ANNAPOLIS – Special education teachers continue to be one of the most sought-after categories of educators in the state, said school officials who are scrambling to fill empty teaching slots as classes begin.
Officials called it an ongoing problem that has forced some school districts to start looking overseas for teachers.
“There are certain categories where we never find enough new teachers. Special education is one,” said Kate Harrison, spokeswoman for the Montgomery County Public Schools.
School officials around the state echoed Harrison’s statement. They said the shortage is driven by laws that require a higher level of care for special education students and a higher standard for those teachers — and the sometimes thankless nature of the job.
“I just don’t think that new teachers are considering going into special education,” said Bill Reinhard, spokesman for the state Department of Education.
Reinhard attributed the unique demands of the job with discouraging many aspiring teachers from applying.
“It’s a particularly difficult field. It’s a wonderful field, but a very difficult one,” he said.
Unlike regular teachers, special education teachers have to individualize instruction for every one of their students. They must produce individual lesson plans, offer personalized services and hold several meetings a year with every student’s parents.
They must also document every plan, service and meeting in streams of paperwork.
Many find the paperwork alone overwhelming.
“All the work that special education teachers have to do that regular teachers don’t have to do make it hard to find and keep people,” said Tom Israel, executive director of the Montgomery County Education Association.
By federal and state law, Maryland schools must accommodate the needs of any student who has a learning disability. That does not always happen in practice.
“More often than not, they end up with long-term substitute teachers, uncertified teachers . . . that’s how school districts cover the gaps,” said Leslie Margolis, an attorney with the Maryland Disability Law Center. “Counties are reduced to finding substitutes, not all of whom are qualified.”
Some counties have taken the search for qualified teachers overseas. Baltimore County Public Schools hired special education teachers from the Philippines and Panama this year.
“We have found some very successful applicants overseas,” said Charles Herndon, communications specialist for Baltimore County.
“These are teachers that are so much in demand. We have school districts around the country that are competing for these same teachers,” Herndon said.
The State Department of Education’s 2006 Teacher Staffing Report said that of the 955 new special-education teachers hired in 2005 by Maryland schools, 505 came from outside Maryland.
Selene Almazan, director of advocacy services for the Maryland Coalition for Inclusive Education, said that the job has become even more difficult in recent years because more schools have established “co-taught” classes in which a special education teacher pairs with a regular teacher to teach mixed classes of children who do have special needs and those who do not.
Almazan said that co-teaching arrangements are more stressful and more challenging, and that most school systems do not adequately prepare new teachers for them.
“Teachers are taught to be solitary, and they are not being taught to co-teach so it’s kind of a paradigm shift for a lot of teachers,” she said.
Almazan said that co-teaching started in some school districts in 1975 when the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, enacted that year, required that students with special needs have access to regular classes.
The 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, which requires annual improvements on state assessments by both all students, including special education students, made it more popular.
“NCLB put the obligation on the school systems because special education classes were not being taught in the same rigorous manner as regular classes. . . Since that time, I have seen more school systems moving to the co-teaching model,” Almazan said.
Harrison said that providing more benefits to new teachers is important as many young people with relevant job skills seek other jobs that may pay better.
“Where there are other opportunities that pay well, other ways of trying out what they are interested in, many graduates find other careers,” she said.