Mandi Jordan

Special education teacher Mandi Jordan writes an equation during her class at Tahlequah High School.

Schools in Oklahoma started their years with more than 500 teaching vacancies, despite the state Board of Education approving more than 1,400 emergency certificates for the current academic term.

Oklahoma schools are finding it difficult to fill regular teaching positions, but they're finding it particularly tough to hire special education teachers. Those wanting to become special education teachers are not eligible for emergency certificates - likely part of the reason for the shortage. However, there appears to be a multitude of reasons why schools are losing special ed professionals.

Every teaching position comes with paperwork, but those who work with disabled students have far more.

"If I were to speculate, the shortage would probably be because of the paperwork," said Susan VanZant, director of special services at Tahlequah Public Schools. "When you are a special education teacher, you write a plan for every student you have; it's called an individualized education plan."

IEPs help schools determine which classes a child with disabilities needs. There's also an IEP team for each student that includes the parent, student, a regular education teacher, a special ed teacher, and an administrator. Annually, special ed teachers have to assess the student's progress, meet with the IEP team, and then update each student's IEP.

"So each teacher usually has around 20-25 folders, case loads," said VanZant. "That means at least 20 meetings with parents a year, not to mention the ones that might come up as needed. Or a parent can call a meeting anytime of the IEP team."

For some teachers, working in special education requires a balancing act. When Greenwood Elementary teacher Joette Berry worked for a different school district in Oklahoma, she was receiving kids from all across the range of special needs.

"In another school district, I got them at 3 [years old], but they didn't function like a normal 3-year old," she said. "I'd get everything from a kid who might have a minor learning disability, to a multi-handicapped kid. They were all in the same classroom, so they're very hard to juggle like that."

Class sizes have grown, also. Mandi Jordan from Tahlequah High School said class sizes used to be restricted to 10.

"Now you can have as many kids as you want, so my biggest class is 24 and they're all special ed kids," said Jordan. "That's a lot of special ed kids for one person."

In the past, special education teachers were only required to have certification. Now teachers must have duel certifications, which Jordan thinks is a contributing factor to Oklahoma's special ed teacher shortage.

"My degree is in special education, but I have all of these other certifications because I couldn't teach these classes," said Jordan. "And so if you graduate with just a special education degree, you can't teach anybody. You can teach elementary, but only if you take the elementary education test."

Jordan originally started out teaching in an elementary setting with special needs children. To move to high school classrooms, she had to take English and math certification tests, which she paid for.

Good pay makes for attractive jobs. State law requires that the special ed teachers earn at least five percent more than that of regular teachers. However, some teachers are deciding the extra pay isn't worth the work.

"I would say that's the biggest reason," said Jordan. "You have to do all the paperwork and have this high-stress job - for an extra $1,580 - for a whole year."

Though Jordan and Berry don't teach for the money, they said pay could easily deter people from entering their field.

"It takes a special person and a special heart to do their job," said Vanzant.

What's next

The TDP will look at how Tahlequah Public Schools has handled the teacher shortage, what types of special needs exist among students, and what a typical special education teacher's day is like.