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The short supply of special education teachers

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WORLD Radio - The short supply of special education teachers

Experts say the rising demand for special education teachers is not being met with enough supply


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MARY REICHARD, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: Special education.

The numbers of students who qualify for special ed jumped 1 ½% over the past ten years.

As their numbers rise, there may not be enough teachers qualified to meet their needs. WORLD’s Lauren Dunn reports.

LAUREN DUNN, REPORTER: Sara Baillie Gorman is associate professor of special education and the director of education operations at Trinity Christian College. One of her courses is called “Disability in Chicago.”

GORMAN: This past semester, at the beginning of my class, I said, Okay, I'd love to know why you're here. And I want you to be honest about it. Why are you in this class about disability? And all but one student told me, it was the only one that fit in my schedule, I have no interest in disability.

But by the end of the semester, Gorman said several students changed their majors. At least one decided to go into special education.

Gorman’s class is one of several that fulfill a requirement for all Trinity students. By offering her class to students of any major, the school introduces more students to the field of special education.

And the field needs more prospective teachers.

Laurie VanderPloeg is the associate executive director for professional affairs at the Council for Exceptional Children. She previously headed up the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs.

VANDERPLOEG: Much of the research is showing us that, you know, if we don't put some significant interventions in place to mitigate this special education shortage issue, that by 2025-2026 school year, there could be a shortfall of around 200,000 public school teachers. And many of the states are reporting that within their open positions, about 45% of those are special education positions.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates there will be over 37,000 more job openings in special education by 2030 than there were in 2020.

Lynn Roper is the assistant professor of special education and the special education program coordinator at Cedarville University.

ROPER: I'm out every semester doing supervision. And the things that I see is that you're dealing and not just through the pandemic, this was before the pandemic, a lot more emotional, and behavioral needs of students, you're doing a lot more with meeting a variety of needs.

At Cedarville University, about 35 students are preparing to be special education teachers. About 9 students graduate from the program each year. Graduates are prepared to work with students with mild to moderate disabilities, typically learning disabilities, emotional disabilities, or speech and language needs.

In spite of additional student needs in classrooms, Roper says many special education teachers aren’t receiving extra support.

ROPER: Special educators are asked to be in inclusive classrooms co teaching, then they're asked to be pulling students out and supporting them in a separate classroom, or in the back of a classroom. We have higher and higher numbers of students that we’re responsible for as special educators. And there's just no way with the variety of needs that students have, that if you have a classroom of 20, you're going to be able to meet all the needs of those 20 students.

And those who choose the special education field may not remain there long. One study found that twice as many special education teachers leave the profession as teachers overall.

Sara Baillie Gorman, the Trinity Christian College professor, says that paperwork and meetings add more to teachers’ already full plates.

GORMAN: You're in an IEP meeting instead of in your classroom, you're in a curriculum meeting instead of in your classroom. And a lot of teachers feel burnt out. The reason and the amazing gift of being a teacher is seeing your student learn something interacting, building those relationships, and when that part is taken away, and you get other things to do a lot of that reinforcement, and that joy of teaching can be taken away.

But for Christian teachers going into special education, the job takes on a deeper meaning.

GORMAN: In the Bible, Jesus often reached out to those who were needing extra support, whether that be having leprosy, or you know, variety of ailments, for lack of a better word, according to how it's described in the Bible. This often was how Jesus interacted with the public. And so it's hard to think of a more Christian perspective of how to live your life than to continue to care for those individuals, just like the Bible showed that Jesus did.

This is a calling that Roper says more Christian colleges are preparing to meet.

ROPER: When I graduated from a Christian college, not Cedarville, in 1988, we did not have a special ed program at that point. So in the last 34 years, you know, that has changed. I think Christian schools are realizing that is a need.

In the meantime, Laurie VanderPloeg says many states are looking at temporary fixes, trying to fill positions right now. But she worries that this problem won’t be going away anytime soon.

VANDERPLOEG: I think we need to have a very large national campaign around elevating the profession, and really changing the perception so that we can put effective attraction strategies in place, you know, to really attract more people into the profession.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Lauren Dunn.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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