Making Special Education Sustainable for Special Education Teachers

By: Matt Rhoads, Ed.D

Dr. Matt Rhoads is a Tech and Instructional Leader and Innovator with hands in Adult Ed, K-12, and Higher Education. He is the author of several books and is the host of Navigating Education – The Podcast.

Special Education is a huge support for students and families within our school communities. It can provide services and supports to neurodiverse students to make socio-emotional and academic progress as well as provide the support to help students transition into life as an adult. Additionally, it gives many students the opportunity to be included with all students within inclusive general education classes. By providing these services to students, it can be game-changing for many students as it provides them opportunities to amplify their strengths to attain their goals!

Before jumping too far into this post, I wanted to disclose I was a Mild to Moderate Special Education teacher for seven years. I thoroughly enjoyed teaching and working with students. However, I did not enjoy the bureaucratic systems in place, which made it very difficult for me at times. Thus, the goal of this post is to discuss the problems facing Special Educators and then propose a number of solutions that may make their job more sustainable and attractive for future and current educators to join or stay within the profession. Thank you to #edutwitter for refining the recommendations we will discuss throughout this post as this thread provided many good ideas that helped me in drafting this post!

Undoubtedly, Special Education is a great service to our students and communities. However, the topic of this blog is how it is unsustainable as currently constructed for educators, which has caused a mass exodus of teachers, which hurts not only the teachers leaving but the students and families receiving Special Education services.

Unfortunately, due to many of Special Education’s (as constructed currently) unsustainable bureaucratic structures, it requires systematic reform in order for it to become sustainable for teachers as well as to recruit and retain teachers who have the yearning to teach. It ultimately is not about whether teachers want to work with students. For most, teachers want to get into teaching to make an impact within a student’s life. Ultimately, what we are talking about is the sustainability of how teachers systematically fit into the system in which Special Education services are provided to students. Currently constructed, Special Education is unsustainable for teachers as they have to juggle many different responsibilities that go far beyond teaching and working directly with students and families.

The Problem – Too Many Hats and Responsibilities for Special Education Teachers

Currently, Special Education is unsustainable for teachers as they have to juggle many different responsibilities that go far beyond teaching and working directly with students and focusing on administrative, legal, logistics, and service compliance. Sadly, due to the way teachers are systematically being utilized in Special Education, burnout is extremely high. As a result, for many Special Education teachers, they are only in the profession for five years or less due to the pressure, stress, and job responsibilities. Ultimately, we want to allow for Special Educators to do what they love in a sustainable manner so they can be there for their students and do their job well at a high level without burning out and leaving the profession. As a result of this burnout and the massive upheaval of teachers moving in and out of the profession, students ultimately lose out. Therefore, one of the goals of this post is to provide several recommendations to make it sustainable for teachers.

Within Special Education, in many schools and districts across the U.S., Special Education teachers hold multiple hats beyond instruction that have much more of a focused magnifying glass as they have legal ramifications. Generally speaking, Special Education Teachers (also known as Ed. Specialists) are required to teach individual classes and/or co-teach along with case management. Teaching by itself can be extremely difficult in itself in our current climate. However, case management is just as difficult or even more difficult depending on the students and families they are serving because of the various needs and services that have to be provided.

Case management entails many administrative roles, which include Individualized Education Plan (IEP) drafting (one or more times a year), ensuring services are being implemented, goal progress on academic, executive functioning, and social-emotional goals, planning and holding annual IEP meetings, assessing students, and communicating with stakeholders in the student’s education such as psychologists, general education teachers, families, the principal, speech pathologists, and the student themselves. Overall, along with teaching, it is essentially carrying the job as a pseudo-administrator in many cases.

Ultimately, these two roles with high numbers of students they are serving within their classrooms (upwards of 130 students if the teacher works in a secondary setting) and having a working caseload of students they are servicing as a case manager in the mid to upper 20’s, creates a recipe for burnout because of the multi-tasking and energy it takes to ensure students are being taught as well as being serviced as a case manager. This does not take into consideration whether this is being done well or at a high level because of the many different responsibilities it takes to complete each of these tasks. Altogether, this creates a recipe for it being unsustainable for teachers, which creates a large door of teachers entering and exiting the profession without much stability for students, families, and schools.

Possible Recommendations and Solutions to Make it More Sustainable to Teach in Special Education

Below are a number of ideas to help make Special Education a more sustainable practice for teachers and schools. The goal is to ultimately simplify the responsibilities of Special Education teachers and distribute their responsibilities to other stakeholders and harness technology to make various processes required more streamlined and efficient. The thought is that many of these recommendations could help make the profession much more sustainable for teachers and create more longevity for teachers to stay in the profession.

Divide Case Managing and Teaching Responsibilities into Two Separate Jobs – Having two jobs in one is simply unsustainable. In order to increase Special Education teacher retention and allow for a more sustainable occupation, dividing the role into two would be advantageous for multiple reasons. Instruction would improve. Case management would improve. Better student outcomes. More stability for students. Higher compliance relating to services and goal progress. Also, better communication and relationships among Special Educators, the school, stakeholders, and families. Districts would have to hire more teachers to make this happen, but it would create opportunities for there to be more sustainability in terms of having highly qualified and experienced teachers completing each of these tasks. This would ultimately serve students and families better by giving teachers more to provide the services and support than having to focus on several other capacities at once.

