Why do SPED educators burn out?
5 factors that may be contributing to special educator turnover
April 10, 2023
Editor’s note: The following was written by Rachael Ding, student representative on the CARS+ (California Association of Resource & Special Educator Plus) board, who shares the findings and analysis from a study she conducted. She is a junior at Monta Vista High School in the Fremont Union High School District.
A study relating special educator burnout and administrative support highlighted several strategies districts could take to mitigate turnover.
The study consisted of 100 special educators from Northern California, teaching grades 9-12. Educators were asked to report levels of support in six areas: case management support, classroom support, communication support, mental health support, positive environment and opportunities for growth. Analysis was then conducted using structural equation modeling and regression analysis.
The data indicated several important findings about special educator burnout and turnover.
1. A positive environment is most important for mitigating frequent emotions of feeling overwhelmed.
When special educators feel heard and seen, they report lower levels of burnout, identifying the critical aspects of a cohesive school environment. Teachers who had a perception of respect from the administration were generally happier with their job and less likely to transfer or retire.
One teacher explains, “District admin do not always have time to hear input from all stakeholders or more informed colleagues, and their decisions reflect that.”
Another relates a personal experience: “[W]e are told to ask for help then reprimanded for doing so — or told that we should not have such high expectations of people.”
By improving communication channels and valuing teacher feedback, special educators feel more support.
2. Administration varies widely in the amount of support they provide.
Another common thread of frustration for special educators included inconsistent support from different administrators.
A special educator explains that “[a] lot depends on the admin in question,” clarifying that “this year [a different] admin is responsible for my school, and I do not feel supported.”
This inconsistency with administration spans across the same position, as well as different levels of administration. As one teacher puts it, “I feel that there is a large disconnect between the highest levels of administration and the … classrooms [...] We have gotten criticism on why we need extra help or kick back when we request help with certain students with exceptional needs.”
Differing levels of understanding and knowledge of special education make it difficult for special educators to seek consistent support. A teacher concludes that “every year is different, every district is different, every site is different.”
3. A large factor of stress is from communicating with general education teachers.
Many teachers reported that relating IEP/504 protocol to general education teachers is very difficult. Some teachers have no knowledge about the legalities behind accommodations, while others don’t understand the importance of implementing accommodations for special education students.
A teacher explains that it can become especially stressful “if there is a teacher or two who are out of compliance. Makes special education teachers’ jobs 10x harder, and can be a nightmare when that happens.”
4. Addressing paperwork concerns correlates with lower turnover.
Another crucial aspect of administrative support needs to address case management for special educators. Many special educators reported finishing IEPs and paperwork after contract hours, due to the inadequate time provided by prep periods on top of their teaching duties. One teacher mentions that “I went into education to make a difference in students’ lives, not [to] push papers.”
The data also displays a strong correlation between increased case management support and a lower likelihood of transfer or early retirement. It was by far the most decisive factor that determined turnover.
5. Classroom materials provided to special education classrooms are often not applicable.
A portion of teachers mentioned how they had to spend their own money in order to subsidize needed classroom materials.
A teacher describes that “[supplies] are not typical and vary between students, especially when you need items for sensory needs, modified reading or writing supports or need to modify a room for a specific child to be safe and successful.” However, another teacher supplements that “[materials] are bought using a top-down decision tree. For example, everyone was given a giant TV [...] a few years ago. No teachers were consulted.”
As a result, some teachers reported spending up to $6,000 to purchase needed materials.
These are a few of the findings that the research highlighted. Other issues include underfunding and understaffing, lack of mental health support, and general misunderstanding or ignorance of special education infrastructure. A crucial message that the data illustrated is a need for administrators to inform themselves about special education, and be open to feedback from special educators. This is the first step toward understanding the complex and systemic issues surrounding special educator shortages and opening the dialogue to start implementing solutions.
Also, increased communication feeds directly into a positive and uplifting environment for special educators where they feel seen and their opinions respected. In order to reduce special educator burnout and turnover, schools need to understand the value and importance of special education.
Contact Us
© 2023 Association of California School Administrators