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Why the SPED turnover?-Even in the Big 5

PostPosted: Wed Jan 15, 2020 4:06 pm
by ShannonPrescott
First, I am interested in working in SPEd, I have the endorsements and experience. I understand the work is hard, long, filled with paperwork and policy. However, my experience in the lower 48 and from a colleague in HI, SPED teachers tend to stay in their posts for several years.

Whenever I explore jobs in Alaska (and I am limited to the big 5 for a while), it seems almost every district is willing to offer multiple SPED positions, every year. Is there something more challenging or different about these assignments that would lead to a higher turnover? I even had a district reach out before I had finished my application.

Does anyone have any anecdotal information about SPED positions? Big 5 or elsewhere? Thank you.

Re: Why the SPED turnover?-Even in the Big 5

PostPosted: Thu Jan 16, 2020 7:56 pm
by Johncn

Before I answer, I would caution you not to limit your search to just the Big Five, as there are frequently exceptions to every rule, and variations between locations, positions and opportunities. Regional hubs are technically in the Bush, but some are absolutely wonderful places to live and work. Other villages may seem remote, but have a really supportive community / school relationship, and/or easy transportation to Road System amenities.

Keep an open mind, and make SURE you check off the "Candidate Pools" for all the Special Education areas you would be able to teach, not just the one that matches your out of state endorsement. Special Ed classrooms are often multi-categorical in nature, and "multiage" or "multi-level", except when a position is posted as a very limited exceptionality range. Cast a wide nide, and keep your options open by checking off most of the "pools". Also, in Alaska the state does not limit a Special Ed teacher to only working with one type of population. In other words, if I had an out of state endorsement in Special Ed with "Learning Disabilites 7-12", in Alaska I would be able to work in just about any type of Special Ed classroom, and handle IEPs for those kids.

Now, I am NOT an expert on current teaching realities / conditions in Big Five districts. Others will have insights, and I hope someone addresses your question in this thread who may have a different perspective. However, turnover in Special Education is a huge deal nationally, not just in Alaska, and not just in rural settings. Having been to many teacher job fairs in the Lower 48 over the last few years, I can tell you that competition for quality Special Ed candidates, especially those with experience, is ferocious NATIONALLY. Just about every table at a typical job fair is likely to be interviewing for SpEd openings in recent years.

Here is the American Association for Employment in Education (AAEE - the universities that have teacher preparation & certification programs) data on supply and demand by subject area. Higher numbers and red cells indicate higher demand. First, non-SpEd certification areas by need nationally:


Now, in Special Education, nationally:


Because Special Education teachers have options (demand = openings = opportunities), each time one of those teachers takes a job in a more desirable setting in the district, elsewhere in the state or in another state, there is a new opening. It's like dominoes. ;-) Lots of opportunity means more movement. In urban areas (which the Big Five have to some degree), there are challenges that can cause teachers to want to move with their seniority within the district to different building. New teachers TEND to get assigned nationally to lower SES classrooms, whether on the road system or rural, and then sometimes want to move to higher SES classrooms, or to a different community. The challenges facing Low SES teachers are numerous, whether in an urban setting, an American Indian reservation school, Appalachia, or in rural Alaska. Burn out is high. Turnover is far higher in Title I schools than in other settings, no matter where they are located. In Alaska, Title I schools are more common in rural Alaska, and in the urban / semi-urban areas. Special Ed teachers can also move between specialties, so, say, from an Intensive setting to a Mild to Moderate Resource Room, for example. In Alaska, rural teachers also often want to move to "Town" or the Road System after a few years. More dominoes. Finally, most Alaska teachers are "from Outside", as the university systems in Alaska can't produce enough teachers. So, sometimes teachers in the Big Five, like their rural counterparts, want to move back closer to family and friends, get their own kids closer to grandparents and so on after a few years. This is one reason why there is a push for Alaska to produce more locally-sourced teachers...they stay longer, and more stability means more effective teaching happening in schools.

Here is a good report on teacher turnover in general:

In Alaska, teacher turnover as a whole is lower than eleven other states, according to the latest AAEE data reports.


And, within Alaska, the Big Five districts (Anchorage / Mat Su / Kenai / Fairbanks and Juneau) historically have AMONG the lowest rates of teacher turnover....BUT those rates are beaten by a few rural / remote districts:


An eight year-old study broke down teacher turnover by district for a fairly long stretch. However, this data should be viewed with care, because in a small district, a few teachers leaving in a single year can make a huge statistical difference or "spike" in the rate, whereas in the larger districts, you are likely getting more accurate data due to sample size. Many factors go into these rates, including changes in leadership at the district office or school board, living conditions that may vary year-to-year, changes in transportation routes to and from villages, and so on:


You can read more about Alaska Supply & Demand here on the ATP site:

And, more recently, ISER research looking at turnover and the costs of teacher turnover on Alaska districts:

Hope this helps, but teacher turnover in Special Education is not just an Alaska thing, and so an answer to your question is not a quick an easy one.



