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Special Education Teachers’ Burnout and Turnover Research Paper

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Updated: Aug 13th, 2020

It is a commonly accepted fact that the retention of teachers in their positions is a crucial area for research; however, the retention of special education teachers is of primary concern in the majority of schools across the country. Prior to the development of teachers’ shortage, key educational stakeholders expressed concern about the attrition rates of special education teachers that are subjected to the increased amount of stress and pressure in their professional practice. Therefore, special education teachers experience high rates of turnover, which is attributed to the peculiarities of their job description (Mastrantuono, 2015, p. 3).

Studying the effect burnout has on special education teachers when they teach students with intellectual disabilities is important for ensuring a high level of teacher satisfaction and maintaining the best quality of special education (Johnson, 2010, p. 4). This paper will focus on exploring this effect as well as finding correlations between the earned degree and burnout, gender and burnout, years of experience, the level of teaching, and burnout on the basis of available literature on the topic. Reviewing the already existing literature will allow for a better understanding of problems special education teachers face in their practice and identifying whether there have been some innovative methods created for resolving the identified problems.

Literature Review

Before exploring the existing literature on the topic of special education teachers’ burnout, it is important to give a definition of this term. According to the explanation given by Hakanen, Bakker, and Schaufeli (2006), burnout is a syndrome of exhaustion, cynicism, and reduced professional efficacy (p. 498). Therefore, burnout is comprised of three dimensions that contribute to its emergence. Exhaustion is a feeling of fatigue that results from extensive work; cynicism is a feeling of distance and the lack of interest towards work; professional efficacy is the lack of professional competence and inability to successfully perform in the workplace (Hakanen et al., 2006, p. 498).

Emotional exhaustion is a factor that should be taken into consideration when exploring the notion of burnout as a contributor to special education teachers’ job satisfaction and retention in their positions. According to the research conducted by Shyman (2010), between thirty and forty percent of special education teachers leave the field of their practice within five years of experience and identify emotional exhaustion as the main factor for making their final decision (p. 829). Furthermore, emotional exhaustion has a deleterious effect on the mental and physical health of an individual. Thus, when looking for the correlations between burnout and other factors such as gender or degree earned, it is important to take into account emotional exhaustion, which prevents special education teachers from successfully doing their job and offering students an adequate level of education based on their specific needs.

Overall, burnout among special education teachers is associated with psychological distress that occurs in cases of students’ lack of compliance with the educational process, the absence of support on the part of the principal management, as well as the increased workload that is very hard to manage. It is important to distinguish the study by Hinds, Jones, Gau, Forrester, and Biglan (2015) for exploring the role of experiential avoidance related to the practice of special education teachers (p. 284). Researchers defined experiential avoidance as an attempt to disregard specific feelings associated with various psychological problems. Moreover, the study found that 26.8% of special education teachers were mildly depressed, 8.9% were moderately, and 2.8% were severely depressed (Hinds et al., 2015, p. 284). Such figures indicate that teachers are highly subjected to stress and exhaustion, which subsequently turns into experiential avoidance and causes teachers to think about leaving their job.

Correlation Between the Degree Earned and Burnout

There have been some connections made between the level of special education teachers’ burnout and their degree earned in the university. Therefore, it is important to study actual data to see whether this correlation exists. According to the research conducted by Zabel and Zabel (1983), a larger percentage of study participants with Master’s degrees experienced lower depersonalization rates compared with participants with Bachelor’s degrees (p. 258). The results of this study were further supported by Zabel’s and Zabel’s (2001) research, which found that special education teachers with Master’s degrees showed higher indicators of Personal Achievement, although there was no statistically significant difference in Depersonalization and Emotional Exhaustion rates between teachers with Bachelor’s and Master’s (p. 133). Research conducted by Saddler (2014) showed a negative correlation between the earned degree of special education teachers and their level of burnout (p. 60). The higher level of education a teacher received, the lower the level of burnout was. For example, when comparing the level of burnout between teachers with Bachelor’s degrees and Master’s degrees, those with a higher level of education exhibited lower burnout. Similarly, teachers with Doctoral degrees were even more prepared to withstand burnout compared to those with Master’s (Saddler, 2014, p. 61).

Results as to the correlation of degree earned and burnout are reported differently across various studies. For example, Williams and Dikes (2011) concluded that teachers holding Specialist degrees showed a higher percentage (75%) of emotional exhaustion when they were working with students with special education needs (p. 342). On the other hand, the same group of participants with Specialist degrees experienced low depersonalization rates (100%) (Williams & Dikes, 2011, p. 342). Teachers with Master’s degrees showed a higher level (75%) of personal accomplishment in comparison to those with Specialist degrees (Williams & Dikes, 2011, p. 343).

