What a short stint as a special ed aide taught me

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The unemployment rate hit 9.4% in May 2009 -- just in time for my entry into the job market after getting my bachelor's degree. Needless to say, job prospects were scarce in Philadelphia for a political science major like me, which is how I found myself working as a behavioral support aide for children with autism.

Over the 12 months that I was in the position, I had the opportunity to work with many inspiring and dedicated colleagues. Yet when I left after only one year, I had been a support aide longer than most. Many of my colleagues who actually had a degree in special education bailed out before I did for jobs outside the field.

Knowing that there are shortages of special ed staff across the board, in agencies such as the one at which I worked, as well as in schools, I found myself asking: Why is it so hard to attract and retain special ed professionals?  The answer lies partly in the challenges of the work, of course, but there's also the fact that special ed training may be setting the stage for burnout even before people get their feet wet in their first job in the field.

Take a look at this comparison of the coursework requirements for an undergraduate degree in special ed compared to one in my major (political science) at two pretty standard colleges:



Bachelor's Degree in Special Ed -- Credits for Major

Bachelor's Degree in Political Science -- Credits for Major

College 1


(Dual degree: Early Childhood and  Early Childhood Special Ed)


College 2


(Special Ed degree only, K-12)



These special ed coursework requirements are enormous -- so much so that I'm not sure how candidates manage to fulfill them within the two years normally taken for the professional part of teacher prep.

I'm not arguing for skimpy special ed professional preparation -- that could lead to burnout too, not to mention the impact on students. But one of the reasons that special ed prep is so credit-heavy is that in many programs candidates are being prepared for students with both common and uncommon disabilities and getting dual certifications (College 1 example), or covering the spectrum on disabilities as well as grade-spans (College 2 example).  Sometimes state regs force this situation, but not in all cases. Programs focused on realistic grade-spans (for only special ed prep, not dual certification), and either common or uncommon disabilities might help to make preparation less onerous while maintaining effectiveness. State education leaders and colleges should assess certification approaches and college program offerings to make sure they're appropriate and aligned.

Maegan Rees