Re: Why the SPED turnover?-Even in the Big 5

PostPosted: Fri Jan 17, 2020 2:50 pm
by ShannonPrescott

Thank you so much for the huge amount of information. It was helpful and reassuring to read through. To follow up on some of your points:

-I have a K-12 SPED and a K-8 Degree (for WA) state and a MEd with focus on RTI/MTSS so it sounds like I'm pretty good to go.

-I have always worked in low socioeconomic and rural communities, and serving those students is where my passional lie.

-It has long been a dream/goal to work in a remote or bush village (in AK) however, I currently come with a teenager, two cats, and a parenting agreement that I will stay on the road system. My idea was to find a job in one of the big 5 to gain enough experience, and know-how, to move to a smaller school after the teenager graduates.

Unfortunately, I am hearing a lot of scary chatter from established Alaskan teachers about the new budget cuts and the ramifications from that.

Re: Why the SPED turnover?-Even in the Big 5

PostPosted: Tue Jan 21, 2020 2:05 pm
by Toni McFadden
As I'm sure you know, teachers are in high demand across the United States, and that includes Alaska. Special Education teachers, because of their specialties, are even more in demand. The national turnover rate for special education teachers is higher due to things like case loads, paperwork, testing, and burn out from high needs students.
Because of the size of the Big 5 school districts in Alaska, they have many special education teachers in the district. As an example, I worked in Fairbanks and all the elementary schools I worked in had at least 2 special education teachers and one of the schools I was at had 5 special education teachers. There were 17 elementary schools in Fairbanks at that time,then add in the middle schools and high schools, so you see the need for special education teachers in those large districts.
So, I don't think there is anything unusual about the turnover in the big 5, I think it is their size and need for so many special education teachers district wide.

Re: Why the SPED turnover?-Even in the Big 5

PostPosted: Wed Jan 22, 2020 9:40 am
by ShannonPrescott
Thank you, that gives me a new perspective. Something I am forgetting when looking at the "Big 5" is how big these districts are. I come from small rural districts with < 4 Elementary schools. And from communities that are remote, so people are more settled. This is my first time applying in a district with more than 1 high school.

Re: Why the SPED turnover?-Even in the Big 5

PostPosted: Thu Jan 23, 2020 6:22 pm
by Bushteachers
I’m a sped teacher currently teaching my 7th year of SPED in the state. My personal belief is that the high turnover is caseload issues as well as the teaching environment in the state.

I’ve been part of two bush districts (Yukon River and hub in Southwest Alaska) and I’m currently in a big 5. I’ve had as few as 11 kids (k-12) on my caseload. Those 11 kids I had to serve while also teaching MS/HS ELA and SS. Basically I was doing the job of two teachers with no prep.

When I moved to the hub I had as many as 19 kids (3rd-5th grade) and as few as 13 which was mainly pre-k and OT services. A couple of behavior kids were included with zero behavioral support and very little collaboration time with grade level teachers. Also, prep time was before school and after.

I’m in my second year with a big 5 and I’ve had 20 kids on my caseload for two years now over 3 grade levels. It’s been a challenge to follow my passion (inclusion with co-teaching) vs my disdain (direct instruction with a script).

I feel Alaska is quite a few years behind in modern research with SPED as a whole. Part of that though is the shortage. I’m in a school with only two SPED teachers and we have 40 plus kids between the two of us (k-8 school).
To be honest, I’m burning out. I’d love to have a classroom again, but I do love teaching the kids, when many have given up on them. We will see what next year holds, and I know I want to do at least one more year of SPED, but after that, I really want to look at my professional goals and determine if I leave SPED and go back to gen ed or I pursue admin. Might be able to shape policy that route.

It’s typical though to have SLD kids on your case load, as well as intensive funding kids. Find out what model the school runs and see if your philosophy matches. There are many different ways to teach SPED. Not every school allows flexibility.

I enjoy some aspects of SPED in Alaska more than lower 48 SPED, and the biggest issue i have is the lack of co-teaching possibilities.

Feel free to contact me, and I’ll gladly talk SPED with you. Despite my frustrations, it is a powerful job when you connect with those kids and see the progress.

Re: Why the SPED turnover?-Even in the Big 5

PostPosted: Sat Jan 25, 2020 9:51 am
by ShannonPrescott
Thank you Bushteachers for that insight. I tried to contact you privately but couldn't figure it out.

Those numbers and struggles are pretty typical to rural WA where I have been a GenEd teacher for 6 years.

I started my career in SpEd but was overwhelmed with paperwork and policy. I felt I could serve students who struggle better in GenEd (Elem). After 6 years I have come to the conclusion that there is just as much, if not more, paperwork and unpaid prep time to teach elementary school (particularly in a district that relies on test scores for funding) that I might as well go back to just focusing on those students that I am naturally drawn to.

