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Special Education Opinion

What Really Causes Special Education Teachers to Burn Out?

By Josh Brown — March 12, 2019 4 min read
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During a recent class, Ernesto propelled a volley of four-letter expletives, an eraser, and a chair at my unsuspecting student-teacher. This was the last straw: The teacher, who had been showing a lot of promise, decided to drop out of his credential program the next day. His exasperation was real; I’ve felt the same many times during my six-year career as a special education teacher.

And I’m not alone.

In many districts around the country, there is a dearth of special education teachers. Much has been written about the dire need to recruit more special educators, but recruitment is only half the battle. We need to fundamentally address educators’ reasons for burnout and capitalize on the best practices to retain and support new teachers.

In my classroom, I teach students with a variety of disabilities including autism, emotional disturbance, and oppositional defiance disorder. The intense day-to-day stress that comes with working with students like Ernesto and their accompanying behaviors is part of the job. For my student-teacher, this was the catalyst for his early departure from the profession.

We need to fundamentally address educators' reasons for burnout."

Fortunately, restorative justice programs have a proven track record of success in mitigating disruptive behaviors. Restorative justice shifts the discipline from punishment to learning by teaching students the skills needed to repair relationships and avoid conflict. In my classroom, I run restorative justice circles every Monday as a way of building a community among my students. For example, I know that Ernesto is most anxious (and exhibits his most disruptive behaviors) before his dates in family court to sort out a contentious custody battle. Through restorative circles, he and I have developed a series of coping strategies to mitigate his anxiety, such as using a favorite Star Wars plush toy in class.

While he and other kids in my class have benefitted from these interventions, most schools and districts have trouble implementing restorative justice programs with fidelity. By fully supporting school sites with sufficient professional development on restorative practices, special education teachers would have an additional tool to build mutual respect in their classrooms and lessen disruptive behaviors.

To ensure that behavior management has its best chance of success, special education teachers must collaborate with general education teachers and administrators. Oftentimes, these colleagues are uninformed about the legality of IEPs—individualized education programs—or the nuances of working with students with special needs, which can lead to tension and misunderstanding around accommodations and expectations.

In fact, many special education teachers cite a lack of support from colleagues and supervisors as a principal reason for leaving the profession. During Ernesto’s IEP meeting, I made sure to include the use of manipulatives like plush toys as an accommodation to lessen his anxiety. However, his general education teachers were not familiar with where to find the accommodations listed in his IEP, and so they didn’t implement the strategy with him.

All school employees should be adequately trained in the basics of IEP compliance and disability awareness so they can take an active role in educating our students with special needs. Not only will this provide support for special education teachers, but it will also show every adult on campus that our students with disabilities are valuable members of the school community.

In addition to supports for current teachers, we must address the needs of pre-service teachers as well. Teacher residency programs, which provide teaching candidates ample support and training prior to entering the classroom full time, are a great way to recruit and retain high-quality teachers. Much like medical school residencies, these programs provide comprehensive coursework along with a full-time student-teaching placement under the guidance of an experienced mentor. These programs lower the barrier of entry by subsidizing tuition and provide long-term support for beginning teachers.

In my residency program at California State University, Northridge, I had an on-site mentor during my first year in the classroom who coached me daily in behavior management, IEP compliance, and differentiated instructional strategies. These critical supports kept me from leaving the profession, and I wonder what could have been if my student-teacher were enrolled in a residency program as well.

Investing more time and money into pre-service special education teaching candidates can greatly reduce turnover and directly address personnel shortages across the country.

Students like Ernesto, with severe social-emotional and academic needs, need ample supports and wrap-around services to foster their success. If we actually want to address the special education teacher shortage, we need to provide the commensurate support and resources for our special educators to ensure their success as well.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 13, 2019 edition of Education Week as Special Education Teachers Need Support

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