SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
It's getting harder and harder to find quality special education teachers. Forty-nine out of 50 states report that there are shortages. Why? It's a tough job. Even if you're all right with low pay, a noisy classroom, special education adds another challenge, crushing paperwork. Lee Hale from our NPR Ed team understands this struggle firsthand. He was a special education teacher himself but got burned out after just one year.
LEE HALE, BYLINE: That's right. I couldn't hack it. But believe me, I wanted to. I chose special education for the same reason I think most teachers do, to help students who struggle to learn. But I soon realized that helping children was only a part of the job. The paperwork, the meetings, the accountability - eventually, it got to me. I couldn't do it all, and I got tired of showing up to a job I knew I couldn't do. It's that simple.
Part of me feels guilty for leaving, especially when I think about my friends and colleagues who stayed. I often wonder how they're holding up.
STEPHANIE JOHNSON: And guess what? You guys are having a test next week. So we really have to practice.
HALE: This is Stephanie Johnson. She teaches eighth grade math and ninth grade English at Oak Canyon Junior High. It's about 40 miles south of Salt Lake City.
JOHNSON: We are taking a situation or an event and we are finding the information that we need...
HALE: Stephanie and I were in the same special education program at nearby Brigham Young University three years ago. But she wasn't your typical college student. She's in her 40s and a mother of three. And now she's got her own special education classroom, although it can hardly be called a classroom.
It's, like, just a step up from a closet, right?
JOHNSON: Yeah, it is just a step up from a closet. It is a very small room.
HALE: And there aren't any windows, yet she somehow managed to make it feel homey. You can tell the students like being here. I dropped in during a math lesson.
JOHNSON: These things right here - the slope or the constant rate of change, the initial value or the Y-intercept, and then we're going to use that information...
HALE: She's reviewing word problems that have to do with slope, you know, X-axis, Y-axis type stuff. The students copy some questions from the board and start sketching out their graphs. And I'm surprised at how focused and quiet everyone is. Stephanie weaves through the desks, kneeling beside each student and checking in with them.
JOHNSON: Nice job.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: So would that be 200?
JOHNSON: Nope, 200 is your slope. What's 100?
HALE: You can tell that she's in her element.
JOHNSON: My joy is in the classroom. When they catch onto something and they have those aha moments and just - those are the things that bring me happiness and joy. So that has to be my focus.
HALE: And she's good at it. This is one of her eighth graders, Abigail.
ABIGAIL: I struggled really a lot in math and sometimes when I don't get it in math class, Mrs. Johnson teaches it and I know how to do it.
HALE: This is the kind of thing I heard from every student I talked with. Math is hard. I don't like it, but it makes sense when Mrs. Johnson teaches it. I'm not surprised.
When I first met Stephanie, I had no doubt that she would be a dynamic teacher. For starters, she understands special education from a parent's perspective. One of her sons, Alec, was in special education classes from second through ninth grade, so she knows the heartache and the worry that comes when a parent is told their child learns differently.
JOHNSON: Now as the teacher I can say, I know exactly how you feel. I've been there, and it's going to be OK.
HALE: She also had experience as a teaching assistant in a special ed. classroom for five years. And on top of that, she was an extremely driven student. Back in college, it was obvious to me, our fellow classmates and our professors that she was meant for this.
We all looked to you as kind of, like, an example. I'm sure you felt that, right?
JOHNSON: Yeah, I did feel that. And I was really clear on why I was there.
HALE: But then she pauses.
JOHNSON: I wish that was more clear now.
HALE: From the outside, it looks like Stephanie has everything under control. But it's clear that's not how she feels.
JOHNSON: I don't know how to describe it. It's just so much work. Like, I just feel like I cannot do it.
HALE: She's not talking about teaching or lesson planning or even working with disruptive students. She really likes those parts of her job.
JOHNSON: It's all the other compliance and laws and paperwork, and oh, my gosh, it's so much.
HALE: All of that stuff can be summed up with these three letters - IEP. That stands for Individualized Education Program. Each student in special education has one. It's required by law. And each IEP requires hours and hours of upkeep. Forms have to be updated, data has to be tracked and there are additional meetings with parents and other staff.
JOHNSON: I stay after work hours, typically every day
HALE: And what she doesn't finish, she takes home.
JOHNSON: It's just frustrating because if I could really focus on making a difference in these kids' lives, then I have it, man. I totally have this job. I know how to do that.
HALE: But that just isn't how it is. And she doesn't expect it to get better anytime soon. All of this brought me to a question I had to ask.
How do you feel about people like me (laughter), the fact that I just, like - I was like this is too hard, and I just, like, walked away?
JOHNSON: I have mixed feelings about that.
HALE: Stephanie admits that she thinks about leaving all the time.
JOHNSON: Just because I'm exhausted, but I'm changing kids' lives. I'm making a difference. So why would I want to walk away from that?
HALE: So she finds herself facing a choice between her students and, well, her sanity, an extremely difficult decision for an extremely difficult job.
Lee Hale, NPR News, Salt Lake City.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.