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BY Melissa

The Top 10 Challenges of Special Education Teachers

The attrition, or “burn-out,” rate for special education teachers is extremely high compared to most other professions. 50% of special education teachers leave their jobs within 5 years. Half of those who make it past 5 years will leave within 10 years. This equates to a 75% turnover rate every 10 years (Dage, 2006).

The Reasons

Special education is a very challenging field. Here are the top 10 stressors of being a special education teacher (not listed in any particular order).

Have any other challenges to share? Tell us about them in the comments.

Unappreciated Teacher1. Lack of appreciation

I recently heard of a study that researched why there is such a high turnover rate for special education, with the researchers believing their findings would indicate the paperwork aspect of special education. However, they were surprised to learn it was a more emotional component. Special education teachers, in most instances, do not get as much appreciation as their general education colleagues.

In a time where ALL teachers are working to validate their jobs – special educators are on overdrive. So – if you know a special education teacher, be sure to let them know you love them!

I Support Teachers2. Parent support

Knowing I am writing on a blog whose readers are mostly parents, I was hesitant to include this but knowing it is one of the hardest parts of my job, felt I had to.

I’ve written before on the importance of bridging the gap between home and school. I know the vital importance of establishing a positive relationship with parents – I quickly feel defeated when that doesn’t immediately happen. I am often so discouraged when parents do not return my phone calls, respond to emails, or even read the notes I send home.

I hate sitting in an IEP Meeting and listening to a parent tell me as long as their 4th grade daughter is pretty and skinny, she’ll be okay in this world (Yes, true story!). My heart breaks when a child who was once so motivated to do well no longer cares because their parents do not value education and have expressed as much to their child.

The challenges of a special educator3. Public support

“You have the easiest job in the world!”

“I wish I had summers off!”

“What do you have to complain about?”

Bashing teachers and their jobs has become the new form of media entertainment. It has rained especially hard on special education teachers. Teaching is hard, teaching is important, and teaching is deserving of an actual salary with benefits. Special education is necessary, special education is an actual form of teaching, and special education is special. Please show your support for ALL teachers!

Paperwork4.  Paperwork

Sometimes, I feel I have no time to teach because I am dealing with paperwork and meetings. For any parent who has seen an IEP, they are easily 10-20 pages. I once received an IEP from Texas that was 56 pages long! That takes time and a tremendous amount of consideration.

Additionally we have our lesson planning, report cards, progress reports, signing of REEDs and addendum’s, medicaid billing forms, and so much more. As a special education teacher – you have to just embrace the paperwork.

Scheduling5. Scheduling

I have to coordinate my schedule with 15 different teachers and their schedules, and that’s not including coordinating with the physical education teacher, art teacher, and the music teacher.

I must account for recess and lunch when creating my resource schedule and I have to be considerate of our speech pathologists, occupational therapists, and physical therapists schedules.

It can take me 2 full weeks at the beginning of the school year to get a schedule in place for myself and my students. And then that schedule is frequently interrupted by students being added to my caseload or dismissed from my caseload.

After the schedule is finally set comes classroom parties, assemblies, a switch in computer lab times. Any minor change in a general education teacher’s schedule is enough to change my entire day and often my entire week.

How To Be A Parapro6. Training and supervising paraprofessionals

Working with two other adults who are there to help me can be extremely beneficial. I am so thankful for my aides and couldn’t do my job without them.

The challenge is that it also adds a considerable amount of work for me as well. On top of my schedule and my student’s schedule, I also create a daily schedule for my “paras”. Usually this setup also requires that I first teach my aides so my students can be taught.

It gets even more challenging if the aides have a different opinion than I do or challenge a certain aspect of the job. As someone who is much younger than both of my aides, it is hard to feel “in charge.” In the end, I must value their advice and opinions so we can all work as a team but also realize that the pressure is on me to make sure things get done correctly because I am the one responsible, not my paraprofessionals.

Collaborating with general education teachers7. Collaborating with general education teachers

As a special education resource teacher, I have to know the general education curriculum so I can support my students and their needs. I teach students in five different grade levels and therefore, am responsible for knowing 5 different curriculums.

I have to collaborate with the teachers of all my students to make sure I am supporting what is being taught in the classroom and supplementing my own resources. Finding the time to talk to each teacher is extremely important and extremely challenging. Being organized enough to do so is also a very difficult task.

Data Collection8. Data collection

Data collection is huge in special education. I need to be able to validate everything I do and make sure it coincides with everything in the student’s IEP.

