27 May Eleanor Goetzinger: Why we should care about the special education teacher shortage

May 27, 2016

By: Eleanor Goetzinger

Source: tulsaworld.com

School will be out soon, and school districts are frantically searching for special education teachers to fill their positions for the next school year.

The special education teacher shortage throughout our nation means that all students with special needs will not be appropriately served. More students are now being identified and placed in special education under the category of “emotionally disturbed” or “behaviorally disordered.” A few disabilities that fall under these categories consist of schizophrenia, bipolar, anxiety, and psychotic disorder. Other disabilities that require a special educators’ expertise are autism, ADHD, and Tourette’s syndrome.

Every single school day, primary physicians, psychiatrists, neurologists, and school psychologists identify more children for special education services.

Many of the current veteran special education teachers already in schools have not received the appropriate training to work with this particular student population.

These students can be severely challenged, and at times, dangerous to self and others in the school environment. Students with severe mental illness may go in and out of residential hospitalization treatment, are on psychological medication, and/or need to be referred to counseling programs that specifically work with these types of disorders. Parents and guardians of these children also need counseling, support and often rely on teachers for help.

While updating the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act  in 2004, Congress found that education of students with disabilities had been impeded by “low expectations,” and wanted more students placed into the general education curriculum or regular classroom. This meant the majority of students with behavioral concerns were shifted into the regular classroom. However, in most states, teacher training usually only includes one course at colleges and universities: Exceptional Child. Understanding the complexities of mental illness and how it affects students in schools is a challenge. These students also have to perform well on state tests which adds additional stress.

When first-year teachers receives their teaching assignments, they might easily have a student in their classroom with a disability of emotional disturbance. If completed properly, teachers in the regular education class will receive a modification sheet for all students that have been placed on an Individualized Educational Plan, the so-called IEP.

If the IEP team has identified behavior as one of the student’s target goals to work on during the school year, a copy of their behavior intervention plan for each special needs student should be thoroughly reviewed. Knowing all the challenges, if a special education teacher shortage exists in our country, will all of the regular education teachers be notified if a student with a behavioral concern is sitting in their classroom? Could this become a liability and a school security issue?

Many times, the elementary school setting may be the first place where students with a mental illness might be observed. Socialization delays, lack of communication skills, and defiance towards authority are just a few challenges that these students are confronted with early in their academic years. The number of special education teachers that are trained to work with these types of children in the school setting are currently very few in number.

Our nation’s schools are the front line when working with students who are challenged with behavior disorders, and we must use proactive measures. In order to keep our schools safe, we need more well-trained special education teachers in our educational system.

All educators deserve a safe learning environment when working in their schools.  Let’s not wait for another community in our nation to be affected by crime due to the current special education teacher shortage in our schools.


Eleanor Goetzinger received her doctorate from the University of Oklahoma in special education with an emphasis in behavior disorders. For the past 17 years, she has worked in rural, suburban, and urban schools while addressing students with severe behavioral concerns.

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