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«SPECIAL EDUCATION TEACHERS AND WORK STRESS: EXPLORING THE COMPETING INTERESTS MODEL By LARRY DEAN BUSH JR A dissertation submitted in partial ...»

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Other teachers talk about this issue in terms of boundaries and unstated “rules.” One veteran teacher commented, “You have to work within the boundaries given, whether or not you like them that’s not the point.” Another veteran teacher stated, “I don’t buck the system. It’s easier to follow the rules and be happy. I don’t like conflict. I will do anything to avoid conflict.” Often this dynamic makes the relationships one sided: “It’s like you work for the teachers, as well as the parents, and the kids, where it should be more collaborative. That has changed some as we had some retirement in the old guard.” Another veteran teacher reported it was important to gauge the rate of change carefully and to understand when to challenge the informal rules: “You need to be able to read how far can you push; it’s more of a negotiating thing. There’s no magic potion, but you’ve got to know.” The inability to assess the informal rules creates ambiguity and fosters anxiety and frustration in novice teachers. One novice teacher stated, “There are no teachers outside of special education. In college they teach you it's state law, but general education teachers do not come to meetings and refuse to give accommodations.” Another novice teacher explained how the informal rules fostered anxiety, “Learning the lay of the land, learning what’s acceptable and what’s not, how to approach certain things, there’s a lot of anxiety behind those issues.” Learning the lay of the land requires novice teachers to assess different perspectives, identify the schools informal authority figure, and determine how to build relationships within the boundaries created by the different perspectives.

Many novice and veteran special education teachers reported the the different philosophies, boundaries, and hierarchies tends to isolate them from the larger school context.

One veteran reflected upon the isolation of his position, “I’m really an island. A one man show.” Isolation tends to foster anxiety and increase stress. One novice teacher reflected upon the anxiety and isolation created by her position, “It’s really nerve racking knowing you’re the only one who knows anything about special education. There’s really no one else to talk to out here.” Often novice and veteran teachers find it difficult to find the necessary supports to complete their work. One veteran teacher reported, “I don’t have anybody else to fall back on about questions.” In summary, special education teachers work in an ambiguous, contentious, and challenging environment. The novice and veteran teachers in this study underscored the importance of understanding the different perspectives, boundaries, and hierarchies unique to dual culture workplaces. Novice teachers were much more likely to report anxiety associated with understanding what is acceptable and to distance themselves from the larger school context.

On the other hand, veteran teachers underscored the importance of accurately assessing different perspectives to identify the schools informal authority figure. Identifying the informal authority figure reduces anxiety, conflict, and fosters integration into the larger school context.

Keeping Peace in the Family – Supervising Paraeducators Special education teachers work closely and frequently with paraeducators. Both novice and veteran teachers reported directly supervising multiple paraeducators. Often they describe paraeducator relationships as the most intimate, complex, and challenging relationships to build and manage. Paraeducator supervision is one of the unique special education teacher challenges (Billingsley & Tomchin, 1992).

The comments of veteran teachers in this study indicate paraeducator supervision approximates the dynamics and challenges of a family. One veteran teacher explained, Last year was a very stressful year. We have people who have been in this classroom as long as I have and people that are new coming in and eager to do stuff and stepping on toes. Everybody comes to me with their problems. You can only take so much. Last year

–  –  –

Veteran teachers reported poor relationships with or between para educators reduces the effectiveness of instructional activities. Another veteran teacher echoed the importance of strong

relationships with paraeducators:

I respect and admire tremendously all my paras. I try to talk to the para and if it doesn’t work, then we move em. The students will sense dissension and they will feast on it like

–  –  –

Paraeducator relationships often represent long-term relationships. A veteran commented, “We were a wonderful team. We started during the diaper changing days, and then I convinced her that she could teach academics. We worked for 22 years together until she passed away with cancer.” Veteran teachers report paraeducators are instrumental to their work and a fundamental member of the team. Another veteran teacher expressed the importance of paraeducators, “I work with three wonderful paraeducators. They are irreplaceable.” While all novice teachers reported supervising paraeducators, a few novice teachers reported their age and experience made supervising paraeducators difficult. One novice teacher described her experience, I didn’t realize coming straight out of college I would be in charge of paraeducators.





Sometimes that’s draining to me, cause especially as a first year teacher, I’m 24 years old, I’m going to a woman who has a daughter my age, going to another one that has grand kids and I am directing them. That’s a very awkward stance to take. I take the bull

–  –  –

The turnover of special education teachers often exacerbates the experience. Another novice teacher reported, This particular para, she’d been here for a long time, and you know, there’d been a lot of turn-over. I think that she had kind of, you know, been in charge and been the one who was pretty much running the classroom with these other teachers. And so for me to come in, I’m new, and it’s another new teacher to her. This year it’s just easier for me to be more assertive; just because now I’m a little more confident.

Despite these concerns, most novice teachers expressed appreciation for paraeducators.

In summary, novice and veteran teachers report appreciation for paraeducators. Most veteran teachers describe paraeducators as a vital aspect of their work that can be challenging at times. Veteran teachers were more likely to report difficulties managing relationships between paraeducators, while a few novice teachers reported their age and experience made it difficult to establish directive, supervisory relationships.

