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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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The theme “Finding Curriculum and Resources” explained that most special education teachers in this study work without adequate formal curriculum and classroom resources to address a wide range of student ability and skill levels. The lack of curriculum and classroom resources further differentiates special education teachers from general education teachers and requires extraordinary time beyond the school day to either create or find their own materials. In terms of the Competing Interests Model, this theme reflects the socio-political dimensions of public education and the workload and control dimensions of Maslach and Leiter’s (1997) Job – Person Fit Model. In addition, the lack of curriculum and classroom resources are reflected in the organizational complexity and instructional arrangements conceived by Wisniewski and Garguilo (1997). Research by Banks and Necco (1990) confirmed correlations between instructional arrangements and rates of burnout. They concluded instructional arrangements for students with behavioral disorders and resource room settings were more ambiguous in nature and lead to higher rates of emotional exhaustion and depersonalization. Similarly, research addressing burnout in secondary special education teachers of students with learning disabilities confirms the correlation between instructional arrangements and role conflict, ambiguity, workload, and administrative support (Embich, 2001).

The theme “Bridging the Gap – Understanding Dual Culture Workplaces” explained that special education teachers work in a unique dual culture workplace that requires them to assimilate into a special education culture and a general education culture. In Derrick Bell’s (1995) words, the dual culture workplace requires special education teachers to serve “two masters.” In terms of the Competing Interests Model, this theme reflects the power dimension of the socio-political context, the values and community dimension of the Maslach and Leiter’s (1997) Job-Person Fit Model, and the organizational complexity and interpersonal interactions dimensions of Wisniewski and Garguilo (1997). Dual culture workplaces require special education teachers to implement federal, state, and local policies without the authority to direct the activities of general education teachers. The strategies special education teachers use to assess the various perspectives in the school will influence their ability to assimilate into the special education and general education cultures. Confrontational strategies tend to reduce the special education teachers ability to assimilate into dual cultures; whereas, relationship building strategies tend to increase their ability to assimilate into dual cultures.

Previous research confirms this conclusion. Research from Falk (2003) underscores the importance of special education teachers’ strategies and responses to their work challenges. She reported special education teachers who successfully assimilated into the dual culture workplaces did so with exceptional interpersonal intelligence. Successful special education teachers relied upon their formal and informal learning to initiate professional and social interactions with general education teachers. In addition, research confirms the stress moderating effect of administrative and peer support (Fimian, 1986; Cherniss, 1988; Cooley & Yovanoff, 1996).

Supportive, constructive dialogue focused on reflective-problem solving interactions between teachers and administrators seems to reduce special education teacher’s isolation, ambiguity, and conflict.

The theme “Keeping Peace in the Family – Supervising Paraeducators” explained that special education teachers’ relationships with paraeducator were the most intimate, complex, and challenging relationships to build and maintain. Subtle differences in power create disruptions in these relationships and foster conflict, ambiguity, anxiety, and emotional fatigue. In terms of the Competing Interests Model, paraeducator relationships reflects the socio-political context of public education and the values, workload, fairness, community, and control dimensions of Maslach and Leiter’s (1997) Job-Person Fit Model. In addition, this issue reflects the organizational complexity, interpersonal interactions, and instructional arrangement dimensions of Wisniewski and Garguilo (1997). Supervising paraeducators often is unique to special education teachers and is a work dimension that is not required of most general education teachers. This difference in responsibilities contributes to the cultural gap between general and special education teachers.

Very little research has explored the impact of paraeducator supervision on special education teachers. Billingsely and Tomchin (1992) found that novice special education teachers identified working with paraeducators as one of four challenges. Kilgore and Griffin’s (1998) interview research with novice special education teachers indicated the lack of well-trained paraeducators required intensive efforts on the part of the special education teacher to ensure paraeducators were prepared to work with students with disabilities.

Special Education Teachers’ Responses to Work Challenges The theme “Special Education Teachers’ Responses to Work Challenges” explained that most veteran teachers used different strategies than novice teachers to accomplish their work.

Veteran teachers were more inclined to underscore the importance of building relationships that fostered administrative support, collegial support, and assimilation into dual culture workplaces.





In contrast, novice teachers were more inclined to use confrontational and coercive strategies that fostered conflict, emotional exhaustion, and isolation. In terms of the Competing Interests Model, veteran and novice special education teachers’ responses to work challenges reflect the teacher’s attempts to navigate the contentious socio-political junction created by federal legislation, such as No Child Left Behind and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. In addition, special education teachers’ responses to work challenges reflect Skovholt’s (2001) stages of practitioner development and the different veteran and novice teacher’s epistemological knowledge. The inexperience of novice teachers inhibits their application of the theory and cognitive maps developed from professors, supervisors, teachers, or mentors. Even more so, the theory and cognitive maps developed during pre-service training reflects a broad guide and not the context of the novice teacher’s current situation. Consequently, many novice teachers are unprepared to develop an applied theory of curriculum and instruction, while simultaneously navigating the complexities of dual culture workplaces and learning the special education processes, procedures, and paperwork. Nonetheless, success for novice teachers requires not just the development of an applied theory of curriculum and instruction, but also the development of collaborative, positive interactions with administrators and general education teachers (Kilgore & Griffin, 1998). Supportive administrators and colleagues assist novice teachers to solve the many problems and dilemmas they encounter (Cherniss, 1988).

