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Special Education Addresses Challenges in the Field

by Tom Hanlon / Oct 20, 2020

Special Education student

Special education teachers face huge challenges—and the College of Education at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign is helping individual teachers, and the field, overcome them.

We recently asked Michaelene Ostrosky, Grayce Wicall Gauthier Professor Education and department head of Special Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and her colleague Lisa Monda-Amaya, associate dean for undergraduate programs and professor of Special Education, to speak to three of the many challenges that special education teachers face—and how the College of Education is helping to overcome those challenges.

CHALLENGE #1: There aren’t enough special education teachers in the field, which leads to filling classrooms with under-qualified teachers.

While the state of Illinois recently has been experiencing a serious teacher shortage across all areas of instruction, shortages in the field of special education have existed for quite some time. In fact, special education is an area of greatest need at the state and national level. Nationally, the pool of special education teachers has shrunk by more than 17 percent in the last 10 years, further eroding an already thin crop of teachers. In 2019, a survey of regional superintendents in Illinois schools showed that 85 percent of Illinois districts had issues filling classrooms with qualified teachers. Over half of the state’s 1,000+ unfilled teacher positions are in bilingual and special education. Classrooms are being filled with under-qualified people who don’t have a certificate to teach special education at all, or at least to teach children in the age group they’ve been assigned.

Lisa Monda-Amaya: The College of Education is working diligently to create new programs and provide a variety of opportunities to address teacher shortages. This year we have seen an 11.2% increase in the number of undergraduate students and a 24% increase in the number of freshmen entering the college. In addition, the College has hired a full-time recruiter who will work with us on targeted recruitment efforts in specific areas of need across the state. Further, faculty in the College and the Department have been involved at the state and national level in advocating for policies and practices that to address the shortage.

CHALLENGE #2: COVID-19 presents unique challenges for special education children and their families in remote learning situations.

Children with disabilities, along with their parents, face challenges brought on by the pandemic that other children and parents don’t. Children with disabilities generally need more hands-on support, more attention and help with schoolwork, and assistive technology designed to aid them in their learning, based on their disability; most online platforms are not compatible with such technology. These children also need to have their movement and recreational needs met throughout the day.

Social distancing and remote learning pose their own set of problems for kids with disabilities. For example, some children with Autism Spectrum Disorder find it difficult to develop social skills when they must be socially distant or remain in a remote learning situation.

Parents with kids with disabilities have been asked to take on the role of teacher in remote learning situations—a position they have not been trained for, and one that can add stress to their day as they also try to take care of their own work and home needs.

Michaelene Ostrosky: Remote learning has many challenges for so many students and their families. In special education, we talk about and strongly believe in the importance of individualizing instruction to match the strengths, interests, and needs of our students. This can be extremely difficult in a virtual context. Right now, many of our university students are in field placements where they are providing assistance to professionals who are teaching remotely. Our students are helping create engaging lessons, finding resources that can maximize learning opportunities, and tutoring students who need extra support. None of this is ideal, but we are all doing the best we can, given the pandemic. Teachers, now more than ever, deserve our utmost respect and appreciation. Then, combine this role with being a parent of small children, as many teachers are, and all I can say is that I AM IN AWE of what they are able to do right now.

CHALLENGE #3: Teacher turnover rate is high, and special education teachers are particularly susceptible to burnout.

In 2016, the national shortage of special education teachers numbered 60,000. About 13 percent are leaving their jobs each year; as mentioned earlier, the number of special educations teachers nationally has dropped by more than 17 percent over the last decade.

Michaelene Ostrosky: Yes, teacher burnout or attrition is a huge problem in education, and especially in special education. Reasons that special teachers tend to leave the field include: poor compensation, lack of administrative support, dissatisfaction with their working conditions, lack of opportunities for advancement, and overwhelming pressures from paperwork, testing, and accountability. Preparing future teachers really well is one way to overcome such challenges, as is strong mentoring and coaching, especially during the early years of teaching. Our cohort model of preparing teachers means that Learning Behavior Specialist I students graduate with an already established network of peers to go to for support as they begin their careers. They also have professors with whom they have built strong relationships, and whom they can turn to for ideas, resources, and a friendly shoulder to learn on if needed… and also who welcome hearing about all of their successes as they embark on their careers.