If I say a child is still struggling in a certain area, I need proof to back up my claim. I need the general education teachers on board with me as well because I have to ask them to collect data for the times I am not in the classroom with the student. I have to keep track of and monitor all this data, understand its implications for that child’s educations, and adjust instruction accordingly.

Student Growth9. Evidence of student growth

Student growth is now a part of all teachers’ evaluations in order to hold teachers more accountable. It is a double-edged sword. Without question, it is critical that teachers are effective in the classroom and students are learning from the instruction provided. On the other side, we know not all assessments are valid indicators of student growth.

For students with special needs, I have learned to celebrate the smallest of accomplishments. Their growth is not going to be as fast or as noticeable as their general education peers. However, it is progress! Sometimes, it is very hard for people to recognize the successes of a student when they are constantly comparing them to the best and brightest of the class. This is only doing a disservice to the student, not the special education teacher.

 Variability of student’s needs10. Variability of student’s needs

In all classes, you will see students who are at different ability levels, learn in different ways, and understand concepts at different times. Differentiated instruction and individualized teaching practices are challenging for all teachers. It gets even more difficult in a special education, multi-aged classroom.

Final Thoughts

These challenges are all equally difficult and when combined, as they often are on a daily basis, almost impossible to juggle.

On most days, I feel like I’m part of the juggling act in a circus. But – despite the hardships I’ve faced in my two years of teaching – I’m determined to beat the odds and not be a statistic.

Special education is my calling and I will retire an old woman loving my job as much as I do now.




Written on February 1, 2012 by:

Melissa Ferry is a special education teacher for Mt. Pleasant Public Schools. She earned her bachelor's degree from Michigan State University with an endorsement in learning disabilities. Melissa is continuing her education at Central Michigan University in pursuit of a Master's Degree. Prior to her career as a teacher Melissa volunteered at Friendship Circle for seven years.
  • rapid ralph

    the children come first…the parents may need to see more clearly what is happening that enable their child’s development

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  • Elpidius Mulenga

    A lot need to be done to change the picture of the special education teachers because their work is noble and hence needs support from Governments and other private sector.It is worth acknowledging that human rights should be enjoyed by everyone and if the special education teachers are not supported they will not work as expected and this my humble to the world.

    • 15 year teacher

      Thank-you, Elpidius. Even a kind word from a stranger makes me feel better about my work. I’m so exhausted from working nights and weekends on interpreting psychological reports and writing the IEP’s. Elementary SPED is the worst. These children need us to plan creative lessons for them, but all our non-instructional time is spent trying to get people to meetings and documenting everything we do. Evenings and weekends are spent typing IEP’s on our own time. It bothers me greatly that every teacher at the 15 year mark with my educational degree is paid the same salary…this includes the PE teacher. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate PE teachers, but they don’t do any paperwork at all!

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  • lmpatin

    This is right on!

  • MaryP

    I am a Special Education aide I was assaulted by a student that the teachers pushes off on me
    Everyday.what should I do help

    • FDC

      As a former elementary general ed teacher who has taught special ed, moderate to severe students with autism, I see how both populations have their challenges. I have been a teacher now 25 years, and I only have 5 students this year 2014-2015 school year, and I have worked to some degree harder than I did when I had a class of 25-30! My biggest exhausting issues are getting the special ed assistants-one in particular-to show up and stop abusing her break times. The other is common sense issues that some of the parents overlook for their children. On the issue of the assistants, my administration continues to say, “Document,” but I’m tired of the writing practice and I never see action being taken to improve the program.
      Teachers, students, and parents are impacted negatively when what appears so simple to remedy becomes a big mountain to climb.
      And, I feel my administrators want me to solve all the issues.
      Does anyone out there have any ideas to address the assistants? I’ve tried meetings and they work for about 20 minutes but they continue to do whatever they want and get away with it. Therefore, that is one major reason for me to think after 5 years it’s time to go back to general education.

  • spyhopper

    Melissa ~ I’ve been a special education teacher for 34 years and I feel like you’ve read my mind! I stumbled into blog looking for some facts for a course I’m taking on Coaching and Mentoring (in addition to teaching, I mentor new special education teachers). I’m going to print your post to help my mentees understanding that they are not alone in what they are feeling. Thank you for writing!!! And, yes, I live and breathe this. I had 3 IEPs this last week and 2 the week before. One afternoon this week I consoled a crying student who didn’t want to go to day care after school, went in and held an IEP meeting with two wonderful parents, and their son, and then called CPS regarding yet another student. Just another day in the life…

  • isaac ssebitosi

    Mellisha thank for the good job you are doing!