To be accepted in an educational institution, special education teachers must have disability-specific training as well as degrees (Martin, 2010, p. 20). Moreover, as mentioned by Zabel and Zabel (2001), many special education teachers feel that their college programs did not prepare them enough to be proficient in handling students with behavioral problems and different degrees of disabilities (p. 135). This means that special education teachers are expected to have expert knowledge about a wide variety of disabilities children may have, although the training they experience in college does not provide enough tools and materials to acquire such knowledge (Martin, 2010, p. 21).

Therefore, the correlation between burnout and earned degree may not be an adequate criterion for evaluating special education teachers’ effectiveness since even those professionals holding Master’s degrees acknowledge the lack of training they had when studying to become teachers although the acquired degree may be a factor in determining burnout since it can indicate the level of professional experience or the desire to pursue a career in special education. Personal achievement in the sphere of special education is often related to the earned degree or the awarded certification; therefore, it is a “more tangible, external construct that special educators have control over” (Martin, 2010, p. 85). While, for example, emotional exhaustion or self-efficacy are psychological constructs managed by teachers internally and therefore are harder to deal with; the earned degree is something that falls into the “high control” category and can be modified in order to adapt to a high strain job (Martin, 2010, p. 85).

Gender and the Level of Burnout

Exploring the correlation between the gender of special education teachers and the level of their burnout is important for identifying gender-specific programs that will facilitate teacher satisfaction and decrease attrition rates. The research conducted by Küçüksüleymanoğlu (2011) concluded that men showed higher scores of depersonalization and emotional exhaustion compared to women (p. 57). The author explained this difference by women being able to typically find a balance between home duties and career responsibilities.

Also, since there is a bigger number of female teachers working in schools, they share their problems with each other and thus manage to relax (Küçüksüleymanoğlu, 2011, p. 58). However, these results were contradicted by the research conducted by Williams and Dikes (2011), who concluded that females (49%) are far more likely to experience emotional exhaustion in their professional practice compared to males (33%) (p. 341). As to the depersonalization subscale, males showed higher indicators (33%) compared to female teachers (12%). It was also reported that male and female special education teachers show similar indicators as to personal accomplishments in the workplace (Williams & Dikes, 2011, p. 341).

According to the research conducted by Bataineh and Alsagheer (2012), when it comes to gender differences and burnout, male special education teachers predominantly experience higher levels of burnout compared with female teachers (p. 8). These findings support the results of the previously mentioned studies that concluded that women manage pressure in the teaching setting much better than men. Research by Bataineh and Alsagheer (2012) also aimed to analyze the impact social support has on burnout experienced by special education teachers (p. 9).

The sources of social support for teachers were associated with various social dimensions such as gender, age, teaching experience, and marital status (Bataineh & Alsagheer, 2012, p. 10). One of the most interesting findings of the research apart from the correlation between gender and burnout was the positive relationship between the positive accomplishment dimension and family support, as well as between the support of the colleagues and personal accomplishment (Bataineh & Alsagheer, 2012, p. 10). When speaking about colleagues’ support, female teachers manage to withstand burnout because the majority of teachers in schools are female, and they are able to support each other, share experiences, and offer help.

Years of Experience and Burnout

Years of experience can be considered an important aspect for determining teachers’ burnout since it can say a lot about what the professionals can do in his or her practice. For example, according to the study by Hoffman, Palladino, and Barnett (2007), inexperienced teachers can often deal with the loss of control in specific situations (p. 18). The study gave an example of an emerging teacher taking up a class of four-graders with cognitive impairments. The teacher reported that despite her preservice training, without experience, she felt like she had no control over the situation (Hoffman et al., 2007, p. 19). Therefore, experience in a field, especially when it comes to special education, can be regarded as a strong point for withstanding stress and eliminating burnout.

As mentioned by the study conducted by Zabel and Zabel (1983), more experienced and highly trained special education teachers are at a lower risk of experiencing burnout in their positions compared with less experienced and younger teachers that are at the start of their careers (p. 258). Therefore, to reduce burnout among special education teachers, it is advised for the educational stakeholders to hire more experienced and highly trained teachers. A study by Küçüksüleymanoğlu (2011) showed that teachers with one to ten years of experience in the special education sphere tend to experience more burnout in comparison with others (p. 59). When it comes to the depersonalization subscale, teachers with 1-15 years of experience show the highest indicators (Küçüksüleymanoğlu, 2011, p. 59).

Similar to the above-mentioned studies, Williams and Dikes (2011) also found that teachers with less experience than twenty-two years showed higher rates of emotional exhaustion (55%) (p. 343). Teachers working for five to ten years in the sphere of special education reported the largest percentage of low emotional exhaustions (36%) (Williams & Dikes, 2011, p. 343). Special teachers with one to four years of working in the field did not experience depersonalization while their peers with five to ten years of experience reported the largest percentage (23%) in the depersonalization subscale (Williams & Dikes, 2011, p. 343).

