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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.



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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.
  • Kim Quinn

    While not all parents are disconnected saddly many are.  This can be compounded by teachers that become hyperdefensive if we dare to question them.  Sadly I have seen both.  My kids are in middle school now and have been in special ed since age 2.  One of the horrors to me is that at every level I have been told by  teachers, therapist and administrators that it is a constant struggle to get parents to IEP’s.  Why is this?  I believe that parents are intimadated by the whole process.  Picture if you will, a parent, perhaps new to the process, coming to an IEP.  She is faced with a special ed teacher, a regular ed teacher, a speech therapist, an ot, and adaptive pe teacher and administrators.  Then we have to listen as you tell us in detail what is expected on each grade level and how far our kids are below this.  Then you start with recommendations, unfortunately there are usually several that just don’t fit, and there is often discussion, sometimes heated about services or the lack there of.  Unfortunately you teachers hear the worst of it cause you get the blame when most of the blame goes to administrations.  So the system works against both of us.  And I have noticed that as many times as I have offered help with the routine classroom stuff like making copies or putting things away it is usually the regular ed teachers who will take me up on it, not special ed teachers.  So I’m sorry for the hard work you must do but realize we will have this work in parenting our children for the rest of our lives, 24/7. 365 days a year.  And sometimes we feel just as beat up by the system as you do.

    • Atazygal

      A special education classroom must maintain the confidentiality of the students. Volunteers are not always allowed without permission from all parents of the students in the class. Trust me, most special education teachers would welcome the help.

      • Heidi

        I’ve heard this so many times yet special needs students have no more right for privacy than regular ed students – what is the difference really? You do not need permission from all of the typical ed student’s parents to be in their classroom and they have the same confidentiality rights. It’s a system string to keep parents OUT of the special ed classrooms, which is sad.

        • SThomas

          No it isn’t at all a system to keep parents out! Special ed status infers privileged information, much like health/medical information is privileged/private. Not all parents of children with special needs want the neighborhood volunteer knowing that their child gets special help for reading. This can be an extremely sensitive topic to many families.

        • Super SPED 101

          Keep parents out of the special ed classrooms? seriously? I wish oh how I wish I could get more parents in my classroom! Not true for my school.

    • Oscar Staton

      Would love to have you on as panelist on my program Teacher Talk Live this coming Tuesday when our topic will be precisely this…

    • Super SPED 101

      Intimidated? Really? I guess that could be true for some. But I know for a fact many of them start getting that social security check and never talk to the school again. Sadly, a lot of kids I work with, don’t have a father to even come to the school.

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  • Melanie

    Thank you this post. As a 13 year special ed teacher, this post speaks straight to my heart. I have seen many challenges, but the small successes often overshadow the negatives. I also have made some great friendships over the years and still keep in contact with parents. It is often hard to step away because working with children is a very emotional job. Being sensitive to all involved and keeping the students the focus is sometimes difficult, but it a must!
    Thanks again for saying what I know so many special educators feel.

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  • I really appreciate reading this article, and I do realize how important special education teachers are! I often acknowledge my son’s teacher daily!

  • Amy

    Great post! I found this via Pinterest, and am so glad I clicked through to read the post! I’m in my 4th year as a Special Ed teacher and am faced with these challenges on a weekly basis. Thanks for writing this!
    P.S. I’m a Michigan girl myself, born and raised in Remus, and got my BA in Special Ed. from MSU! Go State!

    • Gordj3

      Nobody mentioned about the behaviors we have to deal with.

      • matthewmecham

        Indeed. I have 45 students in my caseload this year, and one full-time aide to help me. Of those 45 students, eight of them have BIPs, and three or four of them have some kind of quasi-major to major incident almost daily. This is my 12th year teaching mild/mod sped, and I am definitely feeling the burn. I told my wife that I am on the two-year reevaluation plan: Every two years, we will reevaluate our savings portfolio, and see if we have made enough money to retire early. Extremely early. I love the kids, and I love teaching, but for God’s sake, if they want me to be a full-time clerk, too, they will have to find somebody else. I am deep-battered and fried.

        • Super SPED 101

          Amen brother. Im up right now working on IEPs and transition plans! We need another person hired to do the paperwork alone.

          • matthewmecham

            Dude. I hate the sound of transition plans — they seem awful. As an elementary teacher, I have never had to do one. You have my sympathy.

  • shpresa

    Special education in public schools in Albania has little tradition. There exist and special schools, but in most of the country has no special schools. Pupils with special needs integrated in general education schools and teachers teach not have the opportunity to build a program to vecante.Mesuesit are not trained for this area, but psychologists in schools do not have adequate experience to treat children such or to help teachers. Teacher does not help teachers to work with pupils with special needs. These students remain forgotten in the classroom. Even their parents have no due diligence to be sent to a doctor, psychologist, therapist, because they live in rural areas and have no money for vizita.Ata there are plenty of enthusiasm for the health of their children.

    Your experience is very useful for the teachers’ work with these students. But many would love, passion, patience and preparation.
    Thanks for understanding

  • Bonnie Carney, COTA/L

    As an OT Assistant in public education, I am very grateful to you for analyzing the challenges you face in such a clear manner.   It is a great service to do so because the confusing nature of the job responsibilities and situations you face each day can be appreciated by others so much more when they are presented clearly.   

