Creating Optimal Conditions For Teaching Students With Exceptionalities

Creating Optimal Conditions For Teaching Students With Exceptionalities

The findings from a new survey indicate that teacher perspectives are similar for both general and special educators and that administrators’ views are also parallel. The similarities across special and general education groups combined with the significant differences between all teacher and all administrator points of view was interesting. The viewpoint taken by teachers regarding the conditions they work under while teaching students with exceptionalities is harsher than the view offered by the administrators. This pattern was pervasive on all the areas of contrast (materials available, physical facilities for teaching, collegiality and professionalism, pre-service preparation, professional development opportunities, and planning time). These differences also were reflected in the literature on teaching conditions. One of the most frequently cited reasons for special educators leaving the field is the lack of administrators’ support, and the lack of administrators’ understanding of what teachers are doing. The feelings that administrators are “out of touch” with what teachers have to do, and do not understand the problems that teachers face, undermine teacher motivation and morale. This failure to connect between teacher and administrator continues to be an area of concern.

The respondents mirrored the current demographics of educators being predominately white females age 30 to 50 years. The elementary teacher respondents were the youngest and the administrators were the oldest groups. The responses, by and large, followed a pattern by groups. There were no significant differences found in the special education vs. general education contrasts. The major differences across groups were found in the contrast of administrators with teachers. The administrators, on the whole, took a more positive view of the conditions for teaching students with exceptionalities than the teachers did. The areas where these differences were most extreme included availability of materials to work with students (especially textbooks), preservice preparation to meet the needs of exceptional students, professional development opportunities, sense of physical safety when working with students with exceptionalities, communication regarding student’s needs, and amount of planning time.


Personnel Preparation


General education teachers report that they have students with exceptional learning needs in their classes. While they report that they have had, or currently have, responsibilities for students in all areas of exceptionalities, they indicated that the largest group they work with is students with learning disabilities. The area where the greatest number of general classroom teachers reported having an additional license was in learning disabilities. These numbers, while impressive, do not alleviate the concern that general education teachers feel under-prepared to meet the needs of exceptional learners.


The problems with teacher preparation to meet the needs of students with exceptionalities are not limited to issues related to general education. The special educators report few additional licenses in content areas, and limited additional support for their role as collaborative teachers. The increased emphasis on curriculum access and success for students with exceptionalities means that special educators will have to strengthen their content knowledge to support appropriate differentiation strategies. The growing trend toward inclusion means that special education teachers also need new and different skills to work collegially with general education teachers. Special education teachers also report being dissatisfied with professional development opportunities in which to learn the new skills needed to fulfill changing role expectations.


In spite of the clear need to improve personnel preparation, this was ranked ninth out of 10 areas of concern by all of the groups. Yet, if the conditions for teaching students with exceptional learning needs are to improve these issues must be addressed. The role of state, higher education, and federal leadership is critical to improving preservice and inservice personnel preparation for both general and special educators. The better prepared that teachers feel to meet the needs of students with exceptionalities, the more likely it is that they will continue to teach.


While our teacher sample by and large reported that they are satisfied with their work, they identified numerous problems with the overall conditions for teaching students with exceptionalities, which undermine morale.

Again, the leadership to tackle these issues must come from the state and national levels. Issues related to how special education teachers are licensed across states, how teacher preparation programs recruit preservice special education teachers, and how new teachers are supported on the job must be addressed with innovative solutions.


Changes and Challenges


– General education teachers report working with students with exceptionalities in their classrooms, yet time for collaboration and planning between general and special educators is almost non-existent

– Teachers report feeling inadequately prepared to meet the needs of students with exceptionalities, yet personnel preparation opportunities are limited and teacher preparation institutions continue to produce new teachers who are not prepared.

– Paperwork is overwhelming special education teachers, yet they are the last ones to receive computer software for record keeping.

– Special education teachers are expected to work with general educators collaboratively, yet their pre-service programs are not preparing them for these new roles.

– Students with exceptionalities are expected to master more of the general education curriculum – at higher levels – than ever before, yet most special educators report little content area preparation to support their students

– The range and intensity of students’ needs has increased in both general and special education classrooms, yet little has been done to increase support to meet student needs.