The fact that AK is a few years behind is what scares me the most. I took a break from teaching because I was burned out on the apathy towards change that seemed to be so pervasive in my last district. One district I am exploring is the Mat-Su and the sheer size has me concerned about structure and policy. Flexibility is important to me (because it is important to kids!) I'm prepared for a little DI but purely scripted teaching would frustrate me very quickly. I can live without co-teaching but not without research-based teaching.

A lot to think about and you have given me a good list of questions to generate and explore. Thank you.

Re: Why the SPED turnover?-Even in the Big 5

PostPosted: Sat Jan 25, 2020 4:08 pm
by Bushteachers
I’ll try to reach out to you.
I am enrolling in a admin cert program. I realized to truly make a shift, I need that admin credential. Lol

Re: Why the SPED turnover?-Even in the Big 5

PostPosted: Sat Jan 25, 2020 4:10 pm
by Bushteachers
I think you need a few more posts. I’d gladly talk with you via email or phone about my thoughts with the state of sped in our state.

Re: Why the SPED turnover?-Even in the Big 5

PostPosted: Sun Jan 26, 2020 4:35 pm
by Johncn

As a former rural Alaska Special Ed person myself, someone who worked as a "full inclusion facilitator" in a large school for a couple years in a different state, and the spouse of a long-time rural Alaska Special Ed Director, I would not agree with the blanket statement that Alaska is necessarily behind. I think it really depends on the specific district program that you work within, the SpEd director you work under, and the principal / staff at your school. There are progressive Special Ed programs in small districts, which use a flexible array of model options, and archaic approaches in large districts....and vice versa. Some districts allows the school building staff to choose how they approach interventions (pull out vs push in, resource room vs inclusive co-teaching, and so on. Case loads also vary widely. Rural Special Ed classrooms can often be better equipped / resourced than some large school programs in some things, such as assistive technologies, but that isn't always true either.

One thing that rural / remote Alaska is definitely "behind" in, as compared to road system sites, is in related services. Not sure that behind is the word, as it's more a matter of resources and logistics, not by design. Districts sometimes (often) have to get creative with, say, a "minimum monthly threshold" for related services, such as Speech Path or OT / PT. Physically large rural districts may only have one Speech Path or OT, or district psychologist...or may have none, and contract out for itinerant provisions. Distance learning / two-way video services and other creative means are also used, but quite often, it's the SpEd teacher or a paraprofessional aide working from resources and/or training provided by the itinerant specialists who are implementing those related services goals. Federal / state timelines for referral to placement, and every other thing associated with the process, still have to be met, so it often becomes a logistical nightmare to get all the IEP team members together, the specialists to the school (weather dependent, of course!), the child assessed, the reports written, and the parents and team members in the same place at the same time for a meeting. ;-)

As far as settings, all districts have to offer a "continuum of placements", of course, and start officially with the LRE, but sometimes it just is not possible to ACTUALLY offer as wide an array of programs and services you might otherwise find. If you are on a small school staff, have a case load of 15 or 20, and are the only SpEd teacher in a K-12 building, the reality is that whatever model of delivery you offer as the best placement is going to be whatever the principal will support, the staff will not revolt against, and for which you can obtain resources for through your SpEd Director and/or district office. ;-) Call it inclusion, or co-teaching, or pull out....but, your main job is to make whatever plan and goals you design on the IEP benefit the student REALISTICALLY. Can't impose well-intentioned, excellent goals for really groovy interventions in an impractical setting which depends on resources and personalities. This sometimes causes frustration for teachers, rural or not, Alaska or not.

I was a "progressive" SpEd teacher, and if I were looking now for a position in Alaska, I'd want to know about the program in the district:

Is there a philosophy that guides it at the district level?
Is the Special Ed Director available to talk to?
How about current SpEd teachers - yes, I'd ask to speak to some prior to hire.
Do building principals make up the approach / placement options, or is there an established approach in place now?
Can I talk to the principal I would be supervised by?
What is the approximate case load?
How many other SpEd teachers are there, and how are their responsibilities divided? Grade level? Exceptionality?
Are the teachers in the building bought into one model or one approach?
Are there projected to be any Low Incidence kiddos on my case load, or is it mostly mild-to-moderate, general SpEd?
What software is used for IEPs (it helps if you know the program, but there are many).
How are related services handled?
How does the SpEd staff interact with the district's Rti plan?
Are Special Ed teachers in this district / building responsible for some aspects of an RTI team approach?
How are Section 504s handled?
Do you provide on-going training / access to the annual SpEd conference in Anchorage for teachers?

Some districts have a culture of supporting their SpEd teachers more than others, providing itinerant Special Ed Facilitators to support teachers new to the system, and other collaborative efforts. Others will pretty much hire you and place you at the site...and hope it works out. You have to try to get a sense of system and the school before signing on the dotted line.

Above all, when I interviewed potential SpEd teachers, what I looked for was good training / diverse experiences, but a FLEXIBLE approach to the job. Results-oriented, but still idealistic. Practical, but not rigid, and the personality to be a good team player with WHATEVER building / staff j/ principal they were going to be working with in our setting.

Hope this helps.