  • AmyC

    I could write a novel.  My school wants to move my son to another school.  He’s 7 and Autistic.  He does not have behavior issues, he just needs extra help.  They gave me one option and I requested more and clearly stated I was not uprooting him this late in the school year.  The next meeting I’m told I don’t have a choice and we “voted”.  I of course disagreed.  We just had another meeting last week.  One lady in the meeting asked what I wanted them to do with my son the rest of this school year.  I said “Do your job and continue teaching him.”  She replied “So you want us to babysit him?”  I’ve been dealing with that type of nonsense all year.  I have had 2 district employees tell me to file a complaint regarding how unprofessional they are in these meetings.  She said she felt they were bullying me.  I have been trying to frantically find out how to handle this and handle it the right way. It’s stressful and parents shouldn’t have to be put in these positions. 🙁

    • Anne

      get an advocate

    • Sped teach

      Maybe it’s their way of telling you they can give him what he really needs so they are placing him in his LRE. Which means, they are doing their job. Helping to give him what educational helps him most. It’s not a one box fits all kind of de and not every school has what ever kid needs. Start working with them and not fighting them.

      • Jason

        It’s a very unprofessional way of saying such a thing. That person should be fired immediately. We don’t need SPED teachers getting a bad rap because of ignorant people like that. And telling the parent they are simply baby sitting him is not — I repeat NOT — doing their job.

    • spyhopper

      At you next meeting put an 8 x 10 picture of your student on the table with 3 to 5 strengths written in large print underneath the photo. It is a very simple strategy that will really help to focus the meeting on your son. (I often use this to help parents and other team members stay focused on why we are meeting).

    • Super SPED 101

      We deal with a lot of parents whose children do require a change of placement sometimes. It’s usually difficult for the parents involved to accept that their child requires services that the general education school with inclusion services is not equipped to handle. I don’t know your specific case, but sometimes you have to accept that a student may benefit from a smaller setting with a modified curriculum. I’m not saying this applies to your son; just a point to ponder.

  • Lindamayer3056

    I am a special education teacher in CO and very grateful to be in a Title I school in which both administrators are very supportive, encouraging, and present. I teach all day (except when there are IEP meetings to attend and data to collect) and do my evaluation scoring and writing and IEP writing at night and on the weekends from home. I am fortunate enough to be single with grown children, but find, at times, I wish I had the nights and weekends to do what people in the normal work world do on their nights and weekends. As I pondered this I had to wonder how many people in this day and age have to do exactly what I am doing in order to keep up with their jobs. I may be more like the rest of the work world than I think. I know the neighbor lady who is a general education teacher is home doing her planning during these times too. I am in my 4th year of teaching special ed and hoping I am not on the way to burn out. I continually try to figure out ways to make my work load more efficient without sacrificing what needs to be done in the best interests of the child. Any suggestions from other special ed teachers on being more efficient would be greatly appreciated.

  • Ana Garcia

    I”m a general ed teacher… but my heart, my appreciation and my love goes out to all special ed teachers out there. They do an amazing job! The amount of work that goes into those IEP’s… they get kicked, pushed, spat on… and they show up every day ready TO TEACH!!!!

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  • Becks

    …and they also get accused of “bullying” parents, often when the IEP Team’s opinion of what is in the student’s best interest diverges from the parent’s idea of such and there’s some appropriate push back from said Team. Don’t forget that. Teachers are paid to have a professional opinion about education matters… then are all-too-often slammed when they provide it.
    There’s not enough money in the world to make me want to sign up for that kind of time-wasting silliness. Tip of the hat to all Special Educatiors everywhere!

  • MkMarissa

    You must have just read my mind! I have a self contained autism classroom and it sounds like you teach resource, but the challenges seem almost exactly the same. Yesterday which was a Saturday, I spent 8 hours on 1 IEP (yes I’m from Texas). Last week I worked at least 12 hours a day. 7 with students, 5 on paper work. I will not give up. I love my students too much!

  • stephreno

    ok….I am at the burnout stage now….last year I had an administrator that put me over the edge…micromanaging, calling himself an “expert” in special ed…and all under the direction of a female principal who would rather put down than build up…now this is my 22nd year as sped teacher and every day is getting harder to do the job…see, it is like this: most of us went into this field cause we have big hearts and tons of compassion…yet the students often don’t really care about their education, and their parents do the easiest thing…take their frustration out on the teachers….so I am out of here…I am going to find something else to do now…good riddins to those administrators who ruin public education…

    • 15 year teacher

      I’m not far behind you, my dear. Administration who will not appreciate nor listen. They don’t want to be bothered. Of course, there are exceptionally kind and caring administrators out there. I’m wearing out from extensive paperwork that eats away my evenings. I’m tired and feeling hopeless, but still love teaching the children.

      • Paul Goodman

        This is my 11th year in sped and fourth year in elementary sped. The paperwork is driving me up the wall and I feel that doing any part of my job with excellence is impossible. I love my school, love the teachers, love the kids, but the expectations to keep all the balls juggling in the air is impossible…

    • Super SPED 101

      I totally feel you. It seems to be the same situation nationwide I think.


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