What Do First-Year Special Education Teachers Need?

By Whitaker, Susan D. | Teaching Exceptional Children, September/October 2000 | Go to article overview
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What Do First-Year Special Education Teachers Need?

Whitaker, Susan D., Teaching Exceptional Children

Implications for Induction Programs

My first year was much tougher than I expected. I had no curriculum, no support, no experienced special education teacher in the building, and no real experience at the district level. I was at school almost every day until 6 or 7 o'clock. I would arrive before the sun came up and leave after dark. By November I called my mom one night just bawling on the phone to tell her I wanted to work at Belks or Winn-Dixie-I didn't care. I was not going back to teach! (Jessica)

I didn't think it was that bad. But there were parts that were harder than I thought ... But I'm also out in a portable with my mentor-she's the other resource teacher. That helped a lot. I got a lot of support. (Emily)

The first year was horrible.. . . My mentor was not a special education teacher. The department chair was too busy to help.... I was glad I was older. I think if I had been 20 or 21 I would not have stuck it out. I probably would have finished my first year and said forget it! (Linda)

The first year of teaching is portrayed in the literature as being a very difficult year in which the teacher transitions from being a student responsible for his or her own learning to being a teacher responsible for fostering learning in others (Cooke & Pang, 1991; Lortie, 1975; Ryan, 1992). Whereas a number of studies have examined the first year of teaching for teachers in general, little research has focused on the first year of teaching for special education teachers. There is much evidence, however, that the teachers who are leaving special education tend to be the younger, inexperienced teachers (Gonzalez, 1996; Miller, Brownell, & Smith, 1999; Singer, 1992). In addition, several studies have reported that a successful first-year experience is a critical factor in the retention of special education teachers (Billingsley, 1993; Bogenschild, Lauritzen, & Metzke, 1988; Smith-Davis & Cohen, 1989).

Concern for the needs of the firstyear teacher, the existing shortage of special education teachers, and the high rates of teacher attrition in special education have led to the recommendation that mentoring be provided as a support to all beginning special education teachers. In 1989, The Council for Exceptional Children adopted standards for special educators entering into professional practice that included a minimum of a 1-year mentorship during the first year of professional special education practice (The Council for Exceptional Children, 1998).

Needs of Beginning Special Education Teachers

Some beginning special education teachers, such as Emily, move quite smoothly into their new roles (see box, "Mentoring Works!"). Many others, however, like Jessica and Linda, struggle, become frustrated, and eventually leave the field. What makes the difference? What are the primary needs of beginning special education teachers? What should the mentor's role be? And how can we as fellow special educators influence the retention of our new colleagues?

Given these questions, I conducted focus groups with beginning special education teachers, mentors, and special education administrators. I divided the participants into five focus groups of seven to eight individuals (three groups of first- and second-year special education teachers, one group of mentors of special education teachers, and one group of administrators). The 35 participants represented eight different school districts and two separate facilities for students with disabilities. Thirteen participants worked in urban districts, 16 worked in rural districts, and 6 worked in mixed urban/rural settings. Thirty of the participants were Caucasian, and 5 were African American; 30 participants were female, and 5 were male.

The 20 beginning teachers had attended eight different teacher preparation programs and worked with all categories of disabilities. Eleven of the beginning teachers taught in an itinerant/resource model, and 9 taught in a self-contained model.

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