With regard to years of experience, the study conducted by Platsidou (2010) explores employee satisfaction inventory designed to measure the level of satisfaction of special education teachers (p. 63). The inventory is not only linked to the years of experience a teacher has but also includes the quality of such experiences. For example, if a teacher agreed that his or her experience working in special education was worthwhile and that he or she was provided with an appropriate level of principal support, the likelihood of high job satisfaction increased. What is interesting is that according to the experiment conducted by Platsidou (2010), years of experience did not have a significant impact on the factors of emotional intelligence, such as burnout (p. 65).

Level of Teaching and Special Education Teachers Burnout

The level of teaching in the sphere of special education is one of the most important components for providing students with a high quality of education. When teachers are provided with appropriate tools and materials for teaching, they are able to better organize the learning process and ensure that all students are included in the process of learning. According to the research conducted by Kaufhold, Alverez, and Arnold (2003), fifty percent of teachers participating in the experiment “strongly agreed” that the lack of adequate school supplies and resources majorly impacted their performance in the position (p. 160). Forty percent of teachers “agreed” that they lacked enough sufficient resources and materials; while six percent of special education teachers were neutral as to the availability of necessary teaching materials, nobody indicated that they had enough resources to efficiently teach their students (Kaufhold et al., 2003, p. 160).

When exploring the level of teaching, it is important to pay attention to teacher certification as an indicator that shows the effectiveness of the teacher when educating students with special needs. The study conducted by Thornton, Peltier, and Medina (2007) mentioned specific factors that influence the level of teaching and help children achieve success; such factors include professional development, teacher induction, working conditions, mentoring, administrative support, and teachers programs (p. 235). It was concluded that the availability of the mentioned factors could significantly improve the level of teaching and facilitate effective interactions between students and their educators. Therefore, there is some correlation between the level of teacher’s burnout and the level of teaching they offer. According to the same study, schools can attract and retain skilled teachers when treating them as valuable professionals that require respect and attention, as well as the efforts to reduce burnout associated with their job (Thornton et al., 2007, p. 237).

The level of teaching is also associated with the differentiation of burnout levels that occur as a result of behavioral problems exhibited by children in the classroom. Thus, the examination of teachers’ burnout as related to the level of teaching should also be conducted within the context of behavioral issues educators have to withstand in order to teach their students. According to the research conducted by Bibou-Nakou, Stogiannidou, and Kiosseoglou (1999), the majority of teachers did not have a clear strategy within their personal levels of teaching to deal with student’s problem behavior (p. 213). It has also been identified that teachers usually exhibit lower levels of depersonalization in the context of external student-related attributions (Bibou-Nakou et al., 1999, p. 214). On the other hand, teachers show high levels of emotional exhaustion in cases of internal student-related causes when children create disruption in the classroom. The study by Bibou-Nakou et al. (1999) suggested that teachers are prone to having similar perceptions as to the correlation between their burnout, disciplinary issues, and the level of their teaching (p. 214).

It is important to mention the research conducted by McCarty (2013), which aimed to explore the relationship between the special education teachers’ sense of teacher efficacy on the intent to leave their job (p. 89). This study found no significant correlation between the sense of teacher efficacy and their intention to leave the position, despite the fact that the previously conducted research did found such a correlation. On the other hand, the research by McCarty (2013) found that special educators’ perceptions about the engagement of their students had a positive effect on the intent to leave (p. 90). Because special education teachers work with students that have specific learning needs, teachers who see that their students are engaged in the learning process are far more likely to remain in their position and improve their teaching levels. Apart from students’ engagement, the level of teachers’ sense of efficacy can also be influenced by the principal support. Job satisfaction among special education teachers requires support from the outside; as evidenced by the findings of the study by McCarty (2013). Furthermore, such findings were consistent with the ones from previous studies that also explored how the principal management of the educational facilities can facilitate job satisfaction of special education teachers.

As to the special education teachers’ self-efficacy when educating students with special needs, the study by Egyed and Short (2006), who hypothesized that the characteristics of teachers would be directly related to their intentions to refer children with special education needs (p. 470). For example, teachers that experienced difficulties with referring a child tended to have increased levels of burnout. On the contrary, teachers that reported lower levels of burnout were dedicated to their practice and were eager to help students with special education needs (Egyed & Short, 2006, p. 470). Therefore, those special education professionals who believed that their classrooms were the most productive alternatives for children to improve were much more likely to show higher levels of self-efficacy and higher levels of teaching.

