Burnout and frustration have led to a shortage and massive turnover of teachers who work with special-needs students.
Dr. Laura Bixler, professor of special education at East Central University, is trying to help fix those problems after recently participating in a forum at the State Capitol. The forum was designed to address ways and ideas in limiting that turnover while improving resources and training for teachers in the State of Oklahoma.
The forum was initiated by State Rep. Bobby Cleveland (R-Slaughterville), who was made aware of the struggles after encountering a campaign volunteer who had a disability.
“As a result of spending time with the volunteer who had Tourette’s Syndrome and is on the Autism Spectrum, Representative Cleveland started visiting special education classes,” said Bixler. “Our legislators rarely understand the problems surrounding students with special needs. He realized the importance of special needs teachers in the state and has wanted to bring to light special education.”
Bixler has a vested interest and desire to see improvement in the development and longevity of special education teachers. Not only has she been teaching and working in the special education field for 37 years, her twin brother has special needs and she is the legal guardian of a 5-year-old boy with Tourette’s Syndrome and epilepsy.
“My little boy has been extremely fortunate to have teachers that understand and recognize his strengths and needs, Bixler said.
Teacher shortages in special education has been an ongoing problem for years. Part of it is due to high caseloads, but another is due to the No Child Left Behind Act requirements.
“For example, one graduate student in ECU’s Master’s Program, currently teaches special needs students in a rural school district. In order for her to be “highly qualified” (MCLB), she has to be certified the same as regular teachers in addition to being certified in the area of special education. This has led to her taking eight different subject area tests at a cost of $125 out of her pocket. She has to be certified in English, history, math and science, in addition to special education.”
At the forum, teacher shortages were discussed, according to Bixler.
“The forum gave an opportunity to not only identify concerns, but to offer possible solutions. Fifteen years ago, a volunteer committee developed a blueprint for shortage areas in special education, focusing in the 3 R’s – recruit, retrain and retain,” Bixler said. “It was designed not only for teachers, but for speech therapists, school psychologists and other professionals working in the area of special education. After two years of developing the blueprint, it was submitted to state officials, then put on a shelf and never implemented. The blueprint had excellent ideas that are still applicable to today’s shortage of professionals.”
An idea for recruitment, Bixler believes, is to have high school students earn high school credit by working with special needs students in their high school. This has proved to be an avenue to attract potential careers in the field, according to Bixler.
“We discussed how we can retrain veteran teachers or teachers who didn’t get the training they needed to work with students with disabilities. An example would be to retrain regular teachers to co-teach with special education teachers. This model tears down walls that exist between the different classrooms,” said Bixler. “We need to do a better job of teaching preparation or more development once they’re out of school.”
Though not the ideal situation, ECU does offer one program called a ‘Boot Camp,’ which is an option for earning a teaching certificate in special education, according to Bixler.
“It’s a non-traditional certification route for special ed teachers. If anyone has a degree in any area, they can go to the boot camp,” Bixler said. “If successful, they will earn a one-year provisional certificate. The Boot Camp includes three classes during the summer, along with 30 clock hours in the field/public school. The participants must then continue taking six hours of credit each year for three years. We’ve been offering this boot camp for three years.”
Bixler says working with children who have disabilities is a privilege that should never be taken lightly.
“The demands are high, the pay is low, but the reward is being able to look back and see the impact…one child at a time,” she said.