  • Nikki Heiman

    I am a parent of a child with special needs and also a special education teacher. You NAILED IT! I’ve been searching for alternate careers for a few years now. Great Post!

  • Courtney

    Both of my children are in Special Ed for Speech Delays and I have nothing but the utmost respect for their speech, occupational, and special ed teacher’s! I will be forever grateful for them! 🙂 I highly respect you all! You’re very much appreciated!

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  • Fight2Fly

    I teach in a self-contained E/BD program with high school students… I wish half of these items made my top ten.

  • Tyler M

    Great post! Thank you for writing this, I saw it all in my days as a special ed student in high school and many teachers inspired me and helped me so much and shaped me in to the person I am today. I am in my junior year of college and looking to be a high school bio teacher but possibly helping in special education in some capacity! Again awesome work!

  • Breanna G

    I found this blog post to be very informative as a future educator. I am currently in graduate school working towards my early education teaching license with a possible endorsement in special education. When I tell people what I am in college for I get one of two responses: I could never have that much patience or they see some classes as babysitting/daycare. I always like to hear from people that are in field and give first hand unedited perspective. In general I believe like most that all teacher have the same pressures with lack of parent support, loads of paperwork, and trying to meet and collaborate with the teachers in the school. Also the fact that students are coming in with so many needs. In the school district that I grew up in there is not only are there educational special need issues, but also family issues that students bring with them to school everyday that could also effect their learning on top of any special need issues that need to be addressed. A lot is put onto teachers to help students all alone, when in fact it is a team job that needs teacher, parent, student, community, and administration support to be effective.

  • Oscar Staton

    We will be having a talk on precisely this topic on Tuesday, May 26th 7:30 PM Eastern! Let’s discuss solutions!

  • Oscar Staton

    Ms. Ferris, can you come on my show this coming Tuesday? Would love your views!

  • para

    As a parapro I have to teach, babysit with all the students in resource room and inclusions. The teacher does paperwork and will claim that a student cannot do this or that and will tell you not to teach as child is unlearnable although you have taught them to read simple books and addition. I am kicked, pinched ,slapped , spit on, and the teacher stays behind her desk or is “meeting” with other teachers. Parapros know the students and their capabilities more so than teachers as they work with the students all day except for 30 minutes check out on the clock lunch(usually not even that). Rarely are we asked what as student can or is capable of doing, teachers sometimes will test students but if you work with students you understand that they are usually shy and not comfortable with people that they do not spend much time with and will not cooperate for the test and will receive bad test scores because of that. Teachers need to appreciate paras and
    understand that they are the ones actually working with the students. It is frustrating to hear that a student can or cannot do this or that and it is written in their IEPS when you know that it is not the truth. Teachers please work with you’d students and paras to help the children!

  • zarah

    Wow,your experience are very useful and effective for all teachers.All it points are quite important to everyone.Thanks for the sharing.
    Zarah from Edubilla

  • Collin Starks

    Great information! I have the exact top ten challenges you mentioned! Great to know I am not alone! Today was one of those days….from an email from a parent wondering if her child is challenged enough (varieties of students’ need), to general education teacher saying, “I don’t have time to do this” (if only they spent a day in my shoes), to the second week of school and still trying to adjust my scheduling to accommodate other teachers’ schedules and add in a few more new students!

  • In a period where ALL instructors are attempting to approve their occupations – uncommon teachers are on overdrive. So – on the off chance that you know a custom curriculum educator, make certain to tell them you adoret……..

  • ann

    I am in my 22nd year of teaching special education. One of the biggest obstacles for me is that I am being forced to use specific teaching strategies to teach reading, writing or math as it is done in general education. I am not supposed to draw on my experience,knowledge and strategies to help my students achieve. Another, upsetting thing is meeting for planning with general educators. While I do believe it is important to know what is happening in general ed, my time could be better spent meeting with other special educators. The meetings also leave me feeling depressed because often my students are far from where the gen ed students are.