Access to Appropriate Materials


The respondents were asked to rate their level of agreement (1 = strongly disagree, 2 = disagree, 3 = agree, 4 = strongly agree) with several items related to the availability of materials to work with students. All the groups reported that materials to work with students with exceptionalities were available; however, the intensity of their agreement differed by groups.


The contrasts for the groups revealed two significant differences. The combined administrators (principals with special education administrators) in contrast to the combined teachers (both special and general education teachers) was the first significant contrast. The combined elementary and secondary teachers in contrast to elementary and secondary principals was the second significant contrast. In both these cases the administrators were significantly more favorable as to the availability of materials than the teachers were. The teachers indicated moderate agreement and administrators reported stronger agreement. There were no significant differences in the contrast between special and general educators on the materials available to meet the needs of exceptional students.


Two individual items on this scale were pulled out for a separate analysis because they were of particular interest: the availability of computer software for record keeping, a major concern for coping with paperwork demands, and access to the district’s general education curriculum guidelines to work with students with exceptionalities. On the first item, availability of software for record keeping, the contrasts mirrored those of the total scale with the significant differences being between administrators and teachers. This was true for both all administrators contrasted with all teachers and for the general education principals contrasted with general education teachers. Again, the administrators were significantly more positive than the teachers in their agreement that record-keeping software is available. Special education teachers were the only group that fell in the “disagree” range on the availability of software. No significant difference was found on the contrast for general with special educators. All groups agreed that they have access to curriculum guidelines and there were no significant difference between the groups.


Appropriateness of Physical Facilities


The physical facilities section asked respondents to rate on an “agree-disagree” likert scale the appropriateness of physical facilities for students with exceptionalities. This allowed us to cluster the items to look at an overall response by groups. The respondents indicate that the physical facilities are appropriate for students with exceptionalities with a moderate agreement from each group. The only contrast that showed a significant difference was for secondary teachers contrasted with secondary principals. The principals gave a more favorable rating than the teachers. There were no differences in the contrasts between all administrators and all teachers or between special and general educators’ views. No individual items were pulled out of this scale for separate analysis.


Collegiality and Professionalism


The section on collegiality and professionalism asked respondents to rate their general satisfaction on items using a five point likert scale (1 = Unsatisfactory, 2 = Needs Improvement, 3 = Satisfactory, 4 = Very Satisfactory, 5 = Excellent). The internal consistency allowed us to cluster the items to look at an overall response by group. The groups indicated that they were basically satisfied with the collegiality and professionalism. The only differences in the groups were differences in the intensity of their reported satisfaction levels. The significant contrasts were those between all administrators and all teachers and between the general education administrators and classroom teachers. In both cases, the administrators reported higher levels of satisfaction than the teachers did. Again, although these contrasts reached significance, the difference is in the intensity of satisfaction level, not in whether the groups are satisfied.


Three individual items were analyzed separately: pre-service preparation to meet exceptional students’ needs; professional development opportunities; and sense of physical safety in working with students with exceptionalities. The secondary and elementary teachers indicated the lowest satisfaction levels with their pre-service preparation to meet the needs of students with exceptionalities. These ratings both fell in the “needs improvement” range. The contrasts that were significant between groups were the all administrators in contrast with all teachers and the general education teachers in contrast with the principals. In both cases the administrators were more satisfied with pre-service preparation to meet the needs of students with exceptionalities than the teachers were.


Professional development opportunities to learn about meeting the needs of students with exceptionalities were rated as “needs improvement” by all the teachers (both general and special education). The administrators, however, all indicated satisfaction with the opportunities available. The significant contrasts were those between all administrators and all teachers, and between general education administrators and teachers. In this case the differences between administrators and teachers was more dramatic as it was across the “needs improvement” and the “satisfied” ranges, with teachers indicating “needs improvement” and administrators indicating satisfaction.


