Teacher Attrition in Special Education: Perspectives From the Field

Nov. 01, 2018

Source: Teacher Education and Special Education, Volume: 41 issue: 4, page(s): 277-291

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

Given the limitations of using surveys to learn about attrition of new special education teachers, the authors claim that it is important that additional research using techniques beyond surveys investigates the complex reasons why new special education teachers are more likely to leave the field. In this study, the authors used a nominal group technique (NGT) series of focus groups to better understand the high attrition rates of new special education teachers.
In this study, they included three specific groups, (preservice special education teachers, new special education teachers, and school administrators), that help to inform the understanding of teacher attrition and the potential differences in perception that may exist between these different groups.

Research Questions
Using these three groups, the research questions guiding this study were as follows:
• Why do new special education teachers leave the field?
• What roles/responsibilities are expected of first-year special education teachers?
• What supports are provided to new special education teachers?


The authors report that of the 87 potential participants agreeing to participate, 52 attended the focus groups: 22 preservice, 18 new teachers, and 12 administrative school personnel.
The Nominal group technique (NGT) focus group method was selected by the authors over other techniques (e.g., individual interviews, survey) because focus groups provide participants with a safe environment where participants can build off of other’s ideas and are an effective method for gathering information where little research has previously been conducted.
The NGT focus group procedures used by the authors consisted of a set of previously developed questions focusing on the training needs, supports, and perceived responsibilities of new special education teachers.

Results and Discussion
The authors report that several important commonalities emerged across the different groups.
Between the three groups there was considerable agreement among the top five items generated and ranked for each question. For example, all groups identified stress and lack of recognition or support as the major reasons why new special educators would leave the field.
In addition, all groups identified mentorship and specialized training as supports they receive (or expect to receive) during their first year of teaching.
Finally, all groups identified the primary roles of special educators to include planning and teaching, managing behaviors, and crisis intervention.
The authors felt that collectively, these commonalities are positive because it suggests administrators are aware of the some of the challenges, roles, and supports provided to and expected of new special education teachers and there is evidence to suggest that perceived support of administrators can help to alleviate some of the stress of new special education teachers.
However, along with these common themes, the authors noted that some differences emerged across the different groups.
First, administrators were less likely to list issues with caseload or lacking specialized training as reasons why special educators might leave their position.
This was in contrast to both preservice and new special educators who indicated that both difficult caseloads and lack of training were top reasons why special educators would leave a job.
Some participants indicated that specialized training related to high needs students could have alleviated some of these stressors.
For others, the number of students on their caseload contributed to difficulty with scheduling that impacted their ability to perform other job responsibilities or resulted in them needing to make hard decisions when crises arose.
The authors felt that this difference among groups is a concern because research has documented that caseload is correlated to attrition rates in special education and severity of student needs can influence teacher perception of effectiveness (e.g., Russ, Chiang, Rylance, & Bongers, 2001).

The authors also noted that participants’ responses to Research Question 3 presented additional differences among teachers and administrators.
For example, new special education teachers were the only group to indicate that being assigned a paraeducator was a major resource to help them with their first year.
Specifically, new special educators listed paraeducators or assistants as the most important resource or support they were given in their first few years of teaching.
This was in contrast to preservice teachers and administrators who indicated that mentoring was the most important support provided.
This suggests that new special education teachers highly value the access to additional professionals who can help with their daily tasks and roles as opposed to a person to ask questions or seek support from, indicating that many of these new teachers are in “survival” mode and feel the need to complete the tasks in front of them, and paraeducators can help them address those tasks in a more practical and immediate way than a mentor can.

The authors suggest that administrators should consider this when looking at budgets because it appears that new special educators may benefit as much from supports to help them complete the tasks already in front of them, as opposed to new professional development, curricula, or training.
From the preliminary findings in this pilot study, the authors suggest that mentors may not best fit within the first few years when teachers are more likely to be overwhelmed with new tasks asked of them.
Based on this study, it is possible that new special education teachers view formal mentoring as another task to complete or something that negatively affects their ability to work on more pressing matters such as paperwork, lesson planning, and attending multidisciplinary team (MDT) meetings.
The authors note that together, these findings suggest that teachers in more challenging situations (e.g., special education, low-income schools, schools with high teacher attrition) may simply have more to learn because of the challenging situations they encounter in their positions. As a result, it is possible that second to fifth year mentoring may have a larger impact on attrition and student outcomes than first-year mentoring.

Further Research
Although this study helps to illuminate some of the struggles faced by new special education teachers and the differences in perception across preservice teachers, new teachers, and administrators, the authors recommend future research to replicate and extend these findings.
For example, replication of this study with larger samples from varying regions would help to further describe the perceived roles and expectations of new special education teachers while also understanding how these perceptions may differ when compared with administrators.
Likewise, more information about the difference in perception between preservice and new special educators could help to determine programs or experiences that better prepare new special educators for the challenging job ahead.

Russ, S., Chiang, B., Rylance, B. J., & Bongers, J. (2001). Caseload in special education: An integration of research findings. Exceptional Children, 67, 161-172. 

Updated: Jul. 28, 2019