Special ed teachers in short supply

Though shortages exist in all teacher categories, special education has the biggest need.

by Melissa Steinken

While state lawmakers have turned their attention to the state’s overall teacher shortage, a new master’s program launched last year at the University of Minnesota could help reverse the state’s lack of special education instructors. 
As of last year, special education — which includes students with emotional behavior disorders, learning disabilities and developmental disabilities — had the fewest teachers of any category of educators with necessary licenses to instruct, according to a Minnesota Department of Education report. 
Overall, 6 percent of the state’s teacher workforce didn’t have the required licenses.
“Special education has topped the teacher shortage list,” said Hue Nguyen, assistant commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Education, noting that the special education teacher shortfall has existed for the last decade. 
By 2018, the demand for special education teachers nationwide is expected to grow by 17 percent, according to the Higher Education Consortium for Special Education. 
“We were hiring a lot of assistant teachers that had their bachelor’s degree and we wanted to retain them,” said Megan McAllister, staffing coordinator for School District 916, which includes schools in the northeast Twin Cities. “There were just not enough graduates coming into the marketplace.”
Earlier this year, to address the state’s teacher shortage, Gov. Mark Dayton proposed a $25 million investment to attract and retain all types of teachers. 
His proposal wasn’t funded this year, but the College of Education and Human Development’s special education master’s program received a grant from The Bentson Foundation.
Jennifer McComas, a professor of educational psychology at the University, said school districts are hiring teachers that show potential as paraprofessionals and teaching assistants, but lack advanced degrees to become full-fledged special education teachers.
She said at the University, the special education program’s 23 students were awarded $17,500 a year for tuition and personal expenses. The group was drawn from five school districts across the Twin Cities. 
“[The grant is] life-changing support for these cohorts,” she said. 
The two-year master’s program allows students to work in a classroom as a paraprofessional, McComas said. She said each student’s individual strengths and weaknesses help determine how they’re instructed.  
“We have learned that our students need individualized coaching,” McComas said. “So the program is very individualized to create teachers who are so well-prepared they are going to stay in the field.”
Students in the program, now in their second year, have taken on a lead role in the classrooms they work in, said Jacqueline Deviley, a second-year student in the program and paraprofessional in district 916.