Summary Special education teachers report several challenging aspects of their work that limit their ability to bridge the cultural gap between special education and general education. These challenges often prevent them from balancing their instructional and non-instructional duties.

Challenges include completing paperwork; finding curriculum materials; bridging the gap – understanding dual culture workplaces; and supervising paraeducators. Often these challenges are contentious, ambiguous, and emotionally draining.

–  –  –

Novice and veteran special education teachers use different strategies to bridge the gap between dual workplace cultures. The strategies teachers use to accomplish their work is critical to their success and an under reported aspect of their work (Kilgore & Griffin, 1998). Research from (Billingsley, 2004) highlights the importance of administrative and collegial support to special education teachers. In this study, veteran teachers underscored the need to build relationships by networking to get their work accomplished; whereas, novice teachers were much more inclined to use confrontational or coercive strategies to accomplish their work. Novice teachers often referred to their work as a game, fight, or battle. In this section, I will present the analysis of veteran and novice teacher’s responses to their work challenges. I will focus first on veteran teachers, then novice teachers. I will finish this section by presenting veteran and novice contrasting experiences.

Veteran Teacher’s Responses to Work Challenges Many of the veteran teachers reported building relationships was critical to counter the isolation, contention, and ambiguity unique to their position. Some of the relationships veteran teachers considered important included the principal, general education teachers, other special educators, and students. In this section, I will present the relationships veteran teachers consider critical to their work and strategies they used to create them.

Self reports by most of the veteran special education teacher’s in this study underscores the importance of building relationships to accomplish their work. One veteran teacher underscored the magnitude of building relationships, “That is a huge issue. “My job is all about building relationships - student to teacher, teacher to teacher, teacher to principal, and teacher to superintendent. Leadership is a huge. A mousy person could not do this well.” Many veteran teachers were quick to identify the principal or superintendent as a key relationship.

Administrative support often fosters school wide expectations and collegial interactions. Another veteran teacher highlighted the importance of building administrative relationships, “Having administrative backing sets the mood of the school.” Another veteran described divergent experiences with administrative relationships, “Two years ago my principal was a stumbling block. He didn’t know anything about special ed. Now I have a principal who comes to IEP meetings and says you will accommodate.” Administrative support seems to reduce ambiguity and stress.

Many veteran teachers described building relationships with other teachers was a critical and enriching aspect to completing their work. One veteran teacher reported on the fundamental necessity of building relationships with other teachers, “I’ve learned I can’t do it all. Teaching is a team sport. You’ve got to collaborate and tap into your resources. It’s survival.” A few veteran teachers retrospectively reported specific strategies for building relationships as novice teachers.

One veteran teacher reported using the team teaching concept to connect and leverage her personal power as a novice teacher with the general education teachers. She reflected upon her experience as a novice teacher, “I team taught with the teacher who was most resistant to change in one of the hardest subject areas. If you can convince him and have him say something at a staff meeting or in passing what's working about that, then you’ve got the middle of the road people. It got me in the door and so that was huge.” Another veteran teacher reported using the team teaching concept to connect to general education teachers. She reported, “The science teacher didn’t want a special ed kid in his room. I told him I’ll come in and teach study skills the first couple of weeks of school if you let this kid in. He said okay, but he still didn’t want to deal with him. I never left his class for two years. He loved it.” Many veteran teachers reported it was important to avoid confrontational communication styles to bridge the cultural gap between special education and general education. One veteran teacher reported, “I have a lot of patience and I have found that you need it. Just, you know, not being aggressive, not being confrontational, just, you know, talk.” Special education teachers often find themselves intervening in a community of diverse perspectives. Their ability to assess the diverse perspectives and bridge the cultural gap depends upon the strategies and interpersonal skills they bring to bear upon the school environment. One veteran teacher reported, “I am a compromiser.

I get myself involved or try to do something that will make everybody happy.” Many teachers described building relationships with a variety of groups and people to extend their knowledge of additional resources and expertise. These groups included the IEP team, related service providers, and the student assistance team. One veteran teacher highlighted how relationships helped her address difficult students, “Congress in their wisdom built in the MDT [multidisciplinary team]. That’s what’s so lovely about the law; it’s all about collaboration.

So I just call in the reinforcements and we trouble shoot.” Often times, the IEP team is the context for making decisions about students with disabilities. Another veteran teacher described how the IEP team provides a context for making decisions, “The IEP team is very powerful here.

The administrators are always willing to be involved and help us make decisions. They trust that we know what we need and they’ll do whatever they can to get that for us.” Special education teachers build relationships with many groups and people to extend their knowledge of resources and expertise to reduce the contention and isolation of their work.

Many veteran special education teachers reported building relationships with all students within the building as a strategy to integrate into the general education culture. One veteran teacher recalled her how she built relationships with students beyond special education, “I worked very hard in going into as many classrooms as possible to talk to everybody and being in the hallway and calling everybody by name. Because again if you’re only walking around saying hello to the special ed kids then they know, but if your saying hi to everybody they don't know.” Another veteran teacher reported volunteering as advisors outside of special education to connect to the general education culture. She reported, “I am the advisor for the National Honor Society and the junior class. I've got the best and brightest. They see me as someone who is approachable and not just the special education teacher. They see me in another light and available to more people.” These relationships create a social space for them in the larger school context and reduces their isolation.



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