This qualitative research uses a Delphi study to explore the perceptions of special education teachers regarding retention. This Delphi study includes twenty-five to thirty special education teachers of K-12 in two California districts of less than 40,000 students. The information gathered provides leaders in the field with successful practices in retaining special education teachers.
Purpose of the study
The primary purpose of this study is to explore the perceptions of special education teachers regarding the factors that influence their decisions to stay with a specific job placement or school community and develop recommendations for increasing teacher retention by developing more supportive school policies and practices. The study will employ the Delphi method to systematically survey special education teachers and develop an informed opinion about teacher retention by reviewing and distilling teacher input through several rounds of review. This survey of special education professionals can provide policymakers at all levels with an informed opinion on this issue for forecasting future events that can assist in future planning. The Delphi Method is based on a structured process for collecting and distilling knowledge from a group of experts by means of a series of questionnaires interspersed with controlled opinion feedback (Adler and Ziglio, 1996).
Additionally, the purpose of this phenomenological study is to describe the burnout/teacher retention problem in the field of special education, within the context of today's classrooms. Further, the study synthesizes the available information in order to suggest steps that may ameliorate this problem. To this end, a synthesis of research on teacher burnout within special education is presented. Next, several specific and malleable factors are explored more completely, including teacher stress and mentoring programs for new teachers. Finally, the study includes suggestions developed through the Delphi Study for increasing retention of teachers in special education.
The design is a Delphi teacher survey with open-ended questions as the primary source, and interviews as the secondary source, with approximately 25 to 30 K-12 special education teachers in two districts in Los Angeles County. This method is appropriate as qualitative research. According to Creswell (2002), "to learn about this phenomenon, the inquirer asks participants broad, general questions, collects the detailed view of the participants in the form of words or images, and analyzes the information for descriptions and themes." (p. 58). Additionally, a descriptive statistic research inquiry will be useful for gathering demographic data required on the number of special education teachers hired over a specific period and the longevity of each.
Significance of the Problem
Clearly, the continual growth of the student population in special education will only add to the current teacher shortages that exist. Districts appear to be in need of timely and reliable information to help their personnel departments attract and keep teachers in the field of special education. To date, research has both documented higher turnover among special education teachers, and suggested a number of reasons for this phenomenon (Boe, Bobbit, Cook, Whitener, & Weber, 1997; Brownell, Smith, McNellis, & Miller, 1997; McKnab, 1995; Singh & Billingsley, 1996). Table 1 below presents a synopsis of the research published since 1995. Many of these studies are recent enough to reflect the evolving nature of special education instruction, such as the recent expectations for inclusive instruction, the changes in disciplinary tactics as reflected in the recently mandated behavioral intervention plans, and the ever-increasing paperwork load on special education teachers.
The importance of retaining qualified special educators becomes apparent when studying the shortage problem. Recent estimates indicate that an additional 29,774 special education teachers need to replace uncertified staff and fill vacancies in the U.S. during 1988-89 (the Thirteenth Annual Report to Congress, 1991). E.E. Boe (personal communication, 1991), using the Annual Reports to Congress, found that the need for fully certified special educators increased by more than 12,000 (or 74%) over a recent 4-year period, while the supply of new teacher graduates declined by well over 7,000 (34%). Another indicator of the shortage problem is the high number of state personnel reporting teacher shortages (Schofer & Duncan, 1986; Smith-Davis, Burke, & Noel, 1984). Recent projections by a national consortium of special education organizations suggest that the teacher shortage problem in special education will reach crisis proportions in the years to come (American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, 1989).
Teacher shortages result in a number of undesirable consequences. Of primary concern is the number of unqualified teachers hired to fill vacant positions. Schrag (1990) estimated that up to 30% of special educators were on emergency certification, compared to 10% in conclusion. Teachers will answer questions as per a Delphi study. Then on receiving the answers, a second round of questions will take place. Given the extant data on turnover and burnout in special education, it is reasonable to inquire as to the reasons for the higher attrition rates among special educators. In this regard, Brownell, Smith, McNellis, and Miller (1997) addressed that issue in a study using 93 randomly selected Florida teachers who did not return to their special education teaching positions after the 1992-93 school year. Participants interviewed over the telephone answered questions about special education teacher attrition and the causes for leaving special education. The questions related to current employment status, primary and secondary reasons for leaving, things the school system could have done, incentives to return, and future career plans. The results of the study indicated that the majority of special educators who left the field took positions in other areas of education. Many took general education teaching positions along with non-administrative positions, administrative positions, district-level specialist positions, or substitute teaching positions, while others retired.
In order to further the analysis, these authors identified two groups of teachers from this sample, disgruntled teachers leaving the field, and non-disgruntled teachers leaving the field. Disgruntled teachers left because of the stresses due to being unsupported, unprepared, overwhelmed by student needs or job responsibilities, and a general sense that teachers have become increasingly disempowered. A combination of unpleasant work conditions (e.g., unsupported, disempowered, unprepared) and outside influences (e.g., birth of child, spouse transferred, retirement) contributed to these educators leaving the field. Non-disgruntled leavers left because of external factors such as certification requirements, family influences, retirement, positions not reoffered, or inadequate pay. The largest portion of the teachers stated that there were no incentives for them to return. A few mentioned they would consider returning if there were an increase in administrative support, and instructional support. This study provided evidence that stress, coupled with workload manageability lead to burnout.
In another study, Singh, and Billingsley (1996) used 658 special educators in Virginia in an attempt to identify variables that affected teachers' intent to stay in education. One hundred and fifty nine of these subjects were teachers of students with emotional and behavior disorders, and 499 were teachers in other areas of special education. With this differentiation in teaching responsibility noted, these data shed light on what may be the highest burnout area in special education -- working with behaviorally disordered students. All of the teachers mailed-in a questionnaire that identified various factors that may contribute to teacher retention and attrition. These survey data revealed that teachers working with students in other areas of special education were more likely to stay in the field of special education as compared to teachers of students with behavioral disorders; this difference attributed to higher stress in BD classes. The results also indicated that job satisfaction was the greatest influence on the teachers' intent to stay in the field for both groups of teachers. The second commonality for the two groups was the negative effect of role-related problems (e.g. managing challenging behavior; arranging IEP meetings, etc.) on job satisfaction. Both groups of teachers indicated that the greater the job satisfaction, the greater their intention to stay in teaching. Strong support from the Principal had no effect on the teachers who taught students with behavioral disorders, whereas it had a moderate effect on retention of the other group of special educators. Finally, the data suggested that in the profession of special education, teachers with greater experience, principal support, and less stress, were more likely to express higher intent to stay in the teaching field.
Much of the research on teacher attrition/retention has been piecemeal (Chapman, 1983; Grissmer & Kirby, 1987), and few have used a comprehensive model or framework of attrition and retention. Available research results indicate that teachers' career decisions relate to a wide variety of variables. The conceptual model provides…
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