Special Education teachers are an aging population: Local schools see shortage in speech and language pathologists and occupational therapists
California is currently facing as shortage of qualified teachers – including special education teachers – according to an article printed in September on US News on NBCNews.com.
The article cited a report, “Greatness by Design” released by the California Department of Education in September – a report designed to help improve how teachers are recruited, trained and mentored – that states “there are still shortages of qualified teachers in fields such as special education.”
Dr. Pia Wong, department chair for the Department of Teaching Credentials and professor at California State University Sacramento, says one reason for the shortage is teachers retiring without anyone to fill their positions. “When you look at the average age of teachers in special (education) and general education, it’s an aging population,” she explains. “Based on when people typically do retire or can retire, we know in the next 10 years we’re going to see very high numbers of retirement.”
Another reason, says Dr. Wong, is a growth in the population of students who qualify for special education services due to better diagnostic processes. “Because we have better tools for understanding the special needs that students have, there’s more students that are identified and therefore that creates a need for special programs, special classes, specialized teachers,” she says.
So what does this mean for Sacramento?
Inclusion Practice at SCUSD
In Sacramento City Unified School District, Director of Special Education Becky Bryant says there’s not a shortage of special education teachers overall, but there is a shortage in certain types of special education specialties, such as speech and language pathologists and occupational therapists.
Overall, Bryant says the amount of special education teachers they have is cyclical and will depend on the number of retirees they have each year and if there are new teachers coming to replace them. “Because Sacramento is the capitol, we have a lot of people that kind of move in and out because they have to relocate or something,” she adds.
According to Bryant, SCUSD employs 260 special education teachers and serves 88 schools plus charter schools. She says there are resource specialist programs at all school sites, and throughout the district there are special day programs.
Bryant says SCUSD is in the third year of implementation of an Inclusive Practice program at six schools in the district – C.K. McClatchy High School, California Middle School, Sutterville Elementary, Oak Ridge Elementary, Leataata Floyd Elementary, and Caleb Greenwood K-8 School. Through this model, says Bryant, students who would have been in a traditional special day class setting are now in general education, and the general educator and special education teacher co-teach together to provide instruction to all students in the classroom.
According to Bryant, Inclusive Practice helps teach students skills they will need when they become adults and enter into a diverse society, and it allows all students to learn together and be part of a community. “It’s not about singling out students with disabilities and sending them somewhere else,” she adds.
Special Programs & Inclusion at SJUSD
Over at San Juan Unified School District (SJUSD), Dayle Cantrall, program manager for special education, believes that special education is a growing need because there is not always a pool of credentialed teachers at the ready to fill any holes they may have. “When we have credentialed teachers, they usually end up in a job and they stay – they don’t face layoffs like general education teachers do, they’re always in high demand,” she adds.
According to Cantrall, SJUSD currently employs 307 special education teachers, including speech therapists and adaptive PE teachers. She says there is at a minimum a half-time resource teacher at every school site, and some high schools have upwards to nine special education teachers at a school site. And special education students range from those that need speech therapy to specialized programs for severe autism and the deaf and hard-of-hearing.
Cantrall says recent changes in special education programs at SJUSD include specialized programming for severe autism students and a new transition center for kids ages 18-22 this year.
Additionally, there are specialized inclusion programs from elementary through high school on a few campuses in the district, says Cantrall. “We have support built into the particular campuses, including increased number of instructional assistants,” she explains. Plus some campuses also have the capability for a special education student to attend the same school as their brothers and sisters through the support of “roving inclusion teachers” and resources teachers.
What It Takes
To help ensure there are qualified special education teachers for California schools, Dr. Wong says one thing CSUS has done is advocate for an admission cycle for the special education credential program every semester. Additionally, faculty has been active in securing grants from the federal government to help candidates interested in pursuing the special education credential.
For those considering becoming certified to become a special education teacher, Dr. Wong suggests they look into it by doing some research and visiting some classrooms. “I think people may have certain preconceptions about what it means to teach students with special needs,” she explains. “I think if they were to visit some classrooms, they would really see some positive, exciting things happen and maybe find it’s something that attracts them.”
Bryant says they look to hire special education teachers who have a passion for kids in general, and a passion to work with students with disabilities. “(We look for) people who have a clear understanding of how to manage a classroom, how to motivate kids, and who are really willing to work on creating relationships with kids,” she adds.
And Cantrall says if you have a calling to work with at-risk kids, you’re not afraid to collaborate, think outside the box, and do what’s needed to meet the best interests of that child’s needs – go for it. “We need people in special education who are not only dedicated to kids, but dedicated to paving the way so those kids can continue to learn in the least restrictive environment possible,” she says.