Academic journal article Australian Journal of Education

Mentoring Early Career Special Education Teachers

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Education

Mentoring Early Career Special Education Teachers

Article excerpt


In most developed countries, teaching is a relatively large occupational area comprising around 4 per cent of the workforce (Nickson & Kritsonis, 2006) but the profession faces seemingly chronic difficulties in Australia and in many other countries, with a high turnover of early career teachers. The situation is exacerbated in the current climate of teacher shortages and recruitment problems in many curriculum areas, and an ageing teaching workforce with significant numbers of impending retirements (Lauder, 2008).

In some areas of education the situation for teachers is especially challenging. For example, in Australian special education settings, 42 per cent of staff are aged 50 years or more, and only 62 per cent of special education teachers have a special education qualification (Thomas, 2007). For some time, the international literature has noted significant problems with the attrition and retention of special education teachers (Billingsley, 1993; Billingsley, Carlson & Klein, 2004) in both regular school and special school settings (Talmor, Reiter & Feigin, 2005). The nature of special education contributes to these difficulties because, in addition to the challenges associated with regular classroom teaching, special education teachers must also deal with the administration of the Australian Disability Discrimination Act, collaborate with a variety of support staff (including teacher's aides, counsellors and therapists), advocate to include their special education students in regular school settings, develop and maintain individualised education programs for their students, and support students with a wider range of abilities and support needs than those experienced in the regular classroom.

Various studies illustrate the difficulties in the area of special education. There is a chronic shortage of qualified special education teachers (Nickson & Kritsonis, 2006). One-quarter of new Australian teaching graduates will leave the profession within five years (Kelly, 2008). US special education teachers are more likely to move from special education or to leave teaching than other teachers (Ingersoll, 2001), and some studies show that the turnover rate for special education teachers is one and a half times that of regular education teachers (Miller, McKenna & McKenna, 1998). Attrition of this magnitude exacerbates an already serious problem of a shortage of teachers qualified to fill special education positions. There are significant costs associated with this attrition. Norton (1999) estimated that replacing a teacher costs 25 per cent of that person's annual salary, but a higher cost of losing qualified special education teachers is paid for by disadvantaged students who lose the opportunity to receive instruction from experienced staff. In the context of such difficulties, this paper will critique a range of issues relating to mentoring for early career special education teachers, and highlight areas that are significant to the Australian agenda of research, policy and practice in this vital domain of teacher development.

Induction and mentoring

In reviewing the early career teacher literature, Whitaker (2000) noted a strong association between the level of support early career teachers see themselves as receiving and their decision to leave, and that a successful first-year experience is crucial in the retention of special education teachers. In New South Wales, for example, as part of a first-year induction program, school-based mentoring is being increasingly provided to beginning teachers (New South Wales Department of Education and Training, 2006). As part of the larger and critical role of professional development for emergent teachers, mentors can offer practical and emotional support, act as role models, and facilitate the development of essential instructional and administrative skills (McCormack, Gore & Thomas, 2006). A key feature of mentoring is that, as an individualised work-based learning model, it ties learning directly to workplace tasks and responsibilities. …

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