The third individual item analyzed in this section was a sense of physical safety in working with students with exceptionalities. While all groups reported basic satisfaction with their sense of physical safety, there were significant differences by group. The secondary teachers indicated the lowest satisfaction level with the elementary principals giving the highest. The contrasts of all administrators with all teachers was significant with the administrators reporting higher levels of satisfaction than the teachers.


Teaching is a complex, demanding job and there are many variables that impact a teacher’s ability to be successful. The conditions of teaching children with exceptionalities are influenced by several major themes: a sense of collegiality and professionalism; an environment of open and frequent communication/collaboration; a climate of support; the availability of resources; and clarity of roles, responsibilities, and expectations for “doing the job successfully.” These themes frame the context in which teachers work and impact directly both their ability to do the job well and their sense of job satisfaction.


In addition to the context in which a teacher works, a discussion of conditions must include specific aspects of the work itself. Issues related to caseload; class size and composition; paperwork; and time required for both teaching and non-instructional duties. All of this taken together helps us understand what teachers of exceptional children face on a daily basis as they work to meet the needs of their students. When taken together the messages are loud and clear: teaching has gotten harder and the teachers who teach our children with exceptionalities are struggling to do their jobs well.


Collegiality and Professionalism


This is a difficult combination for any teacher, but it is particularly detrimental when we recognize the intensity of student needs that special educators face. Because many of their students have persistent problems with learning, motivation, and behavior, special education teachers often begin to feel ineffective. Given all of this, is it surprising that the morale of many special education teachers seems to have hit an all time low as they struggle to meet the ever-increasing demands of their students?


Communication and Collaboration


Logic would have it that the students with the most intense needs would receive the most intense forms of “team” planning, communication, and collaboration to meet these needs. For students with exceptionalities, however, this does not seem to be the case. Teachers in both general and special education report having little or no time to talk and plan collaboratively for their students with special needs. Lack of time to plan was rated as the second most important concern for special educators on a national survey.


With an increasing number of students with special needs being served in the regular classroom with “consultative support” the demand for time to plan for student needs has grown. What other profession requires consultation, yet allocates little or not time for meetings. Over a third (35%) report that they spend less than one hour per week in collaboration. An additional 12% report that they spend only between 1 and 2 hours in collaboration.


When this is combined with the 24% who reported they do not spend any time in collaboration we can see that very little collaborative instruction time is reported. If consultation with the classroom teacher is to be used effectively, then there must be time built into the day for conferences. The special educators also reported their time spent in planning with general education teachers. This shows that well over half (65%) of the teachers report they spend between 10 and 20 percent of their time in collaborative planning. An additional 14% reported that they spend no time.


Administrative Support


District and building level support has been identified as a key component of teacher retention and job satisfaction. What do teachers say?


He is one of the most informed administrators I have had the pleasure to work with. He not only attends meetings, but makes it his job to know each student, their strengths and weaknesses, what classes they attend within regular and special settings, understands their needs, as well as the program’s needs, knows their attendance, discipline and extra curricular accomplishments, participates fully within meetings, and makes sure that the program gets all the moneys needed to be successful.


However, when administrators lack the knowledge, time, or interest in children with special needs the impact is profound. Administrative support was ranked fifth (out of 10 items) as a major concern of special education teachers. Licensing for administrators rarely addresses adequate knowledge and skills to develop, supervise, and evaluate the delivery of special education and related services. This omission handicaps administrators faced with increasing numbers of students with exceptionalities.


Resources and Materials


No one can do their best if they are not given appropriate resources and materials. Special education teachers report that they often do not have what they need. In many schools, the special education program is the last on the list for textbooks, instructional materials, classroom space, and equipment.


To make up for some of these deficits, teachers regularly spend their own money on classroom supplies and materials. While special education teachers do report that they have access to state and district curriculum guidelines, they indicate that they rarely have access to appropriate materials for each of their students, who are often well below grade level.


Caseload, Class Size, and Composition


Does it make sense when general education class sizes are smaller than special education caseloads? Can one teacher, even with a paraprofessional, be expected to teach multiple subjects, grade levels, and exceptionalities? Sixty-three percent of special education teachers reported that their class sizes often gave them a ratio of 15 or more students to one teacher. The paraprofessional-to-student ratios are a little better than the teacher-to-student ratios, with over a third of the teachers reporting a para:student ratio of one para to 10 or more students.


