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In terms of teacher characteristics, age is the only variable consistently linked to teacher attrition (Billingsley, 2004). Younger special education teachers are more inclined to leave special education or move to a general education position (Boe, Bobbit, Cook, Whitener, & Weber, 1997; Cross & Billingsley, 1994; Morvant, Gersten, Gillman, Keating, & Blake, 1995; & Singer, 1992). Grissmer and Kirby’s (1987) research correlated special education teacher attrition to age with a “U” shaped pattern. Attrition was high among young special education teachers, low among mid-career special education teachers, and high for retiring special education teachers. In fact, Singer’s (1992) research indicated younger special education teachers have close to twice the attrition rate as more experienced special education teachers. In addition, younger special education teachers are more likely to transfer to a general education position (Miller, Brownell, & Smith, 1999). The reasons for this attrition will be explained later in a review of research related to the working environment of special education teachers.

Personal factors unrelated to work impact younger special education teachers attrition (Billingsley, 1993; Billingsley, Pyecha, Smith-Davis, Murray, & Hendricks, 1995; Brownell, Smith, McNellis, & Miller, 1997; Morvant, Gersten, Gillman, Keating, & Blake, 1995). These reasons included family moves, pregnancy, child rearing, and health. In a study of 99 urban special education school teachers, Billingsley et al. (1995) reported 37% left primarily due to family circumstances unrelated to work. In a similar study of 477 special education teachers, Boe, Bobbitt, Cook, Barkanic, and Maislin (1999) reported 35% left due to personal reasons.

Research from Cross and Billingsely (1994) and Singh and Billingsely (1996) indicate some teachers who attained higher education levels and had less experience were more inclined to pursue other career opportunities outside of public education.

Special education teacher qualifications have received less attention in the research literature and reflect a tendency to avoid controversial ratings of teacher quality (Blanton, Sindelar, Correa, Hardman, McDowell, & Kuhel, 2002). Despite these concerns, some research has linked certification, academic ability, and perceived preparedness to special education teacher attrition. Miller, Brownell, and Smith’s (1999) research with 1,000 Florida special education teachers indicated higher attrition rates among uncertified special education teachers than certified teachers. Uncertified teachers are also associated with higher rates of transfer to general education teaching assignments (Boe, Bobbit, Cook, Whitener, & Weber, 1997). In addition, Singer (1992) found special education teachers with higher National Teacher Exam scores were twice as likely to leave teaching for other employment options, yet, attrition was not related to perceived preparedness by special education teachers (George, George, Gersten, & Grosenick, 1995; Miller et al., 1999; & Westling & Whitten, 1996). Overall, the research suggests young uncertified special teachers are at a greater risk for attrition, than more experienced certified special education teachers.

Work environment factors.

Overall, the research literature shows that the work environments are important to special education teacher attrition and retention (Billingsley, 2004). Work environment variables include salary, administrative and colleague support, induction, teacher roles, and caseload.

The few research studies that have explored the linkage between salary and attrition report consistent findings. Higher attrition rates are associated with lower salaries and conversely lower attrition rates are associated with higher salaries (Billingsely, Pyecha, Smith-Davis, Murray, & Hendricks, 1995; Boe, Bobbitt, Cook, Whitener, & Weber, 1997; Darling-Hammond, 1984; Miller, Brownell, & Smith, 1999; Murnane, Singer, & Willett, 1989; Schlechty & Vance, 1983; Singer, 1992). Compensation should be considered as a retention strategy for special education teachers.

Lack of administrative and collegial support has been linked to higher rates of attrition (Billingsley & Cross, 1991b; Lawrenson & McKinnon, 1982; Metzke, 1988; Miller, Brownell, & Smith, 1999; Platt & Olson, 1990). Research indicates teachers who report high rates of principal support are less inclined to report feeling stressed and more inclined to report feeling committed to and satisfied with their work (Billingsley & Cross, 1992; Boe, Barkanic & Loew, 1999;

George, George, Gersten, & Grosenick, 1995; Miller, Brownell, & Smith, 1999). Fimian (1986) concludes principals and colleagues play a key role in moderating special education teacher’s stress. Principals can reduce stress by altering the special education teachers job design (Gersten, Keating, Yovanoff, & Harris, 2001), fostering supportive relationships (Littrell, Billingsely, & Cross, 1994), and improving collaboration between general and special education teachers (de Bettencourt, 1999). Overall, principal support is associated with more professional development opportunities, fewer role problems, greater job satisfaction, reduced stress, and higher level of commitments (Billingsley, 2004; Gersten, Keating, Yovanoff, & Harris, 2001; Singh & Billingsely, 1996).

The induction and mentoring of new special education teachers reduces the attrition of novice special education teachers (Billingsely, 2004), yet a very small number of studies have investigated effective induction and mentoring programs. Results from Whitaker (2000) indicate there is a relationship between novice teachers’ intent to remain in special education and mentoring. Specifically, novice teachers reported a strong interest in weekly contact with a mentor teacher currently working in special education and rated informal contacts with the mentor as more important than formal contacts with administrators. In addition, novice special education teachers rated emotional support as the most effective assistance, followed by systems information, interactions with others, and resources and materials. Mentor assistance in curriculum/instruction, discipline, and classroom management was rated as less frequent and effective.

In terms of mentoring, the Teacher Support Program (TSP) was a program developed to support special education teachers in western North Carolina (Westling, Herzog, Cooper-Duffy, Prohn, & Ray, 2006). Unlike traditional mentoring programs, the TSP is a volunteer resource program for both novice and veteran teachers and offered multiple forms of support. The TSP included seven components: collaborative problem solving/mutual teacher support, electronic networking and communication, information and materials search, peer mentoring, on-site/inclass consultation, teacher release, and staff development workshops. Initial results indicate strong ratings in all but two of the TSP components. Teacher surveys indicate the electronic networking and communication and the peer mentoring components were not well rated or utilized. Beyond those components, teacher comments indicate the TSP was relevant, useful, and timely. In addition, they reported feeling supported and more confident because of their involvement in the TSP.

