The Need Grows for Special Education Teachers

Wanted: People with a love for children and youth. Reward: Knowing you've made a difference in a child's life.

This is what special education teachers do. They make a difference every day in the classroom, working with children and young adults who have physical or mental disabilities. They use a variety of teaching methods to help their students learn.

The demand for special education teachers is "tremendous," says Richard Mainzer with the Council for Exceptional Children. "It has been for as many years as I've been in the business, which is over 40. And it's widespread."

Mainzer points to research from the American Association for Employment in Education: "They do an annual survey, and every year they come up with every state and every region of every state needing... special education teachers," he says.

"It's one of those areas that has just suffered continual shortages. We're identified often with the math and science [teacher] shortage, but we don't get the money that math and science get, [even] though our shortages are at least as severe."

Special education teachers devote a lot of time and energy to their students. It's hard work, but it offers many rewards.

"Anybody in the teaching profession is not in it for the money," says special education teacher Susan McPhail. "They have to be in it because they want to do it."

McPhail started out studying regular education. She was required to take an introductory special education class.

"I took that class and I just really thought that I would be more comfortable serving kids with special needs," says McPhail. "I didn't have kids yet, I wasn't married yet, but I just went and changed my major to special ed because that class so affected me.

"Maybe it was the instructor, maybe it was the fieldwork. We did go out into facilities and into schools and spent some time with kids in special ed and I just had more of an affinity, I guess, to teach those kids than what I was thinking regular elementary ed teaching would be like."

There are a couple of key reasons that special education teachers are in big demand.

"On the positive side... with the better identification of children or individuals with disabilities, the demand continues to grow," says Mainzer. "The number of students that we're serving in special education continues to grow and therefore the need for personnel.

"On the negative side," Mainzer adds, "we suffer from significant deficits in workplace conditions, in terms of other teachers and administrators not understanding the role of the special educator -- sometimes not fully embracing the idea that students or individuals with exceptionalities really belong in the general ed classroom and in the general ed curriculum."

In addition to the misunderstandings around the role of special educators, there are problems with the number of students that special education teachers are expected to manage, Mainzer says. The educational management of special needs students and communication with the other teachers and parents can be very stressful.

"It's a very, very demanding role, it's a very complex role, and one that we continue to have to struggle to help everyone understand," says Mainzer.

General education teachers typically have a bachelor's degree in education. Teachers who already have general teaching qualifications can attend what's called a post-baccalaureate endorsement program to qualify to teach special education.

For those who know from the start that they want to teach special ed, most states have bachelor's degree programs in special education, says Mainzer.

Dean Jonasson is a teacher and case manager with nearly 20 years of experience teaching special education. He has a bachelor's of education and a certificate in special ed. Jonasson says special education teachers should be intelligent and should enjoy working with kids. Being able to work in a team is also important.

"Certainly collaboration is key because in the special ed field students are supported by a variety of supports, whether they're paraprofessionals, speech and language clinicians, psychologists, physiotherapists, or other divisional supports," says Jonasson.

"So there's a lot of that -- a lot of being able to work cooperatively in that role."

Jonasson recommends that aspiring special ed teachers get some hands-on experience.

"It would be very helpful for them if they pursued either volunteering or work in a related field before they got into teaching," says Jonasson.

"For example, they might work at a daycare, or they might work...with students with a handicap, or they might work in a hospital setting or whatever. That would give them sort of the depth of experience that they wouldn't necessarily receive at the university level."

McPhail says special education teachers need patience above all. "Patience and the ability to perhaps see improvement, but not very rapid improvement, and be okay with that. That was one of the hardest things for me," she says.

"You might see improvements, but it might take a year to see a little bit of improvement," McPhail adds.

"You're not going to see overnight results like you might in regular education. But once you get used to it, you do see those milestones come. They might not be gigantic milestones, but when they do come it's very rewarding."


National Association of Special Education Teachers
Helps teachers prepare for the special education field

Council for Exceptional Children
A nonprofit organization that works to improve special education systems

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