Attending employment fairs wasn't always part of Jada Conner's job, but in recent years it's become routine.
Conner is director of special education for Northwest Allen County Schools. She started attending job fairs at area colleges after noticing that applications for open positions weren't coming in as fast as they used to – especially for school psychologists and speech pathologists.
Even fewer people seem interested in working in intense intervention, which serves students with more severe learning or behavioral needs, she said.
“I never really had to go to teacher job fairs till a couple years ago,” Conner said.
One of the first fairs she attended was in spring 2016 at Ball State University in Muncie, and it was filled with aspiring educators.
“That day, I saw a lot of people, and there were only three who were getting their intense intervention (license),” she said, referring to certification required to work with some special-needs students. “At one point last year, we had nobody applying for a high school position.”
It's a familiar problem for schools in Allen County, statewide and around the country. Amid a teacher shortage that has left administrators scrambling to recruit and retain instructors in specialized areas including math and science, positions in special education are particularly vulnerable, say experts who study education and those within the profession.
Many local schools say they're fully staffed for special education. But when a position comes open, filling it can be a challenge.
“There are not as many people going into that field as there used to be,” Conner said.
By the numbers
The state doesn't track teacher shortages, but Indiana Department of Education officials say discussions with school leaders indicate the problem is real in many areas, including special education.
Terry McDaniel has statistics he says proves it.
An Indiana State University professor in the Department of Educational Leadership, he has surveyed hundreds of school districts statewide to ask about staffing. Annually, he sends surveys to each public school district in the state. Since 2015, at least 92 percent of superintendents who responded reported a shortage in at least one area.
Last year, 94 percent of administrators reported a teacher shortage. Sixty-nine percent of those said they had a shortage in special education, compared with foreign language (40 percent), English (30 percent) and agriculture (13 percent). Fifty-seven percent of respondents said they had a shortage of math and science teachers.
The shortage in special education appears to be worsening, according to McDaniel's survey. Nearly 60 percent of superintendents reported a shortage in the area in 2015, and the rate was 65 percent a year later.
“It's always been No. 1 or No. 2,” McDaniel said.
The state's Department of Workforce Development frequently features K-12 teachers on a list of “hottest jobs of the future.”
Kody Tinnel has worked as employee recruiter for Fort Wayne Community Schools since 2015. He said there were more than 30 unfilled teaching positions this year in the district, one of the state's largest with about 30,000 students.
About half of the unfilled positions were in special education.
“Consistently, it's special education, science and math – they're the most difficult positions to fill,” Tinnel said.
There are no surveys or state data to indicate what's keeping people from becoming teachers, school psychologists, speech pathologists or other professionals within the realm of special education.
Ask McDaniel and those in education, though, and they have an answer: It's complicated.
Special education is a difficult, often demanding job that includes specialized work for which extra levels of certification are required. As with other teachers, pay is tied to standardized test scores.
Salaries for teachers in Indiana average around $35,000, ranking 38th among states and below the national average of about $36,000, according to McDaniel's research.
A legislative climate in Indiana that in recent years has included shifting educational standards and problems with ISTEP+, the state's standardized test, have also made teaching an unattractive career path, educators and administrators say.
“It's been a struggle for a long time to recruit and retain special education teachers,” said Rachael Miller, a special education teacher at North Side High School. “Part of it is just the climate – the current attitude toward teachers and the profession.”
A calling for some
A day in the life of a special education teacher is anything but average.
Aside from teaching and lesson plans, there are ongoing meetings with parents. Some students require one-on-one help with assignments or tests.
Special education teachers often travel to different classrooms to work with students. They also keep a close eye on IEPs – individualized education programs – that spell out the learning needs for students.
For Miller at North Side, it's a job where the work sometimes exceeds time spent inside the classroom. Like many who work in special education, she “kind of fell into” the job.
Initially intimidated by teaching, she chose to pursue education in college. Her brother, Paul, has a “moderate mental disability,” Miller said, and that helped direct her to special education.
“It is something that's important to me,” she said, “considering my brother.”
Several local administrators and teachers in special education shared similar stories. They said they either had a personal connection to someone in special education or came later to the profession, after learning more about it in college or on the job.
Students with disabilities or special needs used to be kept in classrooms away from other students, which meant those in mainstream classrooms – educators and students alike – learned little about special education or their peers.
Special education and other students now work side-by-side in most schools, and teachers say the familiarity that breeds could inspire more students to become special education teachers.
At Carroll High School, Ryan Roy and Michelle Abel said they initially didn't think much about a career in special education.
Abel, who teaches English and reading, was drawn by the opportunity to work with children with learning disabilities.
“Students (now) have classmates in every class that are in special education,” she said. “It's opened people's eyes to what's out there.”
Roy, who chairs Carroll's special education department, agrees. “I do think inclusion has made more students with special needs more visible,” he said.
Lindsay Wolf, a special education teacher at Homestead High School, once sought “to understand humanity and the complexities of humanity” as a sociologist. Working in college with adults with disabilities led her to consider a career in special education.
“It ignited something that was already there,” Wolf said. “My job is not a job. My job is a vocation. It's definitely a calling.”
Filling the ranks
Still, experts say it's going to take more than inclusion and the visibility of special education students to coax more people into the profession.
McDaniel, the Indiana State University professor, said issues of pay and benefits will continue to play a role in whether college students consider education. Teachers, whether or not they are in special education departments, must also feel welcome and appreciated.
Environments where mentors work with new teachers and schools where work is collaborative seem to increase educators' satisfaction with their jobs, he said.
Many local schools have mentor programs in place, and teachers say there's a collegial environment that allows teachers to share ideas and concerns.
Pam Wright, director of special education for the Indiana Department of Education, said recruiting and retaining qualified teachers will likely remain a challenge.
The Education Department in recent years has provided emergency licenses to hundreds of educators in special education, she said.
The temporary licenses allow them to work in classrooms while they work to secure a formal license.
“The qualified people just aren't out there,” Wright said.
Many of those in special education say they knew what they were getting into when they chose the profession. It wasn't about the pay or the benefits.
“If you feel called to work with kids, you're not doing it for the pay, you're not doing it for the glory,” said Abel at Carroll. “You're doing it because it's where you're supposed to be.
“It's a great life knowing you're making a difference in someone's life.”