Special Education Teachers’ Affective Responses to Work Challenges The theme “Special Education Teachers’ Affective Responses to Work Challenges” explained that novice teachers were much more likely than veteran teachers to consider leaving special education or public education. Novice teachers were more likely to report feelings of dissatisfaction, disengagement, and emotional fatigue. In contrast, veteran teachers were more likely to consider special education a life-long vocation and report feeling satisfied, engaged, and connected to their schools. In terms of the Competing Interests Model, the affective responses represent the interactive and combined effects of interpersonal interactions, instructional arrangements, organizational complexity, and training to the dual culture workplace, PersonEnvironment Fit, and the socio-political context of public education. The conditions that created positive affective responses, engagement, and satisfaction include positive interpersonal interactions, clear instructional arrangements, supportive organizational structures, and relevant training. In contrast, the combination of poor interpersonal interactions, ambiguous instructional arrangements, unsupportive organizational structures, and irrelevant training leads to role conflict and ambiguity. Research has consistently demonstrated strong correlations between role conflict, ambiguity, and burnout (Crane & Iwanicki, 1986; Edmonson & Thompson, 2002;

Embich, 2001). Prolonged exposure to these dimensions leads to negative affective responses, increased stress, and reduced professional commitment (Billingsely, 2004).

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Taken together, the four themes presented in Chapter 4 reflect manifestations of bifurcated school-based cultures created by ideologically based political arenas at the local school level. This overall conclusion leads to a revision of the original conceptualization of the Competing Interests Model. The original conceptualization placed special education teachers at the nexus of many competing interests and hypothesized that their ability to manage those interests influenced their potential stress and burnout. (Refer to Appendix A for an illustration of the original conceptualization of the Competing Interests Model). Evidence from this study suggests a different way to view this landscape of competing interests. Special education teachers’ background experiences lead to disability centric values, beliefs, and motivations that differentiate them from general education teachers and creates a cultural gap at the local school level. In addition, unique aspects of special education teachers’ work, such as extraordinary amounts of paperwork and the lack of curricular and other resources, interfere with their instructional duties and further exacerbate the cultural gap between general and special education teachers. The separate cultures at the local school level require special education teachers to assimilate into dual culture workplaces to be successful. (Refer to Appendix E for an illustration of the reconceptualization of the Competing Interests Model).

Unlike veteran teachers, novice teachers are overwhelmed by the experience and have insufficient cognitive maps to navigate the contentious political environment and dual culture workplace in public education. Without the proper support and guidance, many novice teachers learn the ambiguous rules, boundaries, and hierarchies inherent to schools through trial and error.

Unfortunately, many novice teachers adopt confrontational and coercive strategies to accomplish their duties that reduce their ability to assimilate into dual culture workplaces. Ironically, these strategies further increase their sense of isolation, anxiety, dissatisfaction and emotional exhaustion, while decreasing their sense of accomplishment. In contrast, veteran teachers have robust cognitive maps that enable them to utilize formal and informal learning to assimilate into dual culture workplaces. Veteran teachers are much more likely to use relationship-building strategies to accomplish their duties. These strategies increase their sense of connection to their school, satisfaction, engagement, and sense of accomplishment.

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The results of this study have implications for school administrators, national policy makers, and educational researchers.

Implications for School Administrators Evidence from this study and previous research underscores the importance of administrative support to both veteran and novice special education teachers. Considering the contentious nature of dual culture workplaces, principals and assistant principals should give careful attention to strategies to reduce conflict and ambiguity. Strategies may include creating clear communication and decision making protocols, establishing shared expectations and group norms, and emphasizing collaborative and integrated professional development. In addition, building principals and assistant principals should include special education teacher participation into building based curriculum adoptions and other processes typically dominated by general education teachers.

Additional evidence from this study underscores the importance of ensuring veteran and novice special education teachers have adequate access to supportive special education personnel, such as school psychologists, speech therapists, and motor therapists. In addition, special education directors should ensure novice special education teachers have access to a veteran special education teacher mentor with similar duties and responsibilities, as well as content specialists, such as autism and behavior specialists.

Implications for Policy Makers Evidence from this study underscores the importance of carefully considering the impact of national policies upon public education. Policy makers should explore the impact of funding mechanisms, procedural mechanisms, and the interaction between policies upon local schools and teachers to reduce dual culture workplaces. In addition, policy makers should use care to foster incentives and rewards for the successful assimilation of students with disabilities and special education teachers into public education.

Implications for Educational Researchers Evidence from this study underscores the importance of exploring the strategies used by veteran special education teachers to assimilate into dual culture workplaces. In addition, educational researchers should further explore the conditions that foster the enthusiasm and commitment of veteran teachers to a life-long career in special education. Finally, more research is needed to explore the mechanisms that foster and maintain dual culture workplaces, elucidate successful supports and strategies for novice special education teachers, and fully explore the novice special education teacher experience.

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