If this cannot be done, substantial pay increases (upwards to 30% or more) would be needed. This could be a separate salary schedule, which would outline this pay increase. In addition to the increased salary scale, overtime pay could be done for work taken home; especially if it is IEP writing and goal progress related. Increased pay also should include instructional aides as they are a huge part of supporting students. Like teachers, the increased pay and providing benefits would attract and retain instructional aides to keep much more consistency and stability of having them on staff.

Reform IDEA by Simplifying IEPs and the IEP Writing Process – An IEP has many pages that outline the services it provides to students. This is likely the most controversial area since many will have different approaches to what this will look like. However, my point of view involves having several pages of the IEP consolidated to a document like an IEP At a Glance since that’s what describes the services and goals in the document. This would be the yearly document that is reviewed at the annual meeting. Then, for the triennial meetings, the longer document would be reviewed along with the most recent re-evaluation assessment data. Ultimately, the goal here is to limit the amount of paperwork for Special Education teachers, which will then open up time for directly working with students.

Creating New Technology that Consolidates Data and IEP Drafting – To streamline goal progress and IEP drafting, we need technologies to take adaptive assessment data relating to academic goal progress and overall academic progress to be taken from that tool, consolidated, and then placed into the narrative form on an IEP writing software. If we can create alignment and automation surrounding these collections of data, it will create more time for providing services versus collecting and consolidating that data and drafting the IEP itself. Additionally, it will provide data in real-time for the IEP team to make decisions and share that data directly with students and families.

Provide Further Training for General Education Teachers – General education teachers need to have more training in Special Education. This includes an understanding of IEPs, collaboration, and implementing services outlined in the IEPs as well as providing instruction in all types of learners. These training opportunities would be within teacher preparation programs and implemented within district professional learning plans. In a reform of IDEA, these types of trainings could be mandated to be part of a districts overall professional learning plan. Co-teaching, teaching reading, IEP contents, and differentiating instruction would be a number of areas that all teachers would need extensive training on Overall, with further training and collaboration, there can be a larger shared responsibility among stakeholders.

On another note, professional learning for Special Education teachers should be geared towards what they do on a daily basis. Much of the professional development sessions are geared toward general education teachers. While some of these learning opportunities may be beneficial, having targeted learning opportunities for Special Education teachers for the type of instruction they are providing, to support them in case management, and IEP writing and goal progress.

More Time & Fewer Responsibilities or Students On Caseload – Regardless of whether the Special Education teacher is both an instructor and case manager or one or the other, they need more time to prep, communicate with families, complete the responsibilities and tasks outlined in the position, and time to work with students one on one. Right now, there simply is not enough time in the day to complete all of these responsibilities. More time and fewer responsibilities must be given in order for the profession to be more sustainable for teachers. If more time and fewer responsibilities cannot be provided, then lower caseloads and class sizes significantly.

Another option is to revise the weekly schedule. Provide at least two hours of prep and case management time a day, at a minimum, or designate an entire day throughout the week for this work. A four-day instructional week would be advantageous if time cannot be afforded for enough time to prep and case manage throughout the day.

Ongoing and Long-Term Mentorship – Many teachers entering the profession do not have long-term mentors. What helps many is to have one or a core group of teachers that can help mentor and provide support. Having a mentor can go a long way if there’s a strong relationship that is built. Designing opportunities for mentorship to go beyond the first two years of teaching would provide more opportunities to grow, collaborate, support, and share experiences to amplify instructional and case management practices.

Respect and Shared Responsibility – Special Education teachers are oftentimes an afterthought. Sometimes they are may be treated as “less than” because of their role. Yet, they work with the vast majority of students and have much more contact and communication with families than general education teachers. Additionally, some school cultures put all of the pressure on the Special Education teacher to ensure the IEP is being fully implemented when in reality it is a team effort. The Special Education teacher and case manager is essentially the point guard who initiates services, checks progress, and works towards having all service providers and teachers collaborate to provide the best opportunities possible for that student to learn. The entire team needs to hold a shared responsibility and schools need to ensure their culture is clear that decisions and responsibility of implementing the IEP are on the team versus having the entire brunt being on the Special Education teacher.

Conclusion – Let’s Work Towards Making Special Education Sustainable for Teachers

The proposals discussed here are only the tip of the iceberg of what can be done to make Special Education much more sustainable for teachers. These are all proactive recommendations, which may save schools and districts money over time as services and compliance will be much more aligned and implemented more effectively. Many of these proposals require higher amounts of funding, which is critically needed in Special Education as IDEA has never been fully funded. Additionally, I believe more respect within the educational community needs to be given to Special Education teachers and service providers. They are critical for students, families, and schools. They cannot be an afterthought when developing policy or programs as they should be part of the conversation as major players. Hopefully, policymakers and education leaders can work together with Special Education teachers and service providers to collaborate and reform the profession to make it more sustainable, which would ultimately be a win for everyone!

What are your thoughts relating to this topic? How can we work together to make Special Education more sustainable for teachers? Write a comment below or continue the conversation on Twitter. I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts as this is a conversation we must continue to help support the profession.

Published by Matthew Rhoads, Ed.D.

Innovator, EdTech Trainer and Leader, University Lecturer & Teacher Candidate Supervisor, Consultant, Author, and Podcaster

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