I just stumbled upon this article on Facebook about the caseloads of Special Education teachers growing past the legal limit. This is pushing the Special Education teachers in Philadelphia to quit due to the extreme stress and high demands of the job. I read through this article and my first thought was that this problem is not limited to Philadelphia. Special Education is a field where few teachers exist and job openings are always vacant. Here in the Dakotas, us Special Education teachers often have large caseloads as we serve students in K-12, K-7, 7-12, etc. In my case I have taught 9-12 and now teach K-7. I had 16 students on my caseload last year and also serve 16 students in my current placement. This may not seem like much, but having to see and plan lessons for each of the 16 different students (one lesson will simply not work for each kid because their needs are much different) in one day is an extremely daunting task. A few weeks ago, I was extremely overwhelmed with my caseload. I was back to thinking about getting out of this field and going back into retail while I figured out what to do with my life. I remember emailing my sister and my exact words were “I now understand why many special education teachers don’t last for more than five years. I am burnt out and am not sure I can make it in this field much longer.” She is also a teacher and is currently in the same boat as me. So, let’s talk about why the burnout happens. I would like to give you a glimpse into my day.
As I stated, I see 16 kids each day. I design interventions and curriculum to reinforce what they are learning in class, as well as what they need extra support in and teach life skills. I teach vocational classes (subjects at different levels that teach what the student needs to know for life). I strive to see each student at their own time so that they can get the individualized attention they need. So, each kid is scheduled for half an hour with me a day (minus my first graders, which are three students that come at the same time for reading since there is not enough time in my schedule). When students come at the same time, I design stations and large group instruction so that they can work with me and on skills in which they need support. As for the disabilities I serve, I serve one extreme emotional behavior case, three intellectual cases, one traumatic brain injury, two autism, two other health impaired and the rest fall under a learning disability. Now, I have five students that have extreme needs and require to see me for more than half an hour a day. I become creative with squeezing them in while I have other students. This helps them with work on their social skills and also allows them to have more time working with me. Two of these students have extreme behaviors (biting, kicking, hitting, meltdowns, etc.) and require my attention in the classroom from time to time. Ok, I could keep going one with what I do every day, but I won’t because I could go on forever and I think you get the point. It’s not easy. I don’t get a break. In fact, I use my 20 minute lunch to eat with two of my students with severe needs. This squeezes in some social skills time, as well as helping a student master drinking from a cup, and allows me to make sure they can accomplish eating everything within the 20 minutes they get. I also have to use that time to make copies, use the bathroom, refill coffee and water, etc. Then I am off again. I don’t get the prep that every other teacher gets. It’s a constant marathon from the moment I walk in the door to the moment I leave. Burnout happens. I can definitely say that if it weren’t for the amazing kids, I would probably be long gone from this profession.
Now back to the caseload thing. I recently added a student with a learning disability to my caseload. He came from being referred from the Title program. Long story short, the Title teacher was mad at me for not being able to see this student from more than half an hour a day. I was told “to get creative with my time” and that “this student has the ability to succeed in life, whereas my higher need students are probably at the level they will be at for life.” Additionally, I was told that “special education just focuses on the students who have true disabilities and sort of pushes away from spending time with students who are borderline have a disability.” HELLLLLLLLOOOOOOOOOOO!!!! THAT’S MY JOB!!!!!! I was so irate after that conversation. My students with higher needs require more time with me due to their IEP. These students need more education and services to teach them to be successful in life. I have probably never been so mad in my entire life, but reminded myself that this teacher doesn’t have the background I do. So, I would like to know how do I “get creative with my time?” I thought I was already doing that by squeezing in students during different times, pretty much teaching during lunch and making stations, etc. Maybe there is something I am not getting, but with a caseload of 16 and my five students that require more individualized attention I am not sure I could get more creative.
So, the point of my rampage? I can relate to these teachers in Philadelphia and completely understand why they are quitting. There is a quote in the article that states “Unfortunately for the students there are a lot of needs that they have that we simply don’t have time to tend to during the day.” That is the boat I am in right now. It’s incredibly frustrating and difficult. It’s pretty much like being pulled into 16 different directions. Once your mind gets settled on teaching one subject, you go and change subjects in 5 minutes. Your head is constantly going and if someone tells you something in the hallway, forget about remembering it unless they hand you a written note.
After reading this article, I was happy to know that I am not the only special education teacher with these demands and burn out feelings. Many of my friends have 8-10 students on their caseload, so they can manage it all and be home by 5:00. Unfortunately, that is not the case for many of us special education teachers across the country. So, is this a large problem for the field of Special Education? I would surely say so. Teaching special education used to be my passion and I was always told in college that I would make a great special education teacher. But, with these high numbers I feel that I can’t flourish and instead feel bogged down with just managing lesson plans, paperwork and grading. If this continues, could I see myself in the field 3-5 years from now? My answer: probably not (if I did decide to leave the profession, I would still strive to find a job serving the population with disabilities as that is my passion). As you can see (by this article and post) these large numbers in special education caseloads are pushing special education teachers out of a field where there already is a vast shortage. That’s a major problem and concern. My question is: how do we solve this problem and what is going to happen to this field if the young teachers (like myself) are pushed out of it in a few short years due to extreme burnout?