Retention Issues: A Study of Alabama Special Education Teachers

By Plash, Shawn; Piotrowski, Chris | Education, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Retention Issues: A Study of Alabama Special Education Teachers


Plash, Shawn, Piotrowski, Chris, Education


It is projected that in the year 2010, there will be a need for 611,550 special education teachers in the U.S. Yet, every year about 13.2% of special education teachers leave their positions. Six percent leave the field altogether while 7.2% of the special education teachers transfer to general education positions. Within the first 3 years of teaching, 29% of beginning teachers are projected to leave the profession; by the end of the 5th year, 39% leave the teaching field (see Billingsley, 2004, for a review). The purpose of the current study is to investigate issues that relate to the attrition, migration, and turnover of special education teachers in a county in southeast Alabama.

Causes of Attrition and Migration

Special education teachers are more vulnerable to stress or professional burnout than human service professionals (Nichols & Sonsnowsky, 2002); this has contributed to feelings of emotional exhaustion and depersonalization and has threatened the special education teachers' sense of personal accomplishment. They tend to exhibit many of the same symptoms that are experienced by other human service professions such as nurses, physicians, and police officers who are deeply involved with people who have physical, social, and emotional problems (Zabel & Zabel, 2001).

Embich's (2001) contends that the four major problems associated with burnout are beyond the control of the special education teacher: role conflict, role ambiguity, perceived workload, and perceived principal support. Role conflict contributes to exhaustion by placing inconsistent, incompatible, or inappropriate demands on the instructor. Role ambiguity contributes to the majority of burnout. Moreover, special education teachers' responsibilities, rights, status and goals are often unclear (Piotrowski & Plash, 2006). Thus, the perceived workload of the special education teacher contributes to feelings of emotional exhaustion. This workload includes paperwork, attending parent conferences, planning, and participating in extracurricular activities. Furthermore, lack of administrative support contributes to elevated levels of emotional exhaustion and reduces the teachers' sense of accomplishment.

Miller, Brownell, and Smith (1999) conducted a study on the attrition of special education teachers and concluded that teachers leave the field primarily for four main reasons: (a) they do not possess the necessary certification; (b) they transfer to another school or district; (c) they dislike the school climate; and (d) they experience high levels of stress.

Methodology

This study was conducted in Baldwin County in southeast Alabama. All participants were teachers in the county school system and serve special education students in their areas of expertise. A 63-item instrument was selected that would reflect specific issues relating to the retention and attrition of special education teachers. Dr. Berna Levine developed this measure in Cobb County, Georgia, for the purpose of determining why special education teachers leave the field of special education. The questionnaire assessed issues regarding job satisfaction, administration responsiveness, pre-employment preparation, and specific reasons for terminating employment (Levine, 2001).

In the year 2002, Dr. Ed Richardson, Alabama State Superintendent of Education, used guidelines set forth by NCLBA to develop a model for identifying highly-qualified teachers in Alabama (Alabama Department of Education, 2003). Highly-qualified teachers are defined as those teachers who hold full-state certification, possess solid content knowledge of specific instructional areas and have received a bachelor's degree from a 4-year college or university (U.S. Department of Education, 2002, 2003). Highly-qualified teachers must teach core academic subjects such as English, reading or language arts, mathematics, science, foreign language, civics and government, economics, arts, history, and geography. …

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