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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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One novice teacher commented, “I am currently working on a masters degree, but will not be in public education in 5 years.” Veteran teachers were much more likely to report feeling connected, satisfied, and engaged. For many veteran teachers, special education had become a life-long vocation. One veteran teacher said, “I like the fact that I am a special ed teacher. I’m not sure I could see myself doing much of anything else. I am happy here.” Although many veteran teachers were satisfied and enjoyed their work, their career plans often hinged upon their family. Another veteran teacher expressed her satisfaction, I don’t know where my family will be in five years, but I love being a special ed teacher.

I don’t know if we’ll still be here. I would like to be. I really like it here. I like the kids. I like who I work with. Hopefully I will still be teaching special education.

Most veteran teachers spoke with confidence and conviction about their work. Another veteran teacher shared, “I’m not sure where I’ll be in five years, but I will be coming back next year that I can promise you. As long as my health allows and I can smile I’ll be here.” Finally, one veteran teacher simply stated, “I love what I am doing.” Although novice teachers are more likely than veteran teachers to report conflict, isolation, and ambiguity, there were exceptions. One novice teacher felt connected to their school while some veterans do not. She reported, “I have been blown away with the support I’ve received. I wouldn’t mind staying here long term.” Conversely, one veteran teacher shared strong feelings of dissatisfaction and reported, “I paid my dues. I’ll have my 30 years in. I’m not planning to come back.” In summary, novice special education teachers were much more likely to report dissatisfaction, disengagement, and emotional fatigue. Novice teachers were much more likely to consider leaving special education and public education. In contrast, veteran teachers were much more likely to report feeling satisfied, engaged, and connected to their schools. They were much more likely to consider special education a life-long vocation and reported a strong sense of personal accomplishment.

–  –  –

The purpose of this study was two-fold: (a) to explore the K-12 special education teacher’s experiences and perceptions with work challenges and perceptions of stress and potential burnout; and (b) to explore the usefulness of the Special Education Teacher Competing Interests Model to explain the their perceptions of stress and potential burnout. Based upon the qualitative data collected from 19 special education teacher interviews, novice and veteran teachers reported a variety of background experiences with the disabled community that shaped their values, beliefs, and expectations for their work. These experiences foster an empathetic understanding of the isolation and marginalization of the disabled and predispose them to appreciate the cultural gaps between special education and general education. Based upon the analysis described in Chapter 3, four subthemes emerged as work challenges. Those challenges included the paperwork challenge, the lack of curriculum and resources, bridging the gap - dual culture workplaces, and keeping peace in the family - supervising paraeducators. Novice and veteran teachers responded to these challenges differently. Often novice teacher’s respond to work challenges with confrontational and adversarial strategies; whereas, veteran teachers are much more likely to use exemplary interpersonal skills to build relationships. These relationships enabled them to capitalize upon new initiatives to negotiate the cultural gaps and assimilate into dual workplace cultures. Teacher responses to work challenges created dramatically different affective responses. Novice teachers were much more likely to report feelings of dissatisfaction, isolation, conflict, and emotional fatigue. Unlike novice teachers, veteran teachers were much more likely to report feeling satisfied, connected, engaged, and committed to continue working as a special education teacher.

Previous special education attrition and burnout research has documented the many challenges of the special education teacher. Paperwork, conflict, ambiguity, and the lack of administrative and collegial support are significantly correlated to special education teacher’s intent to leave special education and public education (Billingsley, 2004). In addition, research from Fore, Martin, and Bender (2002) concluded paperwork, stress associated with job requirements, the lack of planning time, the lack of administrative support, and classroom instructional arrangements with mixed student disabilities was correlated to special education teacher burnout. Prolonged exposure to these working conditions tend to create negative teacher affective reactions and reduced organizational and professional commitment. Recommendations from these studies include the reduction of paperwork, class sizes, increased administrative support, and mentorship of first year teachers. In Chapter 5, I present the study conclusions of the data from Chapter 4 and implications of the study.

–  –  –

The purpose of this study was two-fold: (a) to explore K-12 special education teachers’ experiences with work challenges, and perceptions of stress and potential burnout; and (b) to explore the usefulness of the Special Education Teacher Competing Interests Model to explain the their perceptions of stress and potential burnout. This study addressed four research questions: (a) How do special education teachers describe their core values in regard to special education and their work motives? (b) How do special education teachers describe and interpret the rewards and satisfactions of their work? (c) How do special education teachers describe the challenges and dissatisfaction of their work? (d) How do special education teachers cope with challenges and attempt to succeed in their work? Chapter 3 presented the methods used to collect qualitative data through interviews with 19 special education teachers, and Chapter 4 presented the analysis of the data organized into four themes: Who they are – Special education teachers’ values and motives; special education teachers work challenges; special education teacher’s responses to work challenges; and special education teacher’s affective responses to work challenges.