Billingsley’s Special Education Teacher Attrition Model.

The model proposed by Billingsley (1993) frames teacher attrition within three broad categories: external factors, employment factors, and personal factors. External factors include the economic, societal, and institutional factors influencing the work environment of the special education teacher. Employment factors include professional qualifications, work conditions, and rewards, as well as commitments to the school, the district, the teaching field, and the teaching profession. Finally, personal factors include teacher characteristics, as well as variables that influence career decisions, such as starting a family, illness, or retirement.

Billingsley (1993) hypothesizes that when the professional qualifications and working conditions are not favorable, the teacher will experience reduced work related rewards. This leads to a reduced commitment to the school, district, teaching field, and teaching profession.

Consequently, career decisions depend upon the teacher’s perceived rewards and commitment to teaching, while the timing of personal factors outside of education directly or indirectly impact the teacher’s ultimate decisions to stay or leave.

Brownell and Smith’s Special Education Teacher Attrition Model.

The special education teacher attrition model proposed by Brownell and Smith (1993) uses four interrelated systems, adapted from Urie Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory, to illustrate the phenomenon of teacher retention and attrition: the microsystem, mesosystem, exosystem, and macrosystem. The microsystem addresses the teacher’s immediate environment and the interaction between the student and teacher characteristics. The mesosystem is one-step removed and addresses the interrelations of such work variables as collegial and administrative support. The exosystem is the third interrelated system and addresses the formal and informal social structures of the community, such as the socio-economic status of the community. Finally, the macrosystem addresses the cultural beliefs and ideologies that shape the community context of the school. Brownell and Smith did not intend to use their conceptual frame as a causal model for designing and interpreting research. Nonetheless, their conceptual frame provides some basis for investigating the complex and reciprocal relationships between the interrelated systems and the many variables related to special education teacher retention and attrition.

Summary In summary, extensive research has explicated the relationship between special education teacher attrition and various factors. Billingsley’s (1993) special education teacher attrition model and Brownell and Smith’s (1993) special education attrition model articulate the relationship between the special educator’s intent to stay in special education to numerous variables. Billingsely frames special education teacher attrition within external factors, employment factors, and personal factors, whereas, Brownell and Smith frame special education teacher attrition within Urie Bronfenbrenners Ecological Systems Theory. A small body of recent research has begun to elucidate the relationship of supportive factors to novice special education teacher’s intent to stay in special education.

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Burnout has been a focus of scholarly research for approximately 35 years.

Freudenberger (1974) was one of the first to describe the burnout phenomenon within the caregiving profession as a chronic depletion of emotional energy, motivation, and commitment.

Maslach (1976) further articulated the relationship between the care-giving professional and their values and beliefs. Burnout is a psychological syndrome that arises from chronic interpersonal stressors in the work environment and has three key components (Maslach, 2003). The three key components include emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and a reduced sense of accomplishment. Emotional exhaustion is central to the burnout construct and refers to the overextension and depletion of emotional and physical resources (Maslach, Schaufeli, & Leiter, 2001). Emotional exhaustion represents the individual stress dimension of burnout, whereas, the depersonalization component represents the interpersonal context of burnout. Often referred to as cynicism, the depersonalization component represents callous, negative, or excessively detached responses to the work environment (Maslach, Schaufeli, & Leiter, 2001). Finally, a reduced sense of accomplishment represents the self-evaluation dimension of burnout and is expressed in terms of incompetence, lack of achievement, and productivity at work.

Initial research in burnout was descriptive and qualitative in nature, utilizing techniques such as interviews, observations, and case studies (Maslach, Schaufeli, & Leiter, 2001). Several burnout models were developed during this time that emphasized a series of stages; however, later research articulated burnout as a continuum rather than a dichotomous construct. Currently, Maslach’s and Leiter’s (1997) theoretical burnout model is the most widely used and accepted (Edmondson & Thompson, 2002). The next section describes the application of Maslach’s burnout model with special education teachers.

Wisniewski and Garguilo (1997) frame special education burnout within four domains:

organizational structure, professional interactions, professional training, and instructional arrangements. Within their frame, stress is defined consistent with a cognitive meditational approach and emphasizes the relationship between the work environment and the person.

Ultimately, burnout is the response to frequent and chronic exposure to work related stress arising from the four domains.

Organizational structure.

In terms of organizational structure, role conflict and role ambiguity have emerged as two sources stress (Banks & Necco, 1990; Billingsley, 2004; Crane & Iwanicki, 1986; Edmonson & Thompson, 2002; Embich, 2001; Frith, 1981). Role conflict occurs when special education teacher’s responsibilities are not consistent with the realities of their day-to-day teaching experience. Role ambiguity occurs when special education teachers do not have sufficient information to adequately perform their duties and responsibilities.

In her study, Embich (2001) concluded role conflict contributed to increased emotional exhaustion among teachers working in resource room and self-contained settings. In addition, ambiguity was associated with a reduced sense of personal accomplishment in special education teachers using a team teaching model or a resource room model (Embich, 2001), whereas, ambiguity contributed to reduced feelings of personal accomplishment and increased depersonalization in self-contained teachers (Embich, 2001). In a meta-analysis of special education burnout, Edmonson and Thompson (2000) concluded role conflict and ambiguity was much more likely to predict the variation in burnout. Examples of role conflict and ambiguity include evolving roles and responsibilities related to federal policies, unclear administrative expectations, new curriculum, and innovative pedagogical approaches.

Interpersonal interactions.

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