I am an Early Childhood Special Education teacher as itinerant staff. Although this is my first full year as a special education teacher, I have years of experience working with children diagnosed with a disability as a volunteer, caretaker, or camp counselor.
In high school I became a “peer as a leader”, joining my peers in their segregated class to assist with vocational tasks and modify academic work. The special education teacher in the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) classroom taught me about the history of institutions, assigned us to read Temple Grandin’s, “Emergence Labeled Autistic”, and gave me the opportunity to become an educated and empowered to advocate for my peers. I immediately knew I wanted to be a special education teacher.
Statistics show that after three years, a large number of special education teachers decide to leave the classroom. I would be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about it already myself. The demands are not only tough for first-year special ed teachers, but also for veterans alike. Here are just five reasons I’ve identified for special education teacher burnout.
1. The Pay
Teacher pay is affected by the students’ performance. If you have a child with a disability, you understand how hard regressions can be. I do flips and cartwheels to have my students learn their ABCs or get used to a routine, but then spring break happens, and BAM! all is lost when the students return to school. Now my salary has the potential to be altered.
2. Lack of staff for support
I travel between two classrooms. When I am in one class, I am supposed to have a teacher assistant in the other class supporting the students/teachers. It has been a month of school and we have already gone through two teacher assistants. In my district, teacher assistants are paid 8 dollars an hour. Naturally, they’ll take higher paying job as soon as they can. Not having the support staff for the general education teachers basically falls on my shoulders. Every special education teacher’s wish: if only I could split myself in half, so I could be in two places.
3. Lack of funding for support
In addition to staffing issues, new students with disabilities will continue to come our way. When we get another student (who requires more support or not), we do not always get another support staff right away, or sometimes ever. I advocate and advocate and advocate, but the response is “not in the budget” or “your numbers (amount of students) are not high enough.”
4. Feeling unable to do it all- but still needing to do it all
I wear many hats. Not only do I worry about instruction and meeting IEP minutes/goals, I check in with all the other support staff: general education teachers, physical therapist, occupational therapist, speech pathologist, social worker, and nurse for every single one of my students. The problem is they are all spread thin too, serving high numbers of students in multiple settings. If a student needs to practice walking with his walker, believe me, I am walking down the hallway singing the ABCs with him while he works on his mobility in his walker.
*sigh* It NEVER ends. Since I am new to this profession, it takes me HOURS to write an IEP, which does not include calling each member of the IEP for scheduling (please call us back in a timely manner), data collecting, or standing in front of the copier waiting for the millions of copies I just printed off. My “prep time” is usually filled with general education collaboration, meetings/trainings, or phone calls unrelated to paperwork, which leads to bringing my paperwork home with me.
Those are just five things I’ve identified and experienced as a new special ed teacher. But, did you notice something? All the frustrations listed above have nothing to do with the children. They are what make this job and they are so worth advocating for. Sure, there are days I face nothing but tantrums, kicks, bites, bruises, screams, and on my end, crying, but when I see a child using the tools that we gave him/her, and making progress, I know the frustrations are worth it.
Of all the reasons to become a special education teacher, my students are my number one pick! I chose to work with these children. I believe in them and all the potential they hold. So what drives me to work each day? It’s them, my incredible students!
Rae Stanforth is an Early Childhood Special Education teacher. After being a peer mentor in high school, she knew she wanted a career that would give her the chance to enrich the lives of students with disabilities and to become an advocate on their behalf.