Avoiding Burnout & Thriving as a Special Education Teacher
Special education teachers deserve to thrive, not just survive! The resources on this page are here to help you thrive, with teaching tips, blog posts on teaching special education, and research-based insights into burnout and thriving in special education.
Understanding Special Education Teacher Burnout
The lack of resources is one of the biggest problems cited in the literature. In a survey of over 200 special education teachers in Texas none reported that they had sufficient supplies and materials. Fifty percent strongly agreed that they lacked materials while 40 percent agreed that they lacked materials (Kaufhold, Alverez, & Arnold, 2006). A qualitative study of new general and special education teachers found that while general education teachers were given material to teach with, special education teachers often had to create their own material. The teachers interviewed reported being told to just find things and stated that they had to make things up and borrow them from general education teachers (Youngs, Jones, & Low, 2011). A survey of 14 special education teachers in Ohio found that there was a significant mismatch between what resources teachers expected to find and what they actually had available. The teachers had to seek out, and often buy, their own resources or go without (Andrews & Brown, 2015). This lack of resources is a significant stressor for teachers, potentially leading to greater attrition.
The job of a special education teacher is, in general, poorly defined. Many teachers report being given conflicting goals and directives. Special education teachers cite issues related to job design more often than any other issue in surveys of teacher attrition (Billingsley, 2004). Interviews with new teachers show how ambiguous the job can be. In interviews, new teachers reported finding the expectations opaque and little direction from their school district (Youngs, Jones, & Low, 2011). In other interviews, special education teachers discussed role conflict as a reason they left the classroom (Demik, 2008).
Principals and administration frequently struggle to understand, support, and guide special education teachers. Principals are increasingly in charge of their school site’s special education programs, so that 75 percent of surveyed principals in 2015 reported that they were spending more time than they had in the past on special education (Lynch, 2012). They are generally not confident about their abilities to manage special education and feel they need to know more (Lynch, 2012).
When asked about evaluating special education teachers in a qualitative study, principals listed dispositions as important but struggled to name concrete skills. The principals wanted the state curriculum implemented even when it was in conflict with the needs of the child but they also wanted the teachers to individualize. They struggled with explaining what the teachers were supposed to do (Steinbrecher et al., 2015), which would make evaluating the teachers challenging.
Special educators frequently work with general education teachers to support students yet there is no cross training. Some special education teachers instead report that they need to advocate for their students with general education teachers and lack community with those teachers (DeMik, 2008). The lack of cross training potentially impacts job satisfaction and stress levels of special education teachers.
The psychological work environment of special education teachers is also problematic. Stress is frequently cited as a cause of teacher burnout (Goldring, Taie, Riddles, & Owens, 2014; Billingsley, 2004). Teacher’s work environment can contribute to their stress. Teachers who feel more supported by their colleagues are more likely to plan to stay in the field (Jones, Youngs, & Frank, 2013), yet teachers report feeling isolated (Andrews & Brown, 2015; DeMik, 2008) and having little to no time to work with colleagues (Gersten et al., 2001). School climate matters too as teachers who perceive a supportive school climate are more likely to stay in the field and teachers who perceive a negative environment are more likely to leave (Billingsley, 2004).
Overall in special education, 83 percent teachers report being extensively trained, 12.5 percent report some training in special education, and 4.2 percent report no training. All of these deficits are significantly higher at low income schools meaning that the teachers at those schools are less trained and prepared to be in the classroom (Williams, 2015)
Even teachers who are highly trained are often asked to do jobs that are a stretch. While in larger school districts there might be enough staff and density of students to allow teachers to work with a population they are trained on, in rural school districts, teachers report job assignments that stretch their knowledge, especially teachers working with low incidence populations (Berry et al., 2011).
Equally concerning is the size of the workload and the lack of time. In the same survey of teachers in Ohio, special education teachers reported that the reality of the workload was significantly different from how they thought it would be. They reported that there was too much paperwork and that they couldn’t keep up with constantly changing demands (Andrews & Brown, 2015). A qualitative examination of special education teacher attrition found that the lack of time was a significant factor. Teachers reported a lack of time for planning lessons, meeting with general education teachers, doing paperwork, taking a break, and even taking lunch (DeMik, 2008). In a meta-analysis of 20 studies on special education teachers, Billingsley (2004) found that many teachers reported not enough time to do everything and that the work was not manageable.
Special education is a legal field. As a result, special education has large quantities of paperwork and high stakes assessments. Paperwork is consistently cited as a source of stress for special education teachers (Billingsley, 2004). Teachers have described the paperwork as “overwhelming” and feel that they need to document everything (DeMik, 2008). Teachers also feel that the paperwork and assessments are constantly changing (Andrews & Brown, 2015). Teachers interviewed are also overwhelmed by the amount of assessments they have to do between special education requirements and state assessments (DeMik, 2008). While the legal requirements are spelled out in IDEA, teachers are often left to figure out the day to day paperwork and assessment procedures on their own.
Almost twice as many special education teachers leave the field every year as do general education teachers. Currently, about 12 percent of special education teachers stop teaching special education every year (National Coalition on Personnel, 2016) and throughout the 1980s and 1990s between 13 percent and 15 percent of special education teachers left the field annually (McLeskey, Tyler, and Saunders, 2004). The largest difference is in movers, people who switched fields in education. Special education had 10.5 percent movers while other fields had 8.4 percent or lower (Goldring et al., 2014). Almost 33,000 special education teachers left to become general education teachers after the 1999-2000 school year alone (Boe, 2006). In one study of rural school districts, 42 percent of the special education teachers were planning to leave the field. Twenty-five percent of them were leaving to become general education teachers (Berry et al., 2011). Many of the teachers who leave are in their first four years of teaching, meaning the problem is more acute for new teachers (Billingsley, 2007).
Nationwide there are almost 500,000 special education teachers (May 2015 National Employment). This enormous workforce should be even larger as 49 states report shortages of special education teachers. In 1993, the shortage was 13.4 percent, a total of 54,200 positions, while there was only a 10.4 percent shortage of general education teachers (Boe, 2006).
Only 84 percent of special education teachers have special education credentials and only 83 percent report being extensively trained in special education while 4.2 percent report no training in special education. Those numbers are even lower at low income schools with 24.1 percent of teachers at those schools reporting little to know training in special education compared with 11 percent at wealthier schools (Williams, 2015).
So What Does it Take for Special Education Teachers to Thrive?
This is a work in progress! I will be building out this page and resources for thriving over the next few months. If you have ideas, email me @admin.
Special education teachers want to do their job well and they want training to do it well– training for them, for their paraprofessionals, and for the general education teachers they work with who are also supporting students with disabilities (Berry et al., 2011)
Special education teachers need support from their administrators, whether with scheduling, with co-teaching, finding resources, or with ensuring that students’ IEPs are followed (Billingsley et al., 2011; Gersten et al., 2001; Sebastian, 2022). The more support they perceive, the less likely they are to want to quit (Gersten et al., 2001).
They also need community, peers they can talk to about the job (Youngs et al., 2011). Special education teachers who have more community and perceive more support from their colleagues are also less likely to want to leave (Jones et al., 2013).
Special education teachers who feel that there are clear expectations for their role are more likely to state they want to stay in teaching (Billingsley, 2004).