Recruit and Retain Your Special Forces

Making sense of the special education teacher shortage

Special education teacher shortages. You’ve heard about them for years, usually followed by a discouraged sigh. Now you’re a principal, and you’re the one who’s sighing. Giving children of all abilities the highest-quality education possible is your most solemn responsibility, but skilled special ed teachers aren’t lining up to lead your classrooms.

It’s time for you to strategize, and the first step in any strategy is understanding the landscape. The roots of the special education teacher shortage live in the realm of human resources—that place where pay rates, working conditions, and workplace supports can worsen or ameliorate the twin challenges of recruitment and retention.

“School personnel not only must focus their efforts on the recruitment of special educators, but must work to keep the individuals who are credentialed and performing well in the field,” says a 2014 article, “Combatting the Attrition of Teachers of Students With EBD: What Can Administrators Do?” by Edward J. Cancio, Susan F. Albrecht, and Beverly H. Johns. “When factors can be identified that are associated with intent to stay in or leave the field, it is important to consider strengthening those positive factors and working to minimize or eliminate the negative factors. Support from principals of teachers has been cited as one of the most important factors for both general and special educators’ retention.”

Effective school leaders pay close attention to the skills, orientations, and behaviors that ensure equity for diverse learners, including their students with special educational needs, according to The Wallace Foundation’s “How Principals Affect Students and Schools.” In this atmosphere, strategic hiring is key to the foundational skill of effectively managing personnel and resources. See the work through the eyes of job candidates, and you’ll find creative ideas that can make your school the place where special education teachers want to be.

The Shortage, in Numbers

Data underlines the existence of the scarcity principals endure every day. These numbers put it in context:

  • 52 percent of U.S. elementary schools report that their special education teaching positions are “very” or “somewhat difficult” to fill for the 2022–2023 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) and National Council of Education Sciences’ 2022 School Pulse Panel.
  • 61 percent of understaffed elementary schools reported that special education teaching positions were the most understaffed.
  • 15 percent of all public school students receive special ed services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)—7.2 million students nationwide in the 2020–2021 school year.
  • 20,600 more jobs in special education will be created by 2031, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, adding to the current 476,300.
  • 37,600 annual openings in special education jobs are projected annually through 2031, in many cases due to “the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire.”
  • 53 percent of special education students served under IDEA Part B in 2020–2021 were racially and ethnically diverse, according to NCES. But 2017–2018 breakdowns included in NCES’ National Principal and Teachers Survey found that just 13.8 percent of special education teachers were Black, and 8.8 percent were Latinx.

Why the Shortage?

The headwinds buffeting special education teachers and candidates have churned themselves into a full-blown cyclone. They include:

  • Reality checks. Special education teachers—like most teachers—cherish an ideal of what the job looks like, especially when they’re in training. But in 7 out of 8 “ideal perceptions,” reality falls short. Teachers find themselves disappointed in colleague support, administrative support, classroom management, student success, instructional resources, workload, and parental contact. Only their satisfaction with assessments remains standing, reports “Discrepancies in the Ideal Perceptions and the Current Experiences of Special Education Teachers,” a 2015 study by Amanda Andrews and Jennifer L. Brown.
  • Burnout. Lack of clarity and too many facets in their roles, emotional exhaustion, lack of funding for resources, and falling short on accomplishments contribute to stress and burnout, according to the 2018 “Mixed-Methods Analysis of Rural Special Educators’ Role Stressors, Behavior Management, and Burnout.”
  • Time. Many states require special education teachers to achieve dual certification or complete five-year programs. While the knowledge imparted contributes to high-level classroom practice, failure to streamline preparatory programs adds an extra year of study without earnings. That single paycheck-free year could dissuade some candidates from pursuing the field, including first-generation college students who are often people of color, reports “In Demand: The Real Teacher Shortages and How to Solve Them,” a 2021 report by Sandi Jacobs with Lynn Olson.

The Workplace

As researchers and career educators like to point out, no one enters teaching to get rich. Still, it’s a good practice to keep sight of pay and competing employers. Both influence the decisions job seekers make about whether to enter special education careers and stay there—or not.

  • Pay scale. Nationally, median pay for special education teachers was $61,820 a year in 2021, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Of course, “median” is the middle point, so individual salaries can range from much lower to much higher. And if you think $61,000 looks like a nice sum, consider the median salaries candidates could earn as postsecondary teachers ($79,640), computer programmers ($93,000), or physical therapists ($95,620).
  • Comparable occupations. People who love working with children with special needs have career options outside of teaching in elementary schools. For lower pay but likely less stress, they can be recreational therapists, social workers, or teacher assistants. In the classroom, they can teach children of any age, from early childhood through high school and young adulthood. They can leave special education to focus on other subjects, or set their sights on careers in administration. They can find jobs in private schools or state-supported disability services. With a master’s degree, they can become occupational therapists, at a median pay of $85,570. You get the picture: Competitors are fishing from the same labor pool where you hope to find top talent, and they might have better bait.

Countervailing Winds

Challenges abound, but principals hold the power to generate positivity that attracts and retains teachers dedicated to special education. These elements are key factors in that effort:

  • A welcoming climate. Factors helping special education teachers maintain good mental health and work-life balance included good working relationships with colleagues and administrators, building relationships with students, and strong self-advocacy, according to the “Mixed-Methods Analysis of Rural Special Educators’ Role Stressors.”
  • A collaborative atmosphere. Special education teachers say that strong relationships with their general education peers, marked by mutual respect for each other’s roles and challenges, can help prevent some of the frustration that fuels burnout.
  • Targeted induction. Purposeful induction programs bridge the gap between teacher preparation programs and the first year of teaching, while also reducing first-year stress and negative feelings, says “Promoting Special Educator Teacher Retention.” Quality induction includes elements targeting the specific needs of special education teachers—help writing individualized education plans, mentoring from general and special education teachers, and professional development addressing their unique early-career challenges.

Put it all together, and administrative support is crucial to job satisfaction and retention. Many elements driving the entrenched shortage in teachers are beyond the control of early career principals, but school leaders who work from a foundation of strengths and opportunities can create an atmosphere that welcomes those very special teachers who choose special education.