New Offering at WBU Aim to Combat Special Education Teacher Shortages

PLAINVIEW – The need for teachers has been long known across more rural areas. But in more recent months, school districts are scrambling to fill holes on their faculty to meet special needs among their students.

According to Dr. JoBeth DeSoto, associate professor of education at Wayland Baptist University, the entire nation is facing shortages of special education teachers due to changes in the federal definitions of special needs. In an effort to meet that need, Wayland has recently enhanced its education program to include a major in special education.

“We have the bachelor’s degree with an emphasis in special education as well as the Master of Education degree,” said DeSoto, who spent 10 years as a special education teacher herself. “This is really in response to the great need and demand for special education teachers nationwide. Every district needs special ed teachers, so these students will be able to get jobs anywhere, most likely.”

DeSoto notes classes in the emphasis are designed with the new certification tests that have been rewritten this year, so students will be up-to-date with the required information. Coursework overlaps with the core education classes in many areas, then special courses help prepare teachers for dealing with the special needs of some students. And those, DeSoto said, are getting harder to keep track of.

“You don’t just do it louder and slower for special ed students,” she said. “There’s a lot of behavior management in this too, since behavioral issues often come with this field.”

DeSoto said federal changes in 1995 widened the definition of special education with regard to schools and what they must provide for students. Now, the special education net includes students with mental retardation, hearing and vision impairment, speech impediments, dyslexia and other learning disabilities. In all, there are 13 exceptionalities, as the government calls them.

The wider definition isn’t necessarily a negative in DeSoto’s mind. After all, students of all abilities need to learn and each exceptionality presents unique challenges to that learning. But the changes came with the stipulation that districts have an individualized educational program for all 13 categories, and many schools just don’t have teachers trained in those areas.

That’s where DeSoto feels the additions to Wayland’s education offerings will be most needed.

“There are lots of topics to address in special education. Students are trained to deal with all of those areas,” she said. “We have a survey class that deals with an overview of every exceptionality and then determines strategies for teaching students with those needs. We also cover law and a big part of this is assessment.”

DeSoto said attracting students to the program has its challenges, mainly because of the reputation of special education, which continues to grow.

“Students are sometimes reluctant because they’ve heard bad things. Special education has gotten a bad rap, mostly because (districts) have been sticking people in there who weren’t qualified over the years,” she said.

“We spend time in class talking about students’ own memories of experiences with special education students in their hometown schools and how they feel about it. We also talk about their expectations and make sure they are realistic,” she added.

She speaks from experience. After 10 years as a music and band teacher in Hobbs, N.M., DeSoto jumped into special education with no experience and began taking a few courses to certify and learn more. She soon discovered a new passion in education and eventually earned a doctorate in the field. But those years in the field were invaluable to providing real-world experiences for her student charges at Wayland.

DeSoto believes the trend in growth in special education numbers is not just due to the widened definition. Society, she says, is also to blame in large part.

“We have more premature babies surviving these days, and they are exposed to more medication and things that can cause problems with them developmentally when they do survive,” she said. “Also, we’re seeing an increase in teen pregnancies and those children are not always cared for the best. We’re also finding out that drug and alcohol abuse by parents can affect children born years later and cause problems. Then of course there’s poverty and malnutrition and abuse and neglect, like shaken-baby syndrome, that all lead to developmental and learning issues.”

“There are just so many categories of disabilities that I believe can be avoided,” she said.

Educators often differ on strategies for teaching students with special needs, and DeSoto said the pendulum seems to swing between two schools of thought. Though once schools pulled all special education students into isolated classrooms to meet their needs, that is not the current trend.

“The big rage now is inclusion – leaving students in the regular classroom and not isolating them. But districts still have the option of pulling them out for special programs for part of the day as long as they spend some time in the regular classroom,” she said. “I don’t think it works. We’re just trying not to hurt the parents’ feelings, but we’re not meeting the students’ needs.”

DeSoto feels inclusion places unhealthy expectations in parents that their child will eventually have no special needs, but simply is not a common occurrence.

“The goal in special education is for the student to grow, but you have to be realistic about their capabilities,” she said.

That’s why she makes sure her Wayland students are aware of the challenges going into the field, and field experiences in local schools are a great way to prepare them for the road ahead.

The special education major is available on the undergraduate level through the 127-credit-hour Bachelor of Science in Interdisciplinary Studies degree, which provides special education certification for early childhood through eighth grade. Current teachers or those with another bachelor’s degree may prefer the Master of Education route, a 36-hour degree culminating in the same certification. Another choice is the post-baccalaureate certification program that provides needed courses for certification without culminating in a degree. The programs are offered in Plainview as well as the Lubbock campus, and many of the special education courses are being offered online through Wayland’s Virtual Campus on a rotation schedule.

For more information on the special education program, contact DeSoto at (806) 291-1051 or the office of admissions at (800) 588-1928.

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The shortage in trained teachers for special education is felt regionally as well.

Plainview I.S.D. has 850 students in special education, which accounts for around 15 percent of the district population, according to special education director John Hightower. The district employs around 30 special education teachers and several diagnosticians.

“When the ‘No Child Left Behind’ Law was passed, the expectations were set for every level and they included special education students in there as well,” Hightower said. “They added a provision for teachers to be highly qualified in every subject they teach, and that has put a strain on special education teachers who often teach several subjects.”

According to personnel from Region 17 Education Service Center in Lubbock, the region has 11,192 students in special education programs, or 12.5 percent of the total region student population of 89,679.