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The High School Journal 86.1 (2002) 36-44

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Teacher Burnout In Special Education:
The Causes and The Recommended Solutions

Cecil Fore, III, Ph.D.
The University of Georgia

Christopher Martin, M.Ed.
The University of Georgia

William N. Bender, Ph.D.
The University of Georgia



While many areas in education are experiencing teacher shortages (McKnab, 1995; Merrow, 1999), the retention of special education teachers in particular is a critical concern in many schools across the nation. Even prior to the developing national teacher shortage, educators were voicing concerns about higher burnout and/or teacher attrition rates in special education as compared to general education (National Association of State Directors of Special Education, 1990). Many anticipate that the national teacher shortage may only exacerbate this growing need for special educators. McKnab (1995), for example, estimated the annual attrition rate for special education teachers as between 9% and 10%, as compared to 6% among educators in other areas. More recently, a national survey of over 1,000 special educators conducted by the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) concluded: "Poor teacher working conditions contribute to the high rate of special educators leaving the field, teacher burnout, and substandard quality of education for students with special needs" (CEC, 1998). Clearly, hidden within the growing national teacher shortage in all certification areas, the ongoing burnout of special education teachers has become an important liability in the provision of appropriate educational services to students with disabilities.

The purpose of this paper is to describe the burnout/teacher retention problem in the field of special education, within the context of today's classrooms. Further we will synthesize the available information in order to suggest steps that may be undertaken to ameliorate this problem. First, a synthesis of research on teacher burnout within special education is presented. Next, several specific and malleable factors are explored more completely—teacher stress and mentoring for new teachers. Finally, suggestions for increasing retention of teachers in special education are presented.

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; [End Page 36] Brownell, Smith, McNellis, & Miller, 1997; McKnab, 1995; Singh & Billingsley, 1996). Table 1 presents a synopsis of the research that has been 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. [End Page 37]

As one example of this research effort, Boe, Bobbit, and Cook (1997) conducted a study using a national survey done by the National Center for Educational Statistics in 1987/1988. Surveys from 4, 812 public school teachers were used to provide data that tracked teacher transfers across schools, school districts, state boundaries, public and private sectors, teaching specializations, and out of the teaching profession. Also, the educators were given a follow-up survey as a longitudinal component that was conducted during the 1988-1989 school year. The results indicated that the attrition rate of 20% for special education teachers was higher than for general educators (attrition rate of 13%) in 1987-88. Of the teachers who left education, 12% of the special education teachers, versus 7% of the general education teachers transferred to a different school. Also, more special education teachers (8%) than general educators (6%) left public school teaching altogether.

With these data on turnover and burnout in special education, one may well inquire as to the reasons for the higher attrition rates among special educators. 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. The participants were interviewed over the telephone on questions about special education teacher attrition and the causes for leaving special education. The questions related to current...


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