It's Not Easy Teaching Special Ed

Jan 2, 2016
Originally published on January 4, 2016 1:53 pm

It's getting harder and harder to find quality special education teachers, which is why 49 out of 50 states report shortages.

Why? It's a tough sell.

Even if you're up for the low pay and noisy classrooms, special education adds another challenge: crushing paperwork.

This is something I understand firsthand. You see, I was a special education teacher and I just couldn't hack it. Though I'm somewhat ashamed to admit it, I lasted only a year in the classroom.

I chose special education for what felt like the right reason. I wanted to help the students who struggle to learn. But I soon realized that was only a part of the job.

The paperwork, the meetings, the accountability. Eventually it got to me. I couldn't do it all and I got tired of showing up to a job I knew I couldn't do. It's that simple.

So as I've been looking into the teacher shortage it hasn't felt like a revelation that people are leaving the profession. I get it.

But I have been curious about my friends and colleagues who have stayed. Especially one colleague in particular: Stephanie Johnson.

I know Stephanie from my college days. We were in the same special education program at Brigham Young University three years ago. But as a mother of three returning to school in her 40s, Stephanie wasn't your typical student.

She's now going on her third year teaching eighth grade math and ninth grade English to students with a wide range of disabilities at Oak Canyon Junior High School in Lindon, Utah, which is about 40 miles south of Salt Lake City.

'My Joy Is In The Classroom'

I visited Stephanie's classroom during a math lesson. She was reviewing how to find the slope of a line, through word problems. You know, x-axis-y-axis-type stuff. The students copied some problems from the board and got to work.

The class was surprisingly quiet and focused. If I had been teaching I might have leaned back, put my feet up on the desk and enjoyed the moment.

But not Stephanie.

She weaved through the desks, kneeling beside each student and checking in. I could tell she was in her element.

I checked in with a few students too. Each one had the same responses to my questions.

Do you like math?

No.

Are you good at it?

No.

How are you doing in Mrs. Johnson's class?

Good. It makes sense when she explains it.

"My joy is in the classroom," Stephanie told me afterward. "When they catch on to something and they have those 'aha' moments."

Those "aha" moments are no small feat. Each of Stephanie's students has some type of learning disability. Many have become accustomed to the feeling of being totally lost during their classes, especially math.

But there they were, scribbling away with that scrunched concentration on their faces. None of them looked lost.

This didn't surprise me. Back in college it was obvious that Stephanie would be a dynamic teacher.

For starters, she understood special education from a parent's perspective. One of her sons, Alec, was in special education classes from second through ninth grade. She knows the heartache and worry that come when a parent is told her child learns differently.

"Now, as the teacher, I can say, 'I know exactly how you feel. I've been there and it's going to be OK,' " Stephanie says.

She was also a teaching assistant in a special education classroom at a middle school for five years. And on top of that she was an extremely driven student.

Because of all this, my classmates and I looked up to her. She was a kind of mentor to us. She helped us see the purpose in what we were preparing to do.

"I was really clear on why I was there," Stephanie remembers.

She pauses. "I wish that was more clear now."

Not Enough Hours In The Week

From the outside, it looks like Stephanie has everything under control. But that's not how she feels.

"I don't know how to describe it," she says. "It's just so much work."

She's not talking about teaching or lesson planning or even working with disruptive students. She really likes those parts of the job.

"It's all the other compliance and laws and paperwork."

All of that stuff can be summed up with three letters: IEP, for Individualized Education Program. Each student in special education has one. It's required by law. And each IEP requires hours and hours of upkeep.

Forms need to be updated, data have to be tracked and there are additional meetings with parents and other staff. Multiply that by the 43 students Stephanie has, and there goes all of her free time.

"I stay at work hours typically every day," Stephanie said. What she doesn't finish, she takes home.

In 2011, Donald Deshler, a professor of special education at the University of Kansas, set out to examine just how many hours all that paperwork consumes. He and a doctoral student wanted to find out what the typical special education teacher's workload looked like.

They decided to observe a few teachers during their workday. "We followed them everywhere, except the bathroom," Deshler says.

They then broke down the teacher's typical workday into four main categories with the percentage of time spent on each:

  • Management, IEP paperwork and administrative responsibilities: 33 percent
  • Collaboration, co-teaching, assisting other teachers and meetings: 27 percent
  • Instruction, teaching students in their classroom: 27 percent
  • Diagnostic, testing and data tracking: 13 percent

Of the 27 percent time spent teaching, only 21 percent was what Deshler considered "specialized instruction," meaning the teachers were using methods that were evidence-based and focused on students' individual needs.

"Twenty-one percent of their time is spent teaching the best of what we know. That roughly translates into one day a week," Deshler explains. "If we wonder why teachers are frustrated, this data sheds some light on it."

And that frustration leads good teachers like Stephanie to question whether they can stay in the profession. She admits she thinks about leaving all the time.

"Just because I'm exhausted," she says. "But I'm changing kids' lives, I'm making a difference, so why would I want to walk away from that?"

