LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
A good special education teacher is hard to find and even harder to hang on to. Rigorous teaching schedules combined with mounds of paperwork can lead to burnout. For one Utah teacher, it was almost too much. Lee Hale from member station KUER has more.
LEE HALE, BYLINE: This time last year, I brought you the story of Stephanie Johnson, an extremely qualified special ed teacher who was struggling. In fact, she was miserable. Here is what she sounded like a year ago.
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STEPHANIE 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: Stephanie was in her third year teaching at a junior high school in Lindon, Utah, about 40 minutes south of Salt Lake City. And on the outside, it looked like she was doing great. Her classes ran smoothly. Students loved her. Parents loved her. But like many special ed teachers, she was drowning because this job requires a lot.
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JOHNSON: Compliance and laws and paperwork and, oh, my gosh, it's so much.
HALE: But it's a very different Stephanie I find this year. She's now teaching at Renaissance Academy, a charter school in a nearby city.
It's Friday. It's regular school day hours. But tell me, who's in the classroom right now?
JOHNSON: Just me and you and Karen Sue. Oh, that's a rhyme (laughter).
HALE: Karen Sue Nielson shares a classroom with Stephanie, and together they teach all the special ed students at the school. But on Fridays, for most of the day, they have the classroom to themselves.
JOHNSON: There's piles of work on our desk that we're getting done. There's things that need to be corrected. There's progress monitoring that needs to be, yeah, completed. There's meetings. There's paperwork. There's still a lot of work to do, and I love that we have Fridays to get that done.
HALE: Stephanie loves Fridays. In fact, there are a lot of things she loves about her new job.
JOHNSON: OK, this is my progress monitoring folder. It says progress monitoring. It said progress monitoring last year. It's the same folder I used (laughter), only this year it's full with actual progress monitoring.
HALE: And the person behind the scenes helping to make this progress happen is Kim Beck, the school's special ed director.
KIM BECK: So I have four full filing cabinets of student files.
HALE: Kim works out of a cramped office down the hall. And all these files are proof that the students at the school are receiving the help they need because special education services are guaranteed by law. It's a lot of upkeep, and so the words she's about to say will be music to any special ed teacher's ears.
BECK: I try and take most of that paperwork load off of the teachers so it allows them to teach during the day.
HALE: Kim also tests students in the school to see if they need special education services or if they're ready to move on, and she schedules meetings with parents.
BECK: So I don't think the paperwork in and of itself is too cumbersome. Where it becomes cumbersome is the teacher that's teaching all day is now having to do that amount of paperwork.
HALE: I know this from personal experience. I used to be a special ed teacher here in Utah, and the reason I'm not anymore is because I was overwhelmed. So this approach Kim and Stephanie have, dividing and conquering, it honestly makes me a little jealous. And it's unique. It wasn't a directive from any school administrators. They just made it happen with the right mix of people.
BECK: Well, I think, first of all, you have to find a special ed person that likes paperwork, and those are few and far between. So I do love paperwork, so that setting works here.
JOHNSON: Which one is bigger - 92, 96, or 30?
HALE: When the students are back in Stephanie's room, it's obvious she's enjoying herself. There's a smile on her face.
JOHNSON: Awesome job. You did so good on that. I am going to pass you off...
HALE: And that smile isn't because she's doing less work this year. Stephanie admits she still stays late and comes in early. But the difference is that she gets to focus on teaching her students, and it really has made a difference. Recently, at a party, a friend approached Stephanie and said...
JOHNSON: Stephanie, have you been losing weight? You look so good. I don't know, you just look so good. And I said, oh, that's my new job. That's what you're seeing in my face. It's my new job.
HALE: So for now, Stephanie is here to stay because she's happy.
Lee Hale, NPR News, Salt Lake City.
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