feeling alienated from the rest of the staff.  

Demands of Being a Special Education Teacher

There are several levels in which a special education teacher must excel in order to keep their classes running smoothly. The IEP is a great tool for student-centered teaching strategies and the cornerstone of special education in America. After IDEA, or the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, became US law, it became mandatory for school districts to provide a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). While this law is important for preserving equal rights for all students, it does mandate an additional burden for special education teachers and special education departments as a whole.  

IEP’s, Additional Paperwork and Special Attention

IEP’s became mandatory for special education students after IDEA passed, and they are necessary for addressing the diverse needs of any student. This translates to giving a special education teacher even more responsibility to act as a case manager for every student’s IEP. IEP’s are only the tip of the paperwork iceberg included in a special education teaching career. The hours spent filling out forms, meeting with parents and other educators, lesson planning and jumping through administrative hoops could almost make up another job.

There are so many requirements for special education teachers, and permission and check-ins from administration are only a portion of them. This close oversight of special education departments can also be mentally trying on teachers, aside from giving them another meeting to attend or more paperwork to complete. One of the most pressing issues for special education teachers, and a huge reason why many switch careers, is the pressure they feel from school administration. A 2015 NPR article regarding the lack of special education teachers interviewed an Oklahoma superintendent who explained that special education teachers in his district, “feel like they’re under a microscope all the time.”

More pressure is completely unnecessary since special education teachers already have the most extensive lists of duties throughout our schools. Every day is already different and unpredictable because of the student-centered teaching methods needed, but teachers must be able to plan around other special education teachers’ and general education teachers’ schedules. Additionally, special education teachers have to coordinate with general education teachers when their students split time between classrooms. Special education teachers are also responsible for each subject. The jobs seemingly never ends, and one special education teacher can only manage so many students. Since some special education students have intense needs, special education classrooms must be small enough that no student gets lost in the crowd.  

Growing Class Sizes and Shrinking Special Education Candidates

With more children being identified as needing special education services, the need for special education teachers increases but administrators still have not made sufficient changes to reverse the trend. One study compares answers about why special education teachers left a certain school from both the teachers and administrators. After retirement at 27%, the biggest reason for leaving teachers told surveyors was “burnout, stress, job pressure, lack of support.” The closest answer administrators gave was “too much paperwork,” and that only polled at 8%. They were much more likely to give a nondescript, “personal reasons.”

Special education teachers are too important to student’s education and schools to be chased out of them by a poor work environment. There are solutions being proposed, and you can make an impact as a teacher as well. Still, we need to be more protective of our special education teachers. At Aspire Educational Services, we want to offer another way to invite more teachers back into the special education field, and our plan is to work with teaching candidates individually to figure out what opportunities fit them best.

Aspire Educational Services can provide you with some background on the school or staff and advocate on your behalf to the schools you apply to. You will not have to settle in to a school or classroom until you feel you have learned enough about the position, and even if the first placement isn’t right, we have an index of options to be exhausted. The right classroom for you is out there! Trying a new classroom position elsewhere might even help you re-find the spark of passion that got you into education in the first place.

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