BROCKETT: To Retain Special Education Teachers, Treat Them Like the Experts They Are

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Kara Brockett is the director of special education at KIPP: Newark. She has worked with students with disabilities for over 20 years, as a teacher and in school leadership, previously serving as an elementary school principal of a fully inclusive charter school in New York City. This first appeared in NJ Spotlight.

Even before COVID-19’s surge, New Jersey school districts were clamoring to hire substitute teachers to fill the void left by significant teacher shortages. As a special education teacher and school leader for 13 years, I knew what was driving some educators out and barring others from entering the field. Stress, burnout and illnesses have been long-standing issues among teachers nationwide, resulting in regular turnover even without the added stresses of teaching during a global pandemic. The shortages that our schools and districts are facing are real and need to be addressed.

An “Education Week” analysis of federal data found that all 50 states reported experiencing statewide shortages in at least one teaching area for either the 2016 – 2017 or the 2017 – 2018 school year. And a 2016 Learning Policy Institute report projected that the growing teacher shortages would only continue to increase well into the 2020s. Yet, despite these bleak statistics, there are significant barriers for those attempting to enter the education profession, especially for educators with a focus in special education; they are met with intense requirements and additional special education certifications, on top of the already rigorous general education demands if they choose special education as a specialization. Eliminating the real and significant barriers to special education teaching certification is an important step in ensuring that every New Jersey student is able to learn but not by reducing the requirements. There are far more effective approaches we can take at the school and district levels to address special education teacher shortages.

Like most educators, special education teachers were forced to pivot hard during the COVID-19 pandemic and transform the educational experience for their students. But unlike many other teachers, special education teachers were uniquely qualified to handle this curveball, as their pre-pandemic day-to-day focused on personalized instruction. Despite a lack of accommodations and specialized programming for both the mental and the behavioral health challenges faced by their students, special education teachers have been able to keep student learning from coming to a complete stop, and they will be essential to our students’ and schools’ success moving forward.

Rising rate of attrition

While New Jersey saw an increase in the number of special education teachers over the past several years, special education has always been difficult to staff. And today, 55% of all teachers are now saying they will leave the profession sooner than they had originally planned. Low wages, high stress, and burnout are all significant factors that reduce the number of teachers willing to stay in the field. A focus only on hiring new special education teachers will not fix the ultimate issue of an increasing rate of attrition for these essential teachers.

For special education teachers, certification is significant, and it should be. Teaching students with special needs requires specialized knowledge and training. But the intensity of this preparation as well as the costs often drive otherwise passionate candidates away. To become a special education teacher in New Jersey, candidates are required to obtain dual certification. First, prospective teachers must acquire certification to teach the subject area and age group they intend to work with, a lengthy and costly process. Once they receive their certificate of eligibility (CE), they can then apply for a students-with -disabilities certification.

Some districts have tried to find ways through, including sponsoring teachers from outside the United States with temporary visas in the hope of filling teacher vacancies. Others have called for an elimination of the state’s edTPA, a costly exam that teachers are required to take in order to qualify to teach in New Jersey schools.

While bold, these solutions do not consider the complete picture. Districts should focus instead on supporting existing candidates and retaining certified classroom teachers, both of whom have shown interest and commitment. Institutions such as Kean University, Rutgers University and Relay Graduate School of Education have already found innovative ways to support pre-service candidates, enabling teachers to complete important course requirements while also completing their practical application in a school position.

At the school where I work, we assist pre-certified and fully certified teachers with the financial burdens associated with advanced degrees and licensure testing, while simultaneously providing flexible employment that enables continued professional development. The result is teachers who develop their skills in a direct reflection of what our students need and deserve. The student-teacher bonds developed are incredibly strong and, furthermore, students have the chance to see more teachers who look like themselves.

Regardless of their pathway to certification, it is most important to attract and retain teachers who are both qualified and caring. This is a step often ignored when the focus shifts to changing policy or reducing the barriers to enter the profession.

Need to be treated like the experts they are

If there is any hope of securing and keeping quality teachers, school cultures must celebrate and support special education teachers — a process that begins with understanding and appreciating the fact that every single student learns differently. When school leadership emphasizes the importance of differentiated instruction, the result is remarkable: School communities recognize the integral role special education teachers play in providing both special education and general education services.

As such, special education teachers need to be treated like the experts they are, provided with opportunities to lead regular professional development, and to share their resources and wisdom. Special education services are not siloed, but rather integrated throughout classrooms. In practice, our educators lead monthly grade-team meetings where they counsel and collaborate with their general education colleagues.

The pandemic was a shock to an already overburdened education system. Teachers scrambled to give their students as rigorous and supportive an experience as possible during those nearly two years of upheaval. Teachers who had received the kind of profound training in differentiated instruction, in the way special education teachers had, were able to make very quick adjustments to their approach, however difficult. It was teachers with these kinds of abilities who made it possible for learning to continue at all during such a tumultuous time.

A school culture of supporting and honoring the work of teachers, and especially those who work with students with greater needs, was what made the difference in teacher retention for many schools. While it is critical to reduce the barriers that prevent teachers from entering the field, a healthy culture is what keeps them coming back, diversifying the field, and giving our students everything they deserve.

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