Special education teacher Christina Simmons welcomes and smiles at Marion’s Halo McNutt, 5, and her father, Marvin McNutt, at Starley Elementary School in Marion on Thursday. She only has one special education teacher job in the district, but other school districts are struggling to find more special education teachers and auxiliary professionals. (Savannah Break/The Gazette)
Special education teachers Jade Lowell (left) and Christina Simmons welcome back-to-school students on Thursday at Starley Elementary School in Marion. (Savannah Blake/The Gazette)
Special education teacher Jade Lowell holds out a picture frame as kindergartener Oliver Randolph poses for a photo in front of Starley Elementary School in Marion Thursday. (Savannah Blake) / The Gazette)
Special education teacher Christina Simmons speaks with a parent next to grade 2 Zeal Hill at Starley Elementary School in Marion on Thursday. Hill is one of many students Simmons works with throughout her years. (Savannah Break/The Gazette)
The Gazette by Grace King
When Jade Lowell first started teaching special education, she didn’t think she would like it.
But Lowell, who teaches at Starley Elementary School in Marion, quickly fell in love with the job.
A five-year special education teacher, Rowell had many of the same students in her classroom during her three years at Starry Elementary, a K-2 grade school.
“It allows me to get to know my students on different levels and build rapport with them and their families,” she said.
School districts face one of the biggest staffing challenges in special education as many students in eastern Iowa begin the new school year on Tuesday.
As of July 28, the Cedar Rapids Community School District has 30 open teaching positions, Linda Nogle, executive director of talent management, told The Gazette in an email.
As of Wednesday, 18 of those open positions were for special education teachers, along with 35 special education para-educator positions.
What should I do?
The number of paras required is determined by the Individualized Education Plan, a legal document prepared for public school students with special education needs. Plans are developed with the child’s parent or guardian, teachers, and other district officials. Para-educators assist in the classroom and work one-on-one with students.
“Nationally, nearly every school district is understaffed,” says Nogle.
Cedar Rapids, Iowa’s second-largest school district, also faces a “severe staff shortage …. During these challenging times, building managers and teachers are determined to best serve their students and community.” We will step up to decide how to do it,” she said.
The district is implementing several short- and long-term strategies to address staffing shortages, Noggle said.
These include recruiting, providing additional incentives, building replacement pools, asking retired teachers to return, and consolidating classes where appropriate.
A long-term strategy includes helping current employees become certified teachers.
According to the Iowa Department of Education, research shows that only 69% of special education teachers remain in their jobs after five years.
“This is especially important for students who have[individualized education plans]. They are served by special education teachers who may be new each year or meet the needs of every student on their roster. You may have very little experience,” says John Speer. , the principal administrator of the Grant Wood Area Education Agency, which provides educational resources to many schools in eastern Iowa.
AEA helped increase special education teacher retention to 82% after five years.
The agency recognizes the additional challenges special education teachers face and works with special education directors to identify how best to meet student needs and build confidence and competence in new special education teachers. to keep them in their profession.
However, only 54% of them stay in special education classrooms for an extended period of time, with most moving to general education classrooms, Speer said in an email to The Gazette.
Gretchen Kriegel, deputy superintendent of the Marion Independent School District, said the district is “really lucky” that only one of the district’s 24 special education teachers has a vacancy.
There is a growing need for para-educators in school districts, and Kriegel feels he’s “pretty lucky there, too.”
One of the challenges for special education teachers is a large amount of paperwork as teachers have to create individualized education plans. Teachers also have more meetings to coordinate and implement with parents, guardians and other service providers of their students, “making it a little bit harder,” he said, Kriegel.
Understaffing the special education department “can definitely impact the services we can provide to our students,” said Kriegel, a longtime special education teacher.
“I wish teachers were more interested in special education. It’s a very rewarding profession.”
Shawn Dachuk, associate professor of education at the University of Iowa, said special education faces the biggest staffing shortage in Iowa schools.
“In general, there are fewer people seeking teaching jobs,” Dachuk said. “I think it has to do with the number of hours and the wages paid for those hours. It’s hard to sell.”
Without adequate staffing, eligible students for special education services may not achieve the goals set forth in their individualized education plans, may make less academic progress, and may fall further behind their peers. Datchuk says there is potential.
One way to attract more teachers to special education is by requiring additional approval or a master’s degree in Iowa. It could be about promoting federal programs more effectively and giving opportunities to those who choose to pursue them, Datchuk said.
The federal government offers many grants to undergraduate students seeking to become certified teachers in special education. For example, Federal TEACH Grants provide financial assistance to students pursuing careers in education, with a focus on applicants who specialize in areas of high need such as special education.
State programs also help students pursue careers as special education teachers. The Iowa Board of Education Review is working on general approval of K-12 special education, which may help more teachers transition from one program to another.
The proposal will be submitted to the state board of education this fall, said Heather Doe, director of communications for the Iowa Department of Education.
Christina Simmons, a behavior-focused special education teacher at Starley Elementary School, said she had experienced “significant behavior” at school and had “never had a teacher with whom he could connect” to her siblings. I enrolled in special education because of this, Simmons said.
“I want to be a teacher who can connect with students,” Simmons said.
A shortage of para-educators means Simmons may not be able to do his job as effectively as he is trying to teach more students with less support.
Some of the students Simmons works with can pose “safety concerns” for themselves and other students in the classroom. Instead, it helps them find ways to control their emotions.
“Once you start seeing that progress, it’s life-changing,” she said.
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