Mentoring Beginning Special Education Teachers and the Relationship to Attrition

By Whitaker, Susan D. | Exceptional Children, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

Mentoring Beginning Special Education Teachers and the Relationship to Attrition


Whitaker, Susan D., Exceptional Children


The first year of teaching has been described in many ways, from reality shock (Veenman, 1984) to sink-or-swim (Lortie, 1975) to riding a slightly out-of-control roller coaster (Ryan, 1992). Regardless of the terms used to describe the experience, the descriptions remain remarkably consistent in portraying a difficult transition from being a student responsible for his or her own learning to being a teacher in charge of a classroom and responsible for promoting learning in others. Debbie, a first-year special education teacher, described it this way:

   It takes so much out of you. I had all these grand plans, but it's so hard.
   I love teaching, but it's really difficult. The beginning was totally
   overwhelming ... the children, the parents, scheduling, long-range plans,
   daily lesson plans. And the paperwork! My students have such a range of
   abilities and so many behavior problems. I love the school and the people
   here. I guess it's reality shock. It just isn't what I expected. I truly
   don't know if I can handle it all.

Alarming statistics indicate that the first few years of teaching are the most critical in determining whether or not the novice teacher will remain in the profession. Estimates are that approximately 15% of the new teachers will leave after the first year of teaching, with an additional 10% to 15% leaving after the second year (Huling-Austin, 1990; Schlechty & Vance, 1983). In contrast, the overall annual rate of attrition for teachers nationally is estimated at approximately 6% (Boe, Barkanic, & Leow, 1999; Huling-Austin, 1990; Kirby & Grissmer, 1993; Schlechty & Vance).

McKnab (1995) estimates the annual attrition rate for special education teachers as approximately 9% to 10%. Boe, Bobbitt, and Cook (1997) analyzed the results of surveys completed by a national sample of 4,812 public school teachers. They found that 5.8% of the general education teachers left teaching between 1987-88 and 1988-89, while 7.9% of the special education teachers left teaching during the same time. They also found that 13% of the special education teachers transferred teaching positions during that period, compared to 7% of the general education teachers who transferred positions. A review of the literature on attrition reveals that regardless of the methods employed, the definition of attrition that is used, or the populations that are sampled, the attrition rate reported for special education teachers is consistently higher than the attrition rate reported for general education teachers.

Several studies have examined the factors that are correlated with leaving the field of special education. The results of these studies have consistently indicated that the younger, less experienced teachers are among the most likely to leave the profession (Gonzalez, 1996; Miller, Brownell, & Smith, 1999; Singer, 1992). In addition, studies have found a strong correlation between the level of support that special educators perceive and their decision to remain in the field (Billingsley & Cross, 1991; Bogenschild, Lauritzen, & Metzke, 1988; Miller et al.; Sultana, 1996). Other studies have reported that a successful first-year experience is a critical factor in the retention of special education teachers (Billingsley, 1993; Bogenschild et al.; Harris and Associates, 1991).

Concern for the needs of the first-year special education teacher, the existing shortage of special education teachers, and the high rates of attrition in special education have led to the recommendation that mentoring be provided to all beginning special educators. Mentoring is a component of induction that attempts to address two problems in teaching: the abrupt and unsupported entry of first-year teachers into the teaching profession and the challenge of keeping good teachers in the classroom (Feiman-Nemser & Parker, 1993). Anderson and Shannon (1988) define mentoring in the educational setting as:

   [A] nurturing process in which a skilled or more experienced person,
   serving as a role model, teaches, sponsors, encourages, counsels, and
   befriends a less skilled or less experienced person for the purpose of
   promoting the latter's professional and/or personal development. … 

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