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This study investigated factors which motivated individuals to initially pursue careers in special education, factors which contributed toward their plans to remain or leave the field, and their perceptions of school districts’ effective and ineffective recruitment and retention practices. The sample comprised of 15 individuals employed in public schools throughout north Texas who initially pursued careers in special education.
Data were collected through the form of audio-recorded semi-structured telephone interviews. Empathy towards students, family, and opportunities to fill job vacancies were factors that participants cited the most for initially pursuing careers in special education. Furthermore, most of the interviewees reported satisfaction within their jobs, but noted excessive demands and lack of administrative support as contributing to job dissatisfaction. Motivational Factors toward Pursuing a Career in Special Education.
Chronic shortages in the field of special education continue to pose challenges for public schools across the United States (Billingsley, Carlson, & Klein, 2004; Boe, 2006; Billingsley & McLeskey, 2004; Brownell, Hirsch, Seo, 2004; Singh & Billingsley, 1996; Strunk & Robinson, 2006; Thornton, Peltier, & Medina, 2007). The limited number of individuals entering and/or remaining in the field of special education has resulted in school districts’ inability to fill the necessary teaching positions; such shortages have been linked to difficulties in the recruitment and retention of qualified individuals (Olivarez & Arnold, 2006).
Although difficulties with the recruitment of teachers, low retention, and high attrition rates are evident across all teaching professions, it is much more prevalent among special educators. Specifically, teachers of students with emotional/behavioral disorders exhibit the largest shortage, followed by those serving students with severe/profound disabilities, and learning disabilities (McLeskey, Tyler, & Flippin, 2004). Our national school districts are in a crisis. Specifically, districts are scrambling to find qualified special educators to fill the vacant teaching positions.
According to Plash and Piotrowski (2006), a projected 611,550 positions in special education will need to be filled by the year 2010. However, the inability to recruit the necessary number of eligible individuals to fill positions continues to be a major problem for school administrators. An infinite number of research studies have been conducted in an attempt to identify barriers which deter people from entering the field (Billingsley, 2004; Gersten, Keating, Yovanoff, & Harniss, 2001; McLeskey et al., 2004; Olivarez & Arnold, 2006; Thornton, Peltier, & Medina, 2007).
Studies have identified perceptions of low social status associated with being a special educator, poor working conditions, high rates of stress, excessive paperwork, and low salaries with the decreased number of individuals entering the field of special education (Barmby, 2006; McLeskey et al. , 2004; Rice, Goeling, & Peters, 2005).
A vast amount of research also exists regarding factors which have contributed to the decisions of individuals to leave the field of special education (Billingsley, Carlson, & Klein, 2004; Singh & Billingsley, 1996; Thornton, Peltier, & Medina, 2007) and consequently contribute to the shortage of and high attrition rates of special education teachers (Barmby, 2006; Fish & Stephens, in press; McLeskey, Tyler, & Saunders, 2004). According to Plash and Piotrowski (2006), 13. 2% of special education teachers leave their position each year.
While six percent of special educators leave the field of education altogether, 7. 2% transfer to general education positions. Prevalent variables identified as contributors to the exodus from the field include occupational stress, burnout (Botwinik, 2007; Greiner & Smith, 2006), weak support by administrators, unreasonable caseloads, large class size, low salaries (Darling-Hammond, 2003), testing and accountability pressures (Tye & O’Brien, 2002), and ineffective in-service programs (Kaufhold, Alverez, & Arnold, 2006; Plash & Piotrowski, 2006).
A study conducted by Brownell, Smith, McNellis, and Lenk (1994) investigated the contextual variables related to teacher attrition. Findings indicated that those teachers who decided to stay in the field of special education were more committed to teaching students with disabilities, had a higher sense of efficacy, felt more prepared by their pre-service and initial teaching experiences, and exhibited more effective coping strategies than those who decided to leave the field.
Two international studies were identified which focused on the motivating factors of individuals initially pursuing careers as general educators (Barmby, 2006; Watt & Richardson, 2007). Based upon a study conducted in England and Wales, Barmby identified intrinsic (e. g. , the activity of teaching children) and altruistic (e. g. , desire to help children succeed) reasons which contributed to the teachers’ decision to pursue careers within the field of education.
Similar findings (e. g., working with children, shape future of children, and make a social contribution) were reported by Watt and Richardson who investigated the motivational factors which influenced Australian individuals to initially pursue a career in general education. In addition to investigating special educators’ job satisfaction and decisions to remain in the field, obtaining an understanding of individuals’ motivations for entering the field of special education have implications which may assist in the increased recruitment and retention of special educators.
Such findings would contribute to enhanced teacher educational planning, curriculum design and policy decisions. Therefore, the purpose of this study was to obtain perceptions of special educators with regards to factors that contributed toward their (a) initial pursuit of special education careers, (b) job satisfaction and/or dissatisfaction levels and (c) decisions whether to remain on the special education career path. Participants were further asked to provide recommendations that school districts could take to effectively recruit and retain special educators.
Design of Study Qualitative methodology was utilized in this study in the form of audio-recorded semi-structured telephone interviews to obtain the perceptions of special educators. Qualitative research is appropriate in dealing with potentially multiple realities, mutually shaping influences, and value patterns (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). Interviews serve the purpose of “obtaining here-and-now constructions of persons, events, activities, organizations, feelings, motivations, claims, concerns, and other entities” (p. 268).
According to Bogdan and Biklen (1998), semi-structured interviews encourage interviewees to expand upon ideas, which provide the researcher opportunities to generate abstract ideas through descriptive material. Participants Respondents participating in this study consisted of 15 educators employed in public school districts throughout the north Texas area. This purposive sample was comprised of 11 special education teachers, three diagnosticians and one former special education teacher currently serving as a high school principal at the time of the interviews.
Four of the 11 special education teachers within this study were previously general education teachers. Data Collection and Analysis The interview questions conducted for this study focused on factors which contributed toward special educators initially pursuing careers in special education in addition to conditions that would contribute toward them remaining in or leaving the field. Interviewees were additionally asked to provide feedback pertaining to their school districts’ special educator recruitment and retention efforts. The following open-ended questions were asked to each of the 15 participants.