The Principal's Role in Addressing Concerns of Beginning Special Educators and Enhancing Retention

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Oliver-Eggert, Eileen, Administration and Supervision - Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Tucker, Pamela, CU-Leadshp, Fndns & Pol Studies, University of Virginia

Teacher attrition is a common problem of practice nationwide, particularly in the current era of teacher shortage. Between forty and fifty percent of new teachers leave the field within the first five years of their careers (Ingersoll & Strong, 2011). Moreover, attrition rates of first year teachers have increased by about one-third over the past two decades (Ingersoll, 2012). According to the research, special education teachers tend to quit at greater rates than their general education counterparts “and are inclined to be more dissatisfied and burned out” (Strong, 2009, p. 31).“Four out of every ten special
educators entering the field leave special education before their fifth year of teaching” (Griffin, Winn, Otis-Wilborn, & Kilgore, 2003, p. 6).
Pupils categorized as students with disabilities are among our population’s most vulnerable. It is critically important to recognize the negative impacts that high rates of special education teacher turnover can have on students with disabilities. Unless beginning special education teachers are retained and allowed the opportunity to gain instructional proficiency, students with disabilities will continue to be exposed to less than ideal educational experiences. Andrews and Quinn (2005) suggest that it takes three to five years for beginning teachers to become proficient, thus it is incumbent on school leaders to do everything possible to support and retain teachers to ensure students are taught by educators who have learned to teach well. Without retention of high quality teachers, it is difficult for schools to sustain improvement efforts, develop effective, collaborative teams, or to “integrate new skills into daily practice” (Billingsley, 2005, p. 28).
School principals are perfectly positioned to cultivate environments that support the needs of novice special educators as they strive to meet the complex and diverse needs of their students (Correa & Wagner, 2011). This study focused on a rural school division in central Virginia in order to examine special education teacher attrition within that specific context. The purpose of this capstone study was to (a) identify the specific concerns of beginning special educators in Greene County Schools, (b) examine special educators’ perceptions of principal practices they identify as being supportive of their needs, and (c) identify leadership practices which influence special educators’ retention.
A mixed-methods study design was utilized for this capstone project integrating a quantitative survey in the first phase of the study followed by in-depth, qualitative interviews in the second phase. This study seeks to contribute to the literature base on beginning teacher concerns, special education teacher attrition, and leadership practices supporting beginning special educators. Research by Billingsley (2005), the Developmental Conceptualization of Beginning Teacher Concerns (Fuller, 1969; Fuller & Brown, 1975), and the first three domains of Leithwood’s Ontario Leadership Framework (2012) were central to the design of this study and especially to its conceptual framework. As researcher, I hypothesized that the root cause for special education teacher attrition in Greene County Public Schools was unaddressed or under-addressed concerns of beginning teachers. When principals understand the specific concerns of novice special educators and employ leadership practices that positively impact working conditions and address the concerns of special education teachers, retention and instructional proficiency become more likely.
Findings from this study indicate that beginning special education teachers and general education teachers have very similar concerns and levels of stress related to these concerns. The most critical areas differentiating the concerns of special educators from general educators related to IEP compliance and collaboration with general educators. This study revealed that there are in fact many principal practices that have been utilized in Greene County Schools that special educators report as being supportive of their role. These practices include the assignment of a mentor certified in special education, feedback related to instruction, support and modeling for student discipline and classroom management, provision of a supportive learning community for peer support, and active participation by leaders in IEP meetings. Although each of these practices were not consistent across all settings, overall, findings from this study indicate that teachers value the support provided by Greene County administrators. Most notably, special education teachers identify the critical importance of principals having knowledge about special education laws, policies, procedures, and students with disabilities. Furthermore, it was found that the primary reasons for special education teacher attrition relate to personal choices including family moves and salary rather than issues related to support and principal leadership as originally hypothesized by the researcher.
Based on these findings and the literature, four recommendations were made to
the leadership team of Greene County Public Schools.
1. Provide professional development opportunities for principals in order to
increase their knowledge and understanding of special education and
students with disabilities.
2. Provide all educators in Greene County Public Schools with documentation
and other forms of communication which explicitly identify expectations
related to inclusion and collaboration.
3. Create a mentoring program that is specific to the needs of special
4. Assess structures and systems in place for providing supports to special
education teachers in all schools in Greene County to ensure consistency
and maximization of resources that positively impact retention.

EDD (Doctor of Education)
special education teacher attrition, beginning teacher concerns, principal leadership
Issued Date: