If you have a special needs child or you work in a school, you know: the shortage of special education teachers is rising, leaving many students without formally-trained teachers—and the special education teachers we do have are being crushed under administrative bureaucracy, paperwork, and grueling hours. And with many of these certified teachers retiring, schools are left uncertain that they will be able to find new people to fill those positions.
It is required by law that students enrolled in IEPs, or Individualized Education Programs, be taught by teachers fully certified in special education, as required by the Individuals with Disabilities Act. Except that there simply aren’t enough special education teachers to go around. With older teachers retiring, David Pennington, the superintendent of Ponca City, Oklahoma public schools, says, “Forget about replacing them with someone of the same quality. I’m just worried about replacing them. Period.”
In addition to the often difficult work of teaching—and creating—IEPs, the job itself comes with nearly debilitating amounts of paperwork to provide updates on each student’s progress. “And when do teachers do that paperwork? Sometime during the hours of 3 p.m. to 10 p.m.,” says Deborah Ziegler, a member of the Council for Exceptional Children, a group that advocates for special education research. “It’s like having two full-time jobs.”
It’s becoming common now to find anyone willing to fill a special education position and then to hopefully get them trained up in the proper credentials. But he’s worried this process won’t hold, believing that teachers will look at all the responsibility and the sheer amount of work that comes with being a special education teacher and avoid it altogether.
Even highly qualified teachers like Wendy Bradshaw of Lakeland, Florida, are resigning from their special education teaching jobs because they feel the students are being overlooked. “Like many other teachers across the nation, I have become more and more disturbed by the misguided reforms taking place which are robbing my students of a developmentally appropriate education,” Bradshaw said.
Bradshaw’s concerns had more to do with school curriculum than being overworked, but those concerns still speak to a lack of support for special education instructors. She had tried previously to speak with her school’s administration regarding her concerns about the curriculum, only to receive meek excuses, leading to her decision to resign from the school.
82 percent of special education teachers around the U.S. feel that there are simply not enough professionals to meet the needs of disabled students, while 51 percent say report difficulty in recruiting highly qualified special education teachers. Pennington asks: “What happens when it gets so bad that you literally cannot find anyone to be in charge of a classroom?”