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Where Have All the Special Education Teachers Gone? Or, the Importance of Tea

June 14, 2024

Where Have All the Special Education Teachers Gone? Or, the Importance of Tea

Heidi Goger emphasizes the importance of recognizing and valuing special education teachers' dedication and suggests practical ways to enhance their professional experience and retention.

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Tea steeping with ginger and lemongrass aromas wafting through air, hand-scripted invitations, tiered stands with scones and tarts and scratchy uniforms replaced by summery dresses are normally out of place under the buzzing fluorescent lights of an elementary school; but a simple end-of-the-year tea with my students not only allowed them to equate tea with, etiquette, history and even the beginnings of America on that hazy night in Boston, it also allowed them, for a moment, to see beyond themselves and their reality.

As I started writing this blog, I thought about the dedication and creativity of teachers. I recalled an anecdote told by Doreen Gehry Nelson at the SXSW conference in 2023. Nelson was speaking on the topic of design-based learning in education with her brother, architect Frank Gehry. The moderator asked both speakers if there was a teacher during their years of schooling who motivated them to “push the envelope.” Nelson remarked on the time her third- or fourth-grade class was studying China and the teacher brought in a teapot and made tea. Instead of remaining in their desks, which were bolted to the floor in precise rows, students were allowed to leave their seats, observe this process and enjoy a cup of tea. A small act but one she still remembered. 

Instead of their charter school uniforms, students were allowed to wear dress pants, blazers and colorful dresses. They were so excited; and honestly, I really looked forward to these teas as well.

As a former special education teacher, I believe in the impact these small acts had on my students. It’s the experiences students truly remember as well as the teachers who created them. As a special ed teacher, I started an annual end-of-the-year tea with my older students in grades 6-8. When time allowed, I taught a summarized history of tea—its Asian origins, impact of colonization, and afternoon tea etiquette. Students were allowed to invite one of their general education teachers and present them with a handwritten invitation. They planned the menu and chose the two teas to prepare and serve. The day of the event, I schlepped tea cups/saucers, teapots, tablecloths, tiered stands, mini quiches, tarts, scones and other treats to the school. Instead of their charter school uniforms, students were allowed to wear dress pants, blazers and colorful dresses. They were so excited; and honestly, I really looked forward to these teas as well. It was a creative outlet from the endless hours of IEP (individualized education program) writing, lengthy IEP meetings, “debates” with general education teachers on their responsibility to also implement students’ IEPs in their classrooms, individual student assessments and collecting academic performance data just to name some of the responsibilities of a special education teacher. Yet, I loved it. I was an advocate for ensuring my students had equal access to the general education curriculum with required accommodations/modifications, supports and services. 

Today, the number of students requiring special education services continues to increase, yet the educators needed to develop their individualized plans and provide instruction are on the decline. On average, special education vacancies tend to be more difficult to fill than those of general education teachers. However, this is not a new situation. To address this concern in the early 2000s, for example, some districts partnered with universities and created alternative certification programs to increase the pool of special education teachers, fill vacancies, and ensure students received a free and appropriate public education (FAPE). Today, factors that solely or in combination contribute to the significant number of nationwide vacancies include:

Significant accountability: Special education teachers (SETs) also functioning as case managers require expertise not only in specially designed instruction but also in special education law and the respective state’s education code, specifically special education policies and procedures to ensure federal and state compliance.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires that SETs write IEPs for every student assigned to their caseload. This involves collaboration with general education teachers and/or specialized instructional support personnel—speech therapist, counselor/social worker, occupational therapist or school nurse, for example—as well as consulting with the English language learner instructor or coordinator for an ELL student with an IEP. This lengthy document includes information on a student’s present levels of performance (academic and functional), assessment data, goals and benchmarks stating what the student is expected to achieve, how this will be achieved, how much will be achieved per quarter/semester, and how this progress will be monitored. Not to mention applicable accommodations/modifications, use of assistive technology and determination of the least restrictive environment.

SETs often teach students in multiple content areas, e.g., math, reading, science, history.

SETs are responsible for redesigning general education assessments to meet the needs of students with IEPs.

SETs are evaluated using the same teacher evaluation as general education teachers, which often lack any components specific to special education teachers in the areas of critique.

SETs are not considered “real” teachers by colleagues and sometimes demeaningly referred to as student tutors.

Despite having significant responsibilities and high levels of state and federal accountability, SETs receive the same salary as their general education colleagues.

SETs are in constant communication with parents regarding IEP implementation, student performance, behavior, and progress monitoring data.

Recommendations

Provide new special education teachers with a mentor, preferably a veteran special education teacher in the same school or within the district. While general education teachers may provide guidance with regard to school culture and parent communication, for example, they do not have knowledge regarding the layers of special education compliance.

Alternative certification programs allow college-educated career changers to earn a master’s degree in special education ensuring a highly qualified and licensed teacher will be providing instruction and lessening the chances of FAPE violations.

Increase the salaries of special education teachers especially those in hard-to-place schools.

Provide continuous professional learning in areas such as:

  • Writing legally defensible IEPs;
  • Addressing behavior problems;
  • Developing skills for communicating with parents;
  • Instructional strategies and intervention; and
  • Assistive technology.

Ultimately, what is the key to retaining individuals in your organization, your school, district and charter school network? Show them they are valued. 

Design-Based Learning: Doing Begins Learning Webinar

From designing thought-provoking, collaborative projects to incorporating real-world scenarios that mirror contemporary civic challenges – all in the context of the student-built Starter City of the Future – participants will discover how DBL elevates the learning experience for K-12 students and provides an alternative to formulaic teaching that nurtures active learning and a deep understanding of community connections among students.

Special Education: Free Lesson Plans and Resources

This curated Share My Lesson collection features some of our favorite prek-12 lesson plans, resources and professional development webinars for working with students and colleagues in the field of special needs education.

Heidi Goger
A passionate advocate on behalf of diverse learners. Experience as an educator, consultant, and district administrator.   Philosophy: Practitioner of equity and social justice.      
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