Navigating the Special Education Teacher Shortage

Educating children with special needs can be challenging, but finding a qualified candidate for the job may be just as difficult.

Special education teachers play an important role in the lives of students with special needs, helping them thrive academically and socially. But, the special education teacher shortage makes it difficult to ensure these students get the customized attention they need in the classroom.

Overview of the Special Education Teacher Shortage

The Office of Special Education Programs estimates an 8 percent national shortage of special education teachers. The problem is nationwide, affecting all but two states and Washington, DC.

Not only are special ed teachers leaving their profession at nearly twice the rate of other teachers, but many underprepared new graduates are taking their place. The effects of this are troubling. Those with decades of experience and proper training are leaving faster than they can be replaced with qualified candidates.

Why is there a Special Education Teacher Shortage?

The reasons behind the special education teacher shortage are complex, and fixing it will not be simple or quick.

Here are a few of the biggest factors contributing to this shortage:

Stressful Working Conditions

Special education teachers have to deal with the same roadblocks as general education teachers, including unsupportive parents, student poverty, absenteeism, and a lack of resources or funding.

On top of this, special education teachers also have a more challenging teaching environment and additional paperwork for each student in their classroom. Some have smaller class sizes, but many teachers in this specialty have as many as 20 students in their classrooms.

Each of these students require customized instruction, as spelled out in their individualized education programs or IEPs. The federal government requires a yearly IEP for every student in special education, not to mention annual testing and meetings with parents and other teachers to ensure that the plan laid out by the IEP is followed.

Adding this paperwork onto the already challenging workload of teaching special education students is a recipe for burnout.

Low Pay for Special Education Teachers

Special education teacher salary plays a big role in the national special education teacher shortage. Research shows that teachers who work in districts that pay less leave their positions sooner than those who pay more. Low-poverty districts pay about 35 percent more than high-poverty districts, meaning that finding qualified special education teachers in underprivileged districts is even more difficult.

The actual figures vary from state to state, but generally, teachers receive as much as 20 percent less than most other college graduates. Raises over time are also less than other professions, widening the pay discrepancy to 30 percent by mid-career.

These discrepancies combined with the intense workload of special education teachers quickly leads to burnout, driving qualified people away from the profession.

Insufficient Support

As mentioned, many new special education teachers are under-qualified. Often, this results from school districts putting teachers in roles for which they are underprepared. To make this even worse, many special education teachers, including those with and without proper special education training and experience, do not have the support they need to do their jobs well.

Many districts, particularly in low-income areas, do not or cannot provide things like additional special education teacher training, professional development, or support aides. In these situations, special education teachers are overworked, stressed, and may feel that they are not doing the best job they can. These feelings can quickly lead to people changing professions or retiring early.

Unequal Distribution of Resources

Although special education teacher shortages can affect any area, they tend to hit low-income communities more. Often, these districts do not have as much money, meaning they pay lower salaries and have fewer resources and less support to provide their special education teacher programs. Consequently, enrollment in special education in these areas has declined, meaning that children who need these services are not getting them because their schools are less likely to have a special education teacher to help them.

These are just some of the negative aspects that contribute to the special education teacher shortage. To avoid them in your school, work with Sunbelt to find a qualified special education teacher for your district.

The Consequences of Special Education Teacher Shortage

The consequences of the special education teacher shortage are vast, affecting the students, schools, and the profession itself.

When special education teachers choose to leave the profession, it affects their students’ learning. The constant churn of teachers disrupts the classroom and the school, and in the end, the kids lose someone they have come to trust who was qualified to teach them.

The special education teacher shortage is also very hard on the schools. It costs time and money to recruit new teachers, two things that many districts might not have.

The shortage also damages the profession’s reputation, scaring people away from the career when it needs to attract as many qualified people as possible.

How to Address the Special Education Teacher Shortage

There is no quick fix to the special education teacher shortage, but leaders in the field should continue working to improve special education working conditions for the teachers and ensure that low-income schools have the help they need to attract qualified people into their districts.

These solutions are possible and will hopefully come in time, but if you need a solution now, consider working with Sunbelt to find qualified special education teachers to meet your current special education staffing requirements.


Special education teachers are in demand, but don’t let the teacher shortage stop your school from giving the students the education they need. Sunbelt can help you find qualified candidates for your open special education needs.

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