In this chapter, I will first present the conclusions of the study, including how each theme discussed in the analysis in Chapter 4 reflects one or more components of the Competing Interests Model. Then, I will discuss revisions to the Competing Interest Model based upon the analysis and the utility of the revised model for explaining special education teacher’s experiences. Finally, I will present the implications of the study for school district educators, policy makers, and researchers.

–  –  –

This conclusions section is organized into three parts: Review of the initial conceptualization of the Competing Interests Model; conclusions of the study based on the analysis in Chapter 4; and revisions to the Competing Interests Model based on this analysis. In the conclusions section, I discuss how each theme discussed in Chapter 4 reflects one or more components of the Competing Interests Model. Then, I discuss the necessary revisions to the Competing Interests Model based on the analysis and the the utility of the revised model to explain the relationships among the themes and special education teachers’ experiences.

The Competing Interests Model – The Initial Conceptualization As mentioned in Chapter 1, the Special Education Teacher Competing Interests Model is a multi-dimensional conceptual framework. The nexus of the model is an amalgamation of the contentious social space created by national, state, and local legislation, such as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA); the dimensions from Maslach and Leiter’s (1997) Job-Person Fit Model and the special education teacher burnout research of Wisniewski and Garguilo (1997); the stages of practitioner development (Skovholt, 2001); critical race theory; and a disability centric perspective. Special education teacher stress originates in the competing interests created by the contentious social space. As originally conceived in Chapter 1, the Competing Interests Model suggests that a cognitive appraisal of stressors accounts for individualized responses to stress (Lazarus, 1999). In other words, teachers assess and judge the impact of individual stressors through cognitive appraisals before developing responses to stressors. An erroneous appraisal may create teacher responses that increase the experience of stress, while an accurate appraisal may reduce or prevent stress.

This initial conceptualization of the Competing Interests Model was a useful tool for guiding the study’s design and research questions and for initial interpretation of the data; however, the outcomes of this study suggest changes in the conceptual framework. In this section, I will discuss the how each theme from the data analysis in Chapter 4 reflects components of the Competing Interest Model suggested by the analysis. Then, I discuss the necessary revisions to the model based upon the analysis of data in Chapter 4.

Thematic Connections to the Model The four themes from the data analysis presented in Chapter 4 included: Who they are – Special education teacher’s values and motives; special education teachers’ work challenges;

special education teachers’ responses to work challenges; and special education teachers’ affective responses to work. Each of these themes reflects various components of the Competing Interests Model.

Who they are – Special education teachers’ values and motives.

The theme “Who They Are – Special Education Teachers’ Values and Motives” explained that special education teachers’ have a strong experiential connection with the disabled. This connection seems to foster a disability centric perspective and creates specific values, beliefs, and a sense of purpose for their work. These values, beliefs, and sense of purpose create a unique ontological, disability centric perspective and differentiate them from most general education teachers. In terms of the Competing Interest Model, these conclusions reflect Maslach and Leiter’s (1997) Job-Person Fit Model and refer to the dimensions of values, community, and fairness. Special education teachers’ disability centric perspective often limits their inclusion in the broader school community by preventing positive connections to general education teachers. Maslach and Leiter (1997) concluded that political infighting in schools fosters alienation, conflicting values, and a strong sense of unfairness. The differences in values held by special education and general education teachers can contribute to this alienation. As noted by Pugach (1992) little research has explored the relationship of special education teacher’s background experiences to their beliefs, values, and sense of purpose of their work.

This study’s contribution is that special education teachers have a unique, disability centric perspective, based in their experiential backgrounds that contributes to cultural gaps between special and general educators.

Special education teachers’ work challenges.

In this study, special education teachers reported four challenging aspects to their work:

the paperwork challenge, finding curriculum and resources, bridging the gap – understanding dual culture workplaces, and keeping peace in the family - supervising paraeducators.

The theme “The Paperwork Challenge” explained that paperwork is one of special education teachers’ non-instructional duties that requires extra time beyond the school day and delegation of instructional duties. Paperwork differentiates them from general education teachers and fosters anxiety, dissatisfaction, and fatigue. In terms of the Competing Interests Model, paperwork reflects the socio-political context and redistributive policy of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Redistributive policies shift power and resources from one group to another (Fowler, 2004). These shifts in power and resources are ideologically based;

create sharp divisions among social groups; and foster contentious political arenas. Paperwork is a local manifestation of the this shift in power and requires special education teachers to navigate the contentious and litigious political arena created by IDEA to garner general education participation in special education. In addition, it reflects the workload and control dimensions of Maslach and Leiter’s (1997) Job-Person Fit Model. Paperwork represents the school district’s attempt to implement IDEA and to reduce litigation exposure; however, the school district’s policies and procedures reduce special education teachers control over key workload issues that affect their instructional duties. As mentioned earlier, research has conclusively argued that paperwork contributes to the attrition and burnout of special education teachers (Billingsley, 2004; Fore, Martin, & Bender, 2002). In addition, because the paperwork challenge is not understood by general education teachers, it contributes to the cultural gap between general and special education teachers.



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