Pathways to Leadership and Professional Development

By Kaufman, Roberta C.; Ring, Mary | Teaching Exceptional Children, May/June 2011 | Go to article overview

Pathways to Leadership and Professional Development


Kaufman, Roberta C., Ring, Mary, Teaching Exceptional Children


Inspiring Novice Special Educators

Novice special educators, whose background knowledge includes grounding in professional standards, recognize that the social-environmental factors of a school and community impact not only their own attitude and career but also the motivation, the self-esteem, and ultimately the academic success of students with disabilities. Every school is a unique community with its own legacy of traditions and relationships that new special education teachers must learn to negotiate. More recently, the history and roots of some school districts have been challenged by changing demographics and economics. Reforming, restructuring, reconstituting, and reimaging are understandably present in the minds of administrators, teachers, parents, and legislators. On a daily basis, teachers' attitudes influence a school's social-environmental factors. The ongoing cycle of addressing student attitudes in addition to mediating the needs and concerns of classroom teachers, other professionals, and parents can overwhelm even the most veteran teachers. However, seeing the glass as half full rather than half empty promotes well-being and the likelihood of a more successful school year. Managing and nurturing positive attitudes is a leadership skill special education teachers can develop as they navigate the unique responsibilities and stresses of their professional lives. What particular practices help build confidence, enhance leadership, and promote a positive attitude- all of which support the academic environment for students with disabilities?

Professional standards identify best practice and high expectations. For example, the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) notes in Standard 9, Professional and Ethical Practice, "special educators engage in professional activities and participate in learning communities that benefit individuals with exceptional learning needs (ELN), their families, colleagues, and their own professional growth. . . . Special educators are aware of how their own and others' attitudes, behaviors and ways of communicating can influence their practice" (CEC, 2009, p. 30). CEC Standard 10, Collaboration, identifies that "Special educators promote and advocate the learning and well-being of individuals with ELN across a wide range of settings and a range of different learning experiences" (CEC, 2009, p. 30). Such standards form a baseline of dispositions and guide professionals in their careers.

Teaching in special education, as in other helping professions, requires personal reflection and honest appraisal of one's own stamina and well-being in order to assist others in achieving academic and social-emotional growth. Novice special education teachers arrive at the school anxious but excited and confident. Their enthusiasm may be shaken during those first months of teaching and confidence can turn to doubt. The spark-plug go-getter who enthusiastically entered the profession can be at risk of burnout without a plethora of supports to guide and reinforce confidence which at the same time provide pathways to leadership and professional development.

Why Do New Teachers Leave?

The special education teacher attrition epidemic is supported by data. Billingsley (2004) noted that as many as 40% of new special education teachers choose to leave their careers in the first 3 years of teaching. When compared with the estimated attrition rate of all public school teachers (i.e., 25.5%), special education appears to have a greater turnover (Luekens, Lyter, & Fox, 2004). For decades special education classrooms have gone unserved or underserved due to a lack of trained special education teachers. In Billingsley's national study, 98% of school districts in the United States reported shortages of special educators; 37% of those hired for special education classrooms begin with less than full special education licensure. Recent data discussed by Boe, Cook, and Sunderland (2008) suggest progress has been made in increasing the supply of teachers in shortage areas such as special education, but concerns still exist.

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