Stephanie feels stuck. It's an extremely difficult decision for an extremely difficult job.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

It's getting harder and harder to find quality special education teachers. Forty-nine out of 50 states report that there are shortages. Why? It's a tough job. Even if you're all right with low pay, a noisy classroom, special education adds another challenge, crushing paperwork. Lee Hale from our NPR Ed team understands this struggle firsthand. He was a special education teacher himself but got burned out after just one year.

LEE HALE, BYLINE: That's right. I couldn't hack it. But believe me, I wanted to. I chose special education for the same reason I think most teachers do, to help students who struggle to learn. But I soon realized that helping children was only a part of the job. The paperwork, the meetings, the accountability - eventually, it got to me. I couldn't do it all, and I got tired of showing up to a job I knew I couldn't do. It's that simple.

Part of me feels guilty for leaving, especially when I think about my friends and colleagues who stayed. I often wonder how they're holding up.

STEPHANIE JOHNSON: And guess what? You guys are having a test next week. So we really have to practice.

HALE: This is Stephanie Johnson. She teaches eighth grade math and ninth grade English at Oak Canyon Junior High. It's about 40 miles south of Salt Lake City.

JOHNSON: We are taking a situation or an event and we are finding the information that we need...

HALE: Stephanie and I were in the same special education program at nearby Brigham Young University three years ago. But she wasn't your typical college student. She's in her 40s and a mother of three. And now she's got her own special education classroom, although it can hardly be called a classroom.

It's, like, just a step up from a closet, right?

JOHNSON: Yeah, it is just a step up from a closet. It is a very small room.

HALE: And there aren't any windows, yet she somehow managed to make it feel homey. You can tell the students like being here. I dropped in during a math lesson.

JOHNSON: These things right here - the slope or the constant rate of change, the initial value or the Y-intercept, and then we're going to use that information...

HALE: She's reviewing word problems that have to do with slope, you know, X-axis, Y-axis type stuff. The students copy some questions from the board and start sketching out their graphs. And I'm surprised at how focused and quiet everyone is. Stephanie weaves through the desks, kneeling beside each student and checking in with them.

JOHNSON: Nice job.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: So would that be 200?

JOHNSON: Nope, 200 is your slope. What's 100?

HALE: You can tell that she's in her element.

JOHNSON: My joy is in the classroom. When they catch onto something and they have those aha moments and just - those are the things that bring me happiness and joy. So that has to be my focus.

HALE: And she's good at it. This is one of her eighth graders, Abigail.

ABIGAIL: I struggled really a lot in math and sometimes when I don't get it in math class, Mrs. Johnson teaches it and I know how to do it.

HALE: This is the kind of thing I heard from every student I talked with. Math is hard. I don't like it, but it makes sense when Mrs. Johnson teaches it. I'm not surprised.

When I first met Stephanie, I had no doubt that she would be a dynamic teacher. For starters, she understands special education from a parent's perspective. One of her sons, Alec, was in special education classes from second through ninth grade, so she knows the heartache and the worry that comes when a parent is told their child learns differently.

JOHNSON: Now as the teacher I can say, I know exactly how you feel. I've been there, and it's going to be OK.

HALE: She also had experience as a teaching assistant in a special ed. classroom for five years. And on top of that, she was an extremely driven student. Back in college, it was obvious to me, our fellow classmates and our professors that she was meant for this.

We all looked to you as kind of, like, an example. I'm sure you felt that, right?

JOHNSON: Yeah, I did feel that. And I was really clear on why I was there.

HALE: But then she pauses.

JOHNSON: I wish that was more clear now.

HALE: From the outside, it looks like Stephanie has everything under control. But it's clear that's not how she feels.

JOHNSON: I don't know how to describe it. It's just so much work. Like, I just feel like I cannot do it.

HALE: She's not talking about teaching or lesson planning or even working with disruptive students. She really likes those parts of her job.

JOHNSON: It's all the other compliance and laws and paperwork, and oh, my gosh, it's so much.

HALE: All of that stuff can be summed up with these three letters - IEP. That stands for Individualized Education Program. Each student in special education has one. It's required by law. And each IEP requires hours and hours of upkeep. Forms have to be updated, data has to be tracked and there are additional meetings with parents and other staff.

JOHNSON: I stay after work hours, typically every day

HALE: And what she doesn't finish, she takes home.

JOHNSON: It's just frustrating because if I could really focus on making a difference in these kids' lives, then I have it, man. I totally have this job. I know how to do that.

HALE: But that just isn't how it is. And she doesn't expect it to get better anytime soon. All of this brought me to a question I had to ask.

How do you feel about people like me (laughter), the fact that I just, like - I was like this is too hard, and I just, like, walked away?

JOHNSON: I have mixed feelings about that.

HALE: Stephanie admits that she thinks about leaving all the time.

JOHNSON: Just because I'm exhausted, but I'm changing kids' lives. I'm making a difference. So why would I want to walk away from that?

HALE: So she finds herself facing a choice between her students and, well, her sanity, an extremely difficult decision for an extremely difficult job.

Lee Hale, NPR News, Salt Lake City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.