    • matthewmecham

      I understand completely. I had someone from the district office come by room last week. I am not sure at all what this person’s job is, but she spent an unnecessary amount of time going over my resource students’ SAGE test results, and showing me that while they did better than average in some areas in our district (compared to other sped students), they did lower than average in other areas, and compared to students not in resource. Hmmmmm . . . duh? These kids have learning disabilities, and when you compare there test scores to general ed. test scores, and then harrow up a sped teacher’s soul because his students’ scores are lower . . . all I could do was think,”Take those test results and . . . well, put them in an uncomfortable spot.” Another point is this — I have TOMES of data that show that almost every single kid in my caseload made considerable progress in reading, writing and math from their beginning-of-the-year baseline, but that “crap” doesn’t matter. All that seems to matter in this district is the holy SAGE scores. Sorry. Just very bitter right now.

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  • Win

    I would like to hear the system she has created for herself because my system is NOT working 🙁

    • Nataly Trump

      Mine too(

  • Ashley Casterline

    This post is so true. I’m not a teacher yet (college student) but have had discussions with many special education teachers who view these as their top struggles and I have seen some of these featured in articles and just reading online. On the public support idea though I’ve received a vast majority of constant support for my decision to go into the field with people saying about ‘Wow! What a good profession to go into you must have a lot of patience’ or something like ‘You’re going to do a great job, those students need someone like you to teach them. It’s so important for them to get a good education’. I don’t know about other communities but at least in my area there is always a great deal of respect and admiration for those going into Special Education teaching and just teachers in general (or at least for the ones who care and do their jobs), and I wish others would receive the same support.

  • Tawni

    I also believe that collaboration with general education teachers is a very important aspect of teaching special education. SPED teachers have to know content in grades k-6 to keep students as on track as possible with what is being taught in gen ed classrooms.

  • hjkll

    Most Special Education teachers are indeed underappreciated, but like in all fields I cannot say everyone is very good at their job. I have a unique perspective being an ELA teacher and a special education parent. I was also raised by a mother who was a special education teacher for 30 years. When I go into an IEP meeting sometimes I find myself noticing and bringing up things in my son’s language acquisition which even those present do not yet admit are present. I have meet some who are very pushy (one got angry that I didn’t answer my cell phone right away because I was teaching a class even though I called her that same afternoon), and many who jump to conclusions (I took my son out of a program when he was 3 because the teacher told me he would never talk, read, or participate in regular activities with other children… she condemned a three year old and I took him out. He currently speaks, reads most grade-level books, and participates in karate). There are some who just don’t belong in the field, and if these folks are leaving because they realize that’s the case, then it’s a good thing. If someone’s heart is not in it, it’s not a job they can do. It’s not the type of job for everyone.
    This year my son has a wonderful special education teacher in his class who challenges him and assigns him homework. She sets high standards and works with him using several visuals. The special education teacher at my school (my son’s in elementary and I teach high , so they are two different schools) is also wonderful. She is constantly asking how certain students are performing in my class and when someone is struggling she works with me to try to get that student back on track. Great Special Education teachers are worth their weight in gold! As for those who leave the field, I don’t blame them, but at the same time it’s not the job for everyone.

  • Andy Cap

    Why are teachers in need of so much when they are knowingly getting into a field that must require a ton of care, understanding and support on their part regarding the children they teach? My opinion, for the money and that’s simply not enough of a reason because you get a result described in this article above!

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  • I like how you ended saying you are in this til the end. I sometimes get super stressed out and find a hard time finding a work life balance, but I can’t see myself doing anything else.

    One thing I would add is a mix of two of the things you put. Between feeling underappreciated at work and the public thinking you have a chill job….a lot of times students and fellow teachers think you have the easiest job and it can be really aggravating given how much time I put in on nights and weekends and summers LOL.

    Thanks for the post

  • Qtips

    Back in the day, parents and students used to respect teachers and the education system. The ability to go to school was seen as a privilege, not a right. Now the roles are reversed. The amount of children with special needs is rising, parents are becoming more informed and empowered via the internet, and the system is becoming more litigious all the time. As someone who works in Special Ed, I can tell you that no one I work with is trying to deny a child the care and services they deserve. We all go into this profession because we want to help and make a difference, and often spend countless hours outside of work to make that happen. Oftentimes I will go to an IEP meeting and an advocate will try to tell me that they know how to perform my job better than I do. They will fight for increased services against my recommendation. I am not trying to decrease services because I want to deny a child, but because the time increases are not warranted and do not ensure that the child will be more independent or functional. What they will do, though, is add stress to my already full caseload and take away from the other 39 kids I am providing services to. If I wanted to screw people over, there are a lot of other fields I could have gone into. If more parents and advocates understood that we are not trying to take something from them, the world would be a much better place…


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