How Special Education Teachers Can Find a Support Network

Kate Malone
Kate Malone
Middle school principal; Ed.S. in School Leadership
‘Special Education’ spelled out in colorful wooden letters.

Why Do Special Education Teachers Need a Support Network?

High-quality teachers are the most important factor in student learning, and students with special needs are not exempt from this truism. In many schools and districts, however, there are not enough certified special education teachers to serve students. The dearth of special education teachers is due to both the lack of eligible special education teacher candidates and the high turnover rate among those who enter the profession. Among those who remain, job satisfaction is far below that of their general education counterparts. High turnover, low job satisfaction, compassion fatigue, and stress have become synonymous with a career in special education. As a result, student learning outcomes suffer.

When asked, those leaving the profession cite a lack of support as the most pressing issue. Administrators and teachers must create support networks for special educators so that they may, in turn, provide critical specialized instruction to some of our most vulnerable students. How does one accomplish this when special educators, like their students, are a minority in almost every school?

Strategies for Expanding Your Network

Attend a Conference/Participate in Professional Development Opportunities

Most teachers are students at heart. Teachers get a thrill from learning something new or making a new connection. That surge of energy and excitement can be just the thing to get a special educator back on track when they are feeling fatigue as a result of their chosen profession. Attending a conference or participating in professional learning opportunities can provide a special educator with a connection with colleagues, a new perspective, inspiration, and a renewed enthusiasm for their work.

The effect of professional development in improving special educators’ attitudes toward their work, and in honing their craft, is reason enough for any savvy school administrator to support that venture. Special educators must actively seek these opportunities, and administrators must remember to offer them as they arise. In this way, the teacher’s network is multiplied through their exposure to the professional learning opportunity, but also in the clear gesture of support from the administrator.

Pursue an Advanced Degree

Special educators can create a support network of both academics and fellow teachers by pursuing an advanced degree. The type of degree is somewhat less important than the experience, whether a graduate degree or certificate program. The professional connections forged by sharing classroom space and diverse perspectives with other educators (even virtually) creates a fertile space for teachers to cultivate meaningful, supportive relationships with others. School districts can lessen the financial burden of these experiences and send a clear message of support to special education teachers by partnering with degree-granting institutions.

Cultivate Professional Learning Communities

An effective Professional Learning Community (PLC) is a group of empowered professionals who respect one another enough to hold each other accountable through a shared set of norms. In our school, this is accomplished through the establishment of social contracts. Through these norms, teachers ask each other not just to name problems, but also to analyze data and collaborate to create solutions. A high-functioning PLC is like a lab in which teachers continuously propose hypotheses, test them, record data, and form new hypotheses based on the data. That type of work takes an enormous amount of trust among colleagues, because experiments do not always go to plan and solutions often require a diverse set of skills to execute effectively. However, it is precisely this type of intellectual endeavor that yields improved student learning outcomes and leads to increased teacher job satisfaction.

Cultivating a PLC that is diverse in its make-up in every way possible—skill set, experience level, gender, ethnicity, specialization, certification area, etc.—is essential to ensuring that special educators are well supported in their schools. While a school may initially focus on establishing a Special Education PLC, the most impactful work for students occurs when the special education teacher becomes a valued member of multiple PLCs. For instance, a special education department, math department, and sixth-grade core academic team could form the support network for a single special educator. Once that happens, special educators do not just have the support of their peers, they have the support of their entire school community. 

Interview Prospective Administrators and Choose Wisely

When a teacher is interviewing with prospective schools, it is essential that they determine whether the administration’s philosophy and expectations regarding special education align with their own. If they do not, it will be difficult for the teacher to ever feel supported.

It is worth noting that it is likely that special education is a high-needs area in any district in which the teacher is seeking employment. Special educators should be discerning in their search for the right school. Prospective teachers should be analyzing the potential for a support network from the moment the interview starts. Are there other teachers present? How do professionals in this school support one another? Do they have PLCs? Of which PLCs are the special educators members? Is the administration willing to commit resources to high-quality professional development?

Creating a network of support through a combination of the strategies outlined above can ensure that special education teachers and their students flourish and may be the determining factor in the teacher’s decision to remain in education. Our students cannot afford to lose any more capable, passionate educators.

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