Solutions to Teachers’ Burnout

The literature review on the topic of burnout among special education teachers revealed that there are some correlations between the degree earned by teachers, years of experience, the level of teaching, gender, and professional burnout. It has been identified that more experienced and skilled special education teachers tend to better withstand stress and deal with burnout associated with their profession. Furthermore, male teachers are much more likely to experience burnout in their teaching practice since they do not have as much college support compared to female teachers. It is also worth to mention that principal support and the provision of adequate teaching resources and materials improves the level of teaching and subsequently decreases burnout.

Burnout among special education teachers is a problem that requires not only identification but also a solution. Teachers’ burnout and stress can subsequently cause absenteeism as well as diminish the educators’ capacity to effectively interact with students. Furthermore, burnout can directly affect students’ engagement and negatively impact the effectiveness of the educational program (Roeser et al., 2013, p. 789). The research conducted by Roeser et al. (2013) explored the mindfulness training program, targeted at using different pedagogical approaches for fostering mindfulness and compassion among special education teachers and providing them with mechanism beneficial for effectively dealing with stress (p. 790).

Such programs can be particularly useful within the context of special education since teachers should be aware of the importance of self-compassion and compassion to others as well as be able to deal with stressful situations regarding children with special needs. According to the experiment by Roeser et al. (2013), mindfulness training was a feasible method of stress reduction for teachers and also facilitated the development of a compassionate mindset that helps them manage job-related stress as well as better “attend to the interpersonal and instructional complexities of teaching and learning” (p. 799).

When discussing teacher’s burnout in the sphere of special education, it is important to take into consideration student behavior patterns as another contributor. Regardless of teachers’ experience, degree, or gender, external factors such as student behavior can significantly increase stress and contribute to teachers’ burnout. According to the research conducted by Hastings and Bham (2003), students’ disrespect contributes to teachers’ emotional exhaustion and depersonalization while the lack or absence of sociability between students and teachers contributed to depersonalization and decreased personal accomplishment (p. 115). Challenging behavior in the classroom is a component that will always be present in the profession of special education teachers, so it is important to learn how to deal with it. As mentioned by Zwijsen et al. (2015) in the study concerning nursing homes and patients with dementia, misbehavior is one of the key contributing factors to job dissatisfaction and burnout among the staff members (p. 69). Therefore, it is important to include misbehavior as an influencing factor to burnout and educate special education professionals how to diminish it and facilitate effective interactions in the classroom.

The topic of job satisfaction among special education schools has already been discussed in the literature review; however, life satisfaction as a contributor to burnout should also be mentioned. The research conducted by Hamama, Ronen, Schachar, and Rosenbaum (2013) identified that while the stress of teaching students with special needs impacts the increase of negative effect among educators, it did not contribute to the decrease of the positive effect (p. 744), which is quite paradoxical. This means that despite the fact that special education teachers experience pressure, stress, as well as other negative feelings, they still manage to proceed with their teaching and maintain positive feelings such as satisfaction and inspiration. Such a paradox can be used as a foundation for further improvements in the practice of special education and inspiring teachers of all ages, genders, experiences, and the levels of teaching to continue doing their job and help children with special needs.


Special education teachers’ burnout has been identified as one of the key issues contributing to job dissatisfaction, absenteeism, and resentment. Despite this, it is noteworthy to mention that inclusion is a key component of a fair society, where people can interact with each other and facilitate an equal distribution of resources (Walker & Musti-Rao, 2016, p. 28). Special education is important for making sure that children are developing within a safe environment, interact with their peers, and act upon the educational requirements posed by key educational stakeholders (Gersten, Fuchs, Williams, & Baker, 2001, p. 286).

The review of the relevant literature on the topic shed light on some important aspects educational researchers should further study and assess. First, the research concluded that there is a negative correlation between the degree earned and burnout. Therefore, the higher the degree earned by a teacher, the lower the possibility of burnout. Second, years of experience in the field of special education are also negatively correlated with burnout. Thus, the lower the number of years of experience, higher is the likelihood of burnout in the special education profession. A conclusion can be made that both earned degree and years of experience help teachers withstand stress, see a positive side in their practice, and are able to facilitate effective interactions with students that have special needs when it comes to education.

Third, when it comes to gender differences and their correlation with teachers’ burnout, the literature review presented some interesting findings. Despite the expected results, the research showed that female teachers are far more likely to withstand stress in their workplace and have lower levels of burnout. What is noteworthy is that the teaching environment facilitates such ‘immunity’ towards burnout. Since it is a common trend that the majority of teachers in any school setting are female, and since women tend to share their experience and show support for one another on a regular basis, the burnout levels are higher among men. Psychologically, it is much easier for female special education teachers to deal with burnout since they are open to supporting others and can ask for help when necessary. Lastly, the level of teaching is another factor that is negatively correlated with burnout. The higher the level of teaching and the higher the number of resources provided for special education teachers, the lower is the possibility of burnout.


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