Betsy Kling was faced with a desk full of papers. There were stacks of documents — at least 20 to 40 pages per student. And because there were not enough teachers to match the students’ individual special education needs, the work kept piling up with no end in sight.
For Kling, what started as a childhood dream eventually made her reach her breaking point. She was responsible for creating individualized education plans for dozens of students in her Milwaukee charter school. She faced relentless expectations from parents. It all had a draining effect on her mental health. She tried a relaxing holiday in Mexico with friends and going to therapy, but nothing worked. She decided to finish out the 2021-22 school year, but then she was done.
“I only ever wanted to be a teacher. That was my driving force,” said Kling, who taught in Wisconsin charter schools for 10 years. “I was getting frustrated with kids for being kids, and that wasn’t fair to them, and it wasn’t fair to me, so I needed to step away.”
Kling is just one of many special education teachers who have left the profession, citing burnout. In 48 states, including Wisconsin, there are not enough special education teachers to meet the needs of children in the classrooms, according to the state Department of Public Instruction.
“I’ve never seen shortages like this,” said John Eisenberg, the executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education. “We’re in crisis-level shortages.”
Within the special education field, teachers are 2½ times more likely to leave the profession than general education teachers, according to the DPI. Some reports suggest that up to 50% of new special education teachers leave in the first few years on the job.
More than half of school districts across the country have reported teacher shortages. The problem is especially acute among special education teachers. In a survey of school districts in August, DPI reported that special education has the most frequent staff shortages, at over 50%.
States face extra pressure to meet the needs of students with disabilities because federal law requires it. Students with disabilities are entitled to special education and related services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Their Individualized Education Programs, or IEPs, are based on what support the student needs and can range from one-on-one classroom aides to additional resources to address educational and social development deficiencies.
“The unavailability of staff to provide services outlined in an individual student’s IEP does not relieve the district of the responsibility to provide the special education and related services as outlined in the IEP,” said DPI spokesperson Chris Bucher.
More students are applying for IEPs, which creates extra paperwork for special education teachers, extending their work days beyond school hours, according to Eisenberg and teachers in Wisconsin and other states.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic forced children to stay at home for months on end, students lagged in social development. This was especially seen in kindergartners entering school for the first time, and it put an extra strain on teachers. One of the reasons students with disabilities fell behind is because it was harder to meet their needs online, educators say. Platforms like Zoom, Google Classrooms and Google Meet are not always suited for people with hearing or visual impairments.
Some exhausted parents see Individualized Education Programs as a way to fix the effects of the last two years, Kling said.
“Our only concern is that people are doing that out of a knee jerk reaction because of the pandemic where kids might be behind in their learning or might have exhibited some behavioral issues, but it might not be indicative of a disability,” said Eisenberg.
Before the pandemic, about 12% to 13% of students across the country were in special education, Eisenberg said. Now, more children are frequently evaluated for consideration.
“It’s not a Band-Aid. … It’s not a magic wand that (will) automatically fix your child,” Kling said. “That lack of socialization was very apparent in kids, just the drive that they had for being in a school setting.”
Data from the Government Accountability Office in October showed shortages of special education teachers in every region of the U.S. were between 8% to 17% higher than five years earlier. Worse, the number of individuals obtaining special education degrees has declined slightly, while the need has risen substantially.
“In terms of the types of paperwork and tracking and reporting, these shortages existed prior to the pandemic. But I think the pandemic sort of exacerbated an already challenging situation,” said Jacqueline Nowicki, a director of the GAO’s education, workforce and income security team.
For Kling, the stress was too much. She is now in the corporate world. Her workday runs from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. She goes into her job and completes her tasks, she’s actually able to take a lunch break, and after eight hours, Kling is done. She’s not sure when, or if, she’ll go back to teaching. “It kind of strips away who you are as a person,” Kling said. “I think the education system completely has to break and be rebuilt.”