In Virginia, special education is currently the area with the highest critical shortage of teachers, according to the Virginia State Department of Education, and Frederick County is feeling that shortage.
Frederick County Public Schools currently has four openings for special education teachers, said John Linaburg, executive director of human resources for the school division.
“We do struggle to find adequate candidates for SPED [special education] positions but that is a bit of an oversimplification of the larger teacher shortage problem,” Linaburg wrote in an email.
Winchester and Clarke County public schools currently don’t have any openings for special education teachers.
In 2017, 46 states reported a shortage in special education, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Addressing the teacher shortage in general, Linaburg said that during the 2016-2017 school year, a few Northern Virginia school divisions could have hired every new teacher that graduated in Virginia that year, leaving little left for the state’s other divisions, roughly 130, to choose from.
Every year for the past eight years, special education has been in the top five high-needs subjects for teaching in Virginia, said Karrin Lukacs, a Shenandoah University associate professor for curriculum and instruction, who also teaches students seeking to instruct in special education.
“Special ed has always been there, so it’s definitely a need statewide, and it definitely reflects the nationwide shortage not just of teachers in general, but special education teachers in particular,” Lukacs said.
A reason for the lack of interest in special education, Lukacs said, is because some people haven’t met or worked with someone with a disability or special needs before.
Within Shenandoah University’s master of science special education program, there has been a bit of a dip in enrollment over the past few years, but Jill Lindsey, director of SU’s School of Education and Leadership, said the school was not actively seeking new students in 2016 and 2017.
In 2014 there were 22 graduates, in 2015 there were 32 graduates, in 2016 there were 17 graduates, in 2017 there were 10 graduates and in 2018 there were 10 graduates.
“The school did not recruit and admit many students in 2016 and ‘17 in anticipation of changes in state license requirements,” Lindsey said. “Those state policy changes have not occurred, so the original program was re-instated this past year. We are once again actively recruiting for the program and there are 18 students currently enrolled.”
Carla Casella, a special education teacher who’s worked at Handley High School in Winchester for 20 years, said she picked the field, in part, because she was told in college she’d be guaranteed a job.
One of the challenges of being a special education teacher is keeping up with the legal work while also instructing, Casella added.
“It’s a balance and sometimes I think that is probably the most challenging aspect of SPED for teachers,” she said. “It can be consuming, and you really want to be teaching and working with the kids all the time but then you’ve got all these pressures of completing the IEPs [individual education plans] or completing amendments or having multiple meetings, and it can be hard at times.”
Casella added that Handley does a good job of retaining its special education teachers. Ann Marie Schaefer, another Handley special education teacher, said the school is good at retaining them because everyone in the special ed community there is generally positive.
“We have a common goal that we like what we’re doing and we really do want to make a difference and help kids to get their diplomas,” Schaefer said.