What are some typical challenges faced by new special education teachers?

Page 1: Experiences of New Special Education Teachers

ind_01_aThe first few years of a new teacher’s time in the classroom are a unique stage in his or her career. New teachers are enculturated into schools and establish routines and teaching practices that they will use for many years. But doing so requires time. It typically takes three to five years for them to develop the expertise needed to maximize their students’ classroom achievement.

Unfortunately, many new special education teachers describe these critical first years as overwhelming and stressful. Instead of developing their expertise, many leave the profession. Understanding the kinds of challenges typically faced by new teachers can help school leaders to better understand the kinds of supports those teachers need. These challenges include:


In some fields—for example, medicine or law—new professionals are initially given fewer responsibilities, and they work for extended periods under the tutelage of experienced mentors. By contrast, new special educators are required to assume numerous responsibilities all at once. They need to learn the curricula, get to know their students, develop lesson plans, become familiar with a range of instructional resources and materials, assess student progress, and manage classroom behavior. They are also responsible for learning district and school policies and procedures; learning how to work effectively within the school community; and interacting in a positive and constructive manner with administrators, teachers, related services personnel, and parents. New teachers also struggle to put what they have learned in coursework and practicum into practice as independent educators.

New special education teachers are often idealistic, underestimate the time it takes to complete tasks, and overestimate their abilities. Their first teaching job might be quite different than the “ideal” version they were expecting. They might be unhappy that they have more students than they think they should, surprised at the lack of resources, or dismayed by inadequate support.

New special education teachers report a range of difficulties, including managing classroom behavior, motivating students, dealing with parents, organizing work, making do with limited teaching resources, and having little time to do their work. They also have to deal with large numbers of students and address the needs of students who come from backgrounds other than their own.

New special educators find that they need to collaborate with a range of individuals, including principals, general and special educators, related service providers, paraprofessionals, and parents. However, this is often difficult because of:

  • Lack of time to collaborate
  • Few opportunities for collaboration
  • Other educators’ reluctance to collaborate
  • Not having the skills for collaboration
  • Questions about paraprofessionals’ roles
  • Anxiety about interacting with parents

Accountability for new teachers has never been higher, nor have the pressures associated with that accountability. Students today are expected to master specific standards—ones usually measured through high-stakes tests—and their teachers are often evaluated on the extent to which those students make progress from one year to the next.

Even when new teachers face numerous challenges, they might be unwilling to seek help. They sometimes believe they should know what to do, or they might worry that others will see them as incompetent. They also might be unsure who to turn to for assistance.

Special education teachers might not always feel like they are a part of the school community. This can be due to any number of factors, such as the absence of a readily available support group (e.g., a grade-level team), work space that is physically distant from their colleagues, or lack of common planning times with general education teachers. In addition, special education teachers often feel as though they are not included equally in school decisions and activities. These experiences often create feelings of isolation, which in turn can lead to stress and burnout.


Mary Kate McGinn
Mary Kate McGinn
Special Education Teacher
Special School District of St. Louis County
St. Louis, Missouri

Mary Kate McGinn describes her experiences as a new special education teacher (time: 1:17).


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Research Shows

  • Twenty-five percent of special education teachers leave the profession in the first three years.
    (Boe, Cook, & Sunderland, 2008)
  • Attrition in special education is slightly greater than in general education.
    (Sindelar, Brownell, & Billingsley, 2010)

Margaret Kamman, whose research focuses on new teacher effectiveness, including teacher induction, describes the preparation new special education teachers undertake, the contexts they might be placed in, and the supports they might need (time: 1:19).


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Margaret Kamman
Margaret Kamman, PhD
Project Coordinator, CEEDAR and NCIPP
University of Florida


Think about the kinds of issues you have seen new teachers struggle with. Did they receive any support? If so, what kinds? If not, did they continue as teachers? Did they leave the field?

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