Gail Hamilton has been teaching for 23 years, but she admits to getting a little frazzled during the first week of school.
Most educators probably would say the same thing, but Hamilton has a different - some might even say more challenging - situation.
She teaches special education at Eastview Elementary School and never knows from year to year what type of disabilities her new students might have.
Technically, she is certified as a learning disability teacher, but she's had students in wheelchairs, in braces and suffering from medical problems.
This year, she has a class of 13. One student has autism.
"It's always different" she said. "Even today, I never know what's going to happen."
Community Unit District 300 personnel directors wish they could find more teachers like Hamilton. But the truth is they were forced - like last year - to begin the academic year with seven special education positions still open, making it the educational category with the most vacancies. The elementary education category was a distant second, with three empty posts.
"It's a hard position to fill," said Brian Husted, the district's assistant superintendent of personnel.
Of the 150 new teachers hired this year, 40 were for the special education department. But while recruiters shuffled through about 1,800 resumes for regular education teaching posts, only about a 100 were for special education.
"It's not only us," Husted said. "We've probably gone to more than 15 recruiting fairs over the spring and summer, and almost every single district had openings."
"In some cases we're in better shape than others," added Bob Hansen, who also works in the district's personnel department.
Indeed, East Aurora School District 131 has 23 openings for special education. One is for the special education coordinator.
"It's critical in Illinois and Kane County," said James Hanley, District 131's director of pupil personnel services. "The need for specially trained teachers is high, and it doesn't seem to be changing."
Beth Hanselman, who works in the division of professional certification for the state board of education, said that indeed the entire state is having the same experience.
"Large districts, small districts, it doesn't matter," she said. "We're seeing all of them submit vacancies for special education."
For 1998-99, there were 121,179 full-time teachers in Illinois. Of that 15,996 were special education teachers. About 15 percent of the 1,000 teachers in District 300 are special education.
Even within the special education field - which includes 14 different classifications, encompassing everything from speech and mental impairments to deaf, blind and physically handicapped - Hanselman said there is a hierarchy.
"More teachers tend to get their certification in learning disability than other divisions," she said.
That's a problem for District 300 and District 131, which have constant openings in highly specialized fields like bilingual special education and speech pathology.
In fact, many of District 300's roughly 2,500 students with individual education programs - those with special needs - suffer from speech problems.
The reasons for the shortage range from low pay and long educational programs to lack of university recruitment and state- mandated class sizes.
Hansen said part of the problem is the state's recommendations on class size. Teacher-to-student ratios vary depending on type of disability, but typically one instructor and one aide can have no more than 15 students. …