The Lasting Draw: Why People Still Become Special Education Teachers

Enrollment in teacher preparation programs seems to be decreasing. This has sounded a few alarms. Amid the speculation about causes and the panic about fallout, new enrollees are continuing to arrive in colleges of education. Perhaps against all reason, some of these recruits are signing up to become special education teachers. How is this still a draw?

The enrollment trickle deserves a brief look. A perception of deteriorating conditions in the field might be stopping perspective teachers before they start. Testing requirements for certification could be too much of a barrier for some candidates. States are offering alternate paths to certification, some of which lure non-traditional students who now might balk at four-year programs. At the same time, other fields might be exerting more of a pull.

These factors might have a real effect, but the drop isn’t exclusive to education. The last few years have seen a temporary dip in the number of 18-20 year olds available to enroll in any programs per a birth rate decline in the mid-90s. Also, after a few years of relaxing admission standards, some universities are tightening these, thus creating a drop in overall enrollment (or more accurately, a leveling off). The intimidating costs of any college education could be another deterrent.

Even with these influences affecting admissions, a drop in the number of new teacher candidates still appears to exist relative to decreases in other majors. Colleges of education around the country report dwindling numbers. The surface impression is that the field has lost some status among young people. This shouldn’t come as a shock, considering the steady stream of negative press about it. Sadly, much of it is accurate.

This would seem poised to affect special education disproportionately. It might be the least attractive arena of education for incoming teachers. Many districts consider special education a high-needs area, partly due to the number of students needing complex services, but partly due to relatively small number of candidates willing to be special education teachers. Special education comes with the inherent difficulty of teaching students with disabilities coupled with the most maddening bureaucracy in the field. Everyone knows this from the start.

Unsurprisingly, shortages among special educations teachers predate the current dearth of enrollees. What might be surprising is that shortages aren’t necessarily worsening under this most recent decline. Reports are mixed, as the numbers aren’t evenly distributed across states, universities, or even departments within universities. In some colleges of education, the special education programs are the only ones growing. Applicants for special education teaching jobs are still approaching districts. Certain regions can experience a glut due to the number of graduates coming from teaching programs. At least a few people continue to want to be special education teachers, possibly for reasons that defy rationality.

What draws them? Old arguments might have included somewhat permissive entrance criteria, employability and security, and pay compared with other four-year degrees. Some of these notions have taken a beating. Alternate paths to certification have been springing up just as traditional paths have become bumpier. Employability might be stable in many areas for special education teachers, but job security for all teachers has changed, as many who have been displaced by budget cuts can attest. Yes, these do hit special education teachers too sometimes, especially in districts losing seats to charter schools. Pay has never been a great incentive, but now some sharing industry jobs are creeping up on what a beginning teacher might earn in some states.

Is there anything else? What about autonomy for special education teachers? This has dissolved somewhat per inclusion and the move towards co-teaching and push-in support. How about the small number of students? Ratios still favor special education teachers, but the neediness of students has increased per the amount of service and intervention needed. Aren’t special education teachers exempt from grading? Well, sometimes, but more than half the job is now meetings and paperwork, displacing any work saved.

What could be left? One possibility is young people maintain a vision of supporting students with disabilities that hasn’t yet been tainted but the unsavory aspects of the field. This could be for the best, because it might allow for another remaining attraction to develop: the broad idea of helping others. This might be more of a specific draw in special education than in other teaching disciplines. Elementary and secondary education majors want to positively affect the lives of students as well, the aim being to do so by cultivating independence through skill and content instruction. Special education teachers certainly want to do the same, but there often is an heightened emphasis on the charitable aspects of the field. The desire to work on behalf of people who experience a disadvantage of some kind is characteristic of special education teachers. Many see themselves as being advocates as much as instructors, championing the civil rights of students. Again, this exists for other teachers, but it is deeply embedded in the motivations of many special education teachers.

This might be the root of what continues to draw candidates to the field. It isn’t about the logistics. It’s about a drive to support those who need support. This drive has a rational component, but it also is highly emotional for many. Indeed, some come to the field because of experiences with siblings who have disabilities, or because the candidates themselves have disabilities. Some second-career special education teachers become involved because they have children with disabilities. Religious reasons drive some, as do social-political reasons.

The lasting draw could be that students continue to have special needs and schools continue to need to pay people to teach them. Federal guidelines dictate certain student-to-teacher ratios, so a set number of teachers tends to remain. Still, against all the reasons not to begin a career in special education, candidates step up to do so each year. The reasons above are independent of unfavorable logistics. This could stand to make them independent of at least some of the forces acting on teacher preparation enrollment, resulting in a core of candidates that never diminishes below a particular threshold. The draw remains for those who view the field as more than a vocation.


The Lasting Draw: Why People Still Become Special Education Teachers