The number one concern of special education teachers responding in a national survey was “caseload”! Teachers say that they are continually being asked to do more for more students with more diverse and intense needs, with less time, materials, and support. What we do know is that special educators across the country are leaving in record high numbers and that those overwhelming caseloads is one of the top reasons given for this exodus. The majority reported that they spend between 10 and 30 percent of their week (this is between 4 and 12 hours) working on identification and related meetings.




The overwhelming requirements of paperwork were ranked as the third most important concern (out of a list of 10 issues) coming in just behind caseload and time for planning. While special educators understand the need for the IEP (Individualized Education Program), both as an educational guide and a legal document, they struggle with all the time the process requires. The average length of typical IEPs was reported as being between 1 and 20 pages, with an estimated 4 hours of meeting/planning time going into each IEP parent conference. In addition to meetings, they report that a large percentage of their time is spent on completing paperwork. Over a third of the teachers reported spending 20 to 40% of their time on paperwork with 22% reporting 40 to 50% of their time devoted to paperwork.


The IEP requirements must also be combined with other paperwork duties which frequently include forms for the central office; minutes of the collaborative team meetings; reports and evaluations of students referred but not placed; medical assistance billing forms; telephone logs; child abuse reports; due process documentation; quarterly progress reports; daily/weekly notes to parents concerning the child’s progress; curriculum data reports; grade reports; discipline records; and other state, district, and school accountability requirements. What makes it worse is the sense that much of the paperwork is designed to “keep the school system out of a lawsuit” rather than to improve the quality of the students’ education (in the extensive list of paperwork, lesson plans, curriculum adaptation, and teacher-to-teacher notes on classroom practices were not included, yet all teachers complete these as well).


– “When is there time for IEPs and paperwork? I find myself up until 10:00 and 11:00 at night doing IEPs.”

– “I often stay after work until 7 or 8 to complete paperwork and barely keep on top of it all with all that extra time.”

– “I don’t know what the answer is, but the students are the ones who suffer from all the mandated paperwork.”

– “I wish that within my 26 years, one auditor would have asked if my program was successful rather then looking at the paperwork.”

– “Most of us got into special education because we wanted to teach, to work with kids, and it seems like that aspect of the job is taking a back seat to the administrative duties.”

– “I thought special education was special because children receive special attention.”

– “There are many things wrong with the system but we teachers are doing our best to provide appropriate services to our students.”

– “Our lawmakers should spend a day in the life of a special educator.”


We are, in fact, facing a crisis. Our country’s proud claim that we educate all our children rings hollow when we hear the chorus of voices describing the current conditions under which our children with the most intense needs are served.


Special educators labor under difficult conditions in part because the field is changing rapidly. For many veteran teachers, the roles and responsibilities they were prepared to fill, and which they had been successful with in the past, have changed dramatically. New teachers are finding that their teacher preparation institutions “prepared” them for a job that no longer exists and left them ill-equipped for the job they actually face. Combine this with multiple expectations and conflicting responsibilities and the job gets tougher.


A reasonable response to the changing demands placed on teachers would be to provide intense and ongoing personnel preparation inservice to help teachers learn new knowledge and skills. Teachers report that this is not happening. They indicate that belonging to professional organizations is important, but that more is still needed in light of the current expectations.


Just as little has been done in the way of inservice, our preservice programs for education, where the next generation of teachers will come from, have not kept up. Frequently, special education programs operate outside of professional accreditation standards, and the programs face little in the way of consequences. When a program operates without professional accreditation, students do not have assurance they are receiving the validated knowledge and skills of the profession.


Creating optimal conditions for teaching students with exceptionalities – the conditions under which students with exceptionalities will be most successful – will take a concerted and coordinated effort across all stakeholders.


Jeff C. Palmer is a teacher, success coach, trainer, Certified Master of Web Copywriting and founder of Jeff is a prolific writer, Senior Research Associate and Infopreneur having written many eBooks, articles and special reports.



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