«SPECIAL EDUCATION TEACHERS AND WORK STRESS: EXPLORING THE COMPETING INTERESTS MODEL By LARRY DEAN BUSH JR A dissertation submitted in partial ...»
I hurt my knee in the sixth grade and volunteered in the special ed room. I volunteered all the way through elementary school, worked in a self contained room at the high school, and then entered a pre-teaching program in high school.
One veteran teacher referenced the isolation and marginalization of an institutionalized
adolescent as her reason for choosing a career in special education:
I was traveling with a group of students visiting hospitals and institutions. We were singing to patients and the nurse told us not to bother with a particular patient. He was 17 years old, hydrocephalic, bed bound, and required a diaper. We sang to him anyway and he looked up at me with his eyeball and smiled. That really changed my life.” Some of the teachers referred to work related experiences that shaped their career decisions. One novice teacher reported, “I was a para ed for our district autism program. It was fascinating to me trying to get some help for the student.” Another veteran teacher reflected upon her challenges in high school: “I left home at an early age. If I had a teacher that connected with me I may not have found myself in that situation.” Finally, in this study two novice teachers reported that shortages of special education teachers made them more marketable when pursuing work in public education. One teacher commented, “I choose special education because I wanted to be marketable.” The other teacher reported difficulty securing a position in his first area of certification. He explained, “Getting a job straight out of college is not the easiest thing. There was a para pro position open here. So I thought I would come and work as a para pro to see how much I like it.” In summary, the teachers in this study reported a variety of background experiences that shaped their decisions to become special education teachers. Early experiences with their own disabilities or with disabled family and friends, or other types of experiences during formative ages, fostered an empathetic understanding of the isolation and marginalization experienced by students with disabilities and a desire to help these students.
Special Education Teacher’s Motivations The background experiences of special education teacher’s in this study seemed to foster an empathetic connection with students with disabilities. One veteran teacher stated, “I’ve got heart for this. I love those kids to death. They need someone to love them and to care for them.” From this teacher’s perspective, special education helps to bring children with disabilities from the “shadows” and recognizes that “not all people learn the same.” These teachers seek to do more than teach specific academic content; they seek to prepare students with disabilities for life.
Another veteran teacher explained her aspirations: “Special education means I have a little bit more time to help little Johnny find his feet and help him stand on them academically, emotionally, and socially.” The teachers in this study expressed a strong commitment to creating a more humanizing experience for students with disabilities. One veteran teacher said, “What does special education mean to me? It means giving that kid some dignity; giving that kid that is nothing in a regular classroom a chance to shine.” Special education teachers enter the field with strong aspirations and hopes. One veteran teacher reflected, “I was going to save the world. At least the lame would walk, the blind would see, and everyone would hear. I thought I was going to find solutions for everything.” Special education teachers express a strong obligation to empower students with disabilities to accept responsibility for their well-being. One veteran teacher stated, “I want them to recognize that having a disability isn’t an excuse. I tell them, we have a broken oar; we still get across the river, but we just kind of taking a winding path.” Many of the novice and veteran teachers reported they were “champions for the underdog” and sought to “stand up” for them. Another veteran teacher commented, “I always gravitated towards those kids that were made fun of. I’d stand up for them and kind of be their friend to help shield the hurt that was dealt to them.” Finally, most of the teachers reported a strong need to help children with disabilities to become contributing members of their communities. As stated by one teacher, My goals with my students is that they become a part of their community, not apart from it. The more we feel like we are part of our community, the less we feel like we stick out, and that’s truly my heartfelt goal.
Summary In summary, special education teachers in this study reported a strong experiential connection to students with disabilities. This connection is grounded in their early background experiences and shapes how they approach their work as special education teachers. Special education teachers seek to overcome the isolation and marginalization experienced by students with disabilities and to give them hope. As one veteran teacher put it, “I knew what I felt were the problems with special ed and I couldn’t fix it unless I was in it. So that’s why I went into it.”
As many authors have noted, special education teachers work in a unique context that is often contentious, ambiguous, and challenging. To be effective, special education teachers must bridge cultural gaps between special education and general education (Falk, 2002; Frith, 1981;
Pugach, 1992). Special education teachers in this study reported several challenging aspects of their work; some of these challenges seem to inhibit bridging the cultural gap between special education and general education and some inhibited their ability to balance instructional and non-instructional duties. Several of these challenges were similar for novice and veteran teachers, yet there were distinct contrasts. Experience and location account for many of these differences. These contrasts will be highlighted in each subtheme. The subthemes related to work challenges include the paperwork challenge; finding curriculum and resources; bridging the gap – understanding dual workplace cultures; and keeping peace in the family – supervising para educators.
The Paperwork Challenge Almost every novice and veteran special education teacher in this study reported that completing paperwork was one of their greatest challenges. Most novice and veteran teachers reported putting in extra time to complete paperwork. Research on special education teacher burnout and attrition conclusively argues that paperwork fosters dissatisfaction and emotional exhaustion in most teachers (Billingsely, 2004; Fore, Martin, & Bender, 2002). In this study, the teachers reported that paperwork included writing individualized education plans (IEP), completing Child Find assessments and reports, data collection, and state assessments. Novice teacher’s were quick to point out that paperwork interferes with lesson planning and inhibits them from focusing on improving their instructional skills, while veteran teachers were more likely to report challenges accessing to up-to-date information. Despite these challenges, a few teachers reported the paperwork was consistent with their work responsibilities and facilitated accomplishing their work.
Many novice teachers reported putting in extraordinary time to complete paperwork. One novice teacher reported working late into the night to complete paperwork: “I’ve been here many nights until 11:30. Yes, I could take my work home, but my computer is here.” Many times paperwork leaves teachers exhausted and emotionally drained. One novice teacher reported, “It is so intense. I’ve been here until 7:30 at night, I get here at 7:30. I’m putting in tons of hours and sometimes it doesn’t even feel like I’ve left. Friday gets here I’m just exhausted.” The paperwork challenge increases the special education teacher’s stress, workload, and emotional exhaustion.
One novice teacher linked paperwork to burnout, “I worked over the weekend and one morning to complete report cards and IEP’s. I counted it up. I processed 231 pieces of paper. It was my first ‘ah ha’ experience with what people mean when they mean burning out with the paperwork.” Many veteran teachers reported giving up personal time to balance instructional duties with non-instructional duties. One veteran teacher reported giving up time with her family to achieve this balance: “For the most part, I do put working with the kids and the relationships with the parents first, but then pay personally to get the paperwork done.” Veteran teachers were more likely than novice teachers to balance instructional duties with non-instructional duties by completing paperwork after hours or on weekends. As one veteran teacher stated, “There’s no time to do IEP’s or all the paperwork that needs to be done, unless you give up teaching your classes or you do it at home. I try very hard not to work at home.” Many novice and veteran teachers reported that the paperwork burden detracts from their lesson planning and prevents them from improving their instructional skill set. One novice
teacher expressed her disappointment with this situation:
I haven’t been able to truly focus on my teaching because there is so much paperwork and so many people to contact. Putting all the pieces together, it takes away a lot of my time on effective teaching. I’m very disappointed.
Another novice teacher reported using her planning periods to complete paperwork:
It’s just ridiculous. You have a plan period, but I am not planning. I am writing IEP’s.
I’m doing your amendments. I’m doing your behavioral plans and documenting things.
There’s no planning. I come in at six in the morning to make the lesson for that day. It’s
One veteran teacher commented that she completed paperwork and instruction simultaneously:
“It was so bad at one time I could be working with one kid on math, and testing another student at the same time.” Several novice teachers had to delegate instructional duties to paraeducators to
complete paperwork. One of them discussed the choices she had to make to complete paperwork:
There’s a lot of paperwork. It’s very, very time consuming. I mean - I never realized thank God I have a fantastic para cause – there are some days where I need you to run these centers and do my circle. I’ll jump in if your kids need assistance, but I have three
Finally, some teachers reported the paperwork is an ongoing concern that fosters anxiety. One veteran teacher referred to the emotionally draining nature of paperwork, “The paperwork just never goes away. As soon as you finish a report and an IEP, you’re just going to have to write another report or IEP.” Paperwork requirements often reflect policies developed at the district level that spell out specific timelines and penalties for non-compliance. One novice teacher commented upon the anxiety and extra work created by paperwork, “Just constantly having to get notices out. And getting them [IEP’s] done in time in order for them to make the kids count, so they don’t get dropped and the district doesn’t lose money. The paperwork is atrocious.” Some veteran teachers reported learning to complete paperwork by trial and error and learning
from the painful experience of non-compliance:
I was monitored my first year here. Man! I took a hit. Cause I came from Idaho and I was going by the paperwork that they had. I took a hit. I mean big time hit on that. There's not
Often the paperwork challenge can be ambiguous and distressing. One novice teacher referred to the anxiety created by her assessment duties: “The first year I was here they expected me to do preschool screenings for Child Find and their like so just do it and I really had no idea what that meant.” Many teachers reported state assessments (WAAS Portfolio) increased the amount of paperwork. One teacher stated, “That portfolio, I wish that could happen every day, but it's an exercise in how bright I am as a teacher. Can I jump through the hoops and pass that portfolio? It has nothing to do with real progress for this child. I am not going to buy into this dog and pony show.” In addition, novice teachers reported that the individualized nature of special education compounds the challenge. As one novice teacher commented, There’s also the data keeping. That is paperwork too. You have to keep data on everything you do. I still haven’t gotten my objectives down for each child, for each class, so that I can check them off when I obtain them.
Several of the teachers reported recent innovations in technology, such as online IEP programs, did not decrease the paperwork load: “It’s still the same amount of paperwork it’s just stored on the internet instead of on your computer.” Many of the veteran teachers reported that the lack of access to up-to-date information makes it difficult to complete paperwork accurately and timely. They reported seeking assistance to ensure special education forms reflected the latest regulatory revisions and were compliant.
One veteran teacher criticized the changing compliance expectations:
That is really a peeve of mine. This year we want our goal written this way. Now the next year we want them written this way. No! No! That’s ridiculous to me because it has
Many veteran teachers reported that school reform issues add to the paperwork challenge. A veteran teacher expressed her frustration in these words: “Trying to stay on top of all our rules and regulations; keeping up with accommodations for the WASL and keeping up with the portfolio. That’s a challenge.” Although most veteran and novice teachers report paperwork is a challenge, not all teachers shared this view. Two veteran teachers reported the paperwork was consistent with their work responsibilities and was complimentary to their instructional duties. One veteran teacher stated, We had a committee do a self study and develop our own IEP. Now it’s prescriptive. You spend more time with the kiddos, but it’s not more paperwork. It’s more time with the kid getting to know them. Once the plan’s laid out, the IEP meetings run smoother and the