From Caring to Cared For: Prioritizing an Ethic of Care for Special Educators

From Caring to Cared For: Prioritizing an Ethic of Care for Special Educators

Lindsey A. Chapman, Chelsea T. Morris
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-5748-7.ch006
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Special educators dedicate their careers to caring for one of the most vulnerable and historically marginalized populations of students despite often working in environments that do little to reciprocate this care. Amidst an ever-changing education landscape, special education teachers are becoming increasingly stressed, experiencing burnout at alarming rates, and far too frequently leaving the field altogether. In this chapter, caring school leadership is examined in the context of special education. The authors seek to bridge a theoretical stance with practical application to the field. Three necessary conditions for caring are discussed and specific “transactions of care” are recommended. The chapter concludes by upholding the idea that ensuring special educators feel cared for by school leaders has the potential to mitigate issues of poor working conditions, teacher retention, and consequently, promote positive outcomes for students with disabilities.
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Federal regulations requiring special education for children in public schools have changed the landscape of educational opportunities for students with disabilities (Education for All Handicapped Children Act, 1975; Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 1990, 2004). In the 1970s, only one in five students with disabilities were being served in public schools, while in the last decade, the number of students with disabilities being educated in their local neighborhood schools has been closer to 95% (U.S. Department of Education, 2010). This dramatic change highlights the increased inclusion of students with disabilities in public schools, but the change also illuminates that their inclusion was not within the institution’s original intentions. For example, until the last two decades, students with disabilities were generally omitted from accountability systems used to monitor the performance outcomes of general education students (Turnbull, Turnbull, Wehmeyer, & Park, 2003). However, public policy has now changed the way resources are allocated to students with disabilities, the curriculums required to be used when teaching students with disabilities, and the pathways in which teachers are deemed “highly qualified” to teach special education.

Special education teachers are the primary personnel charged with caring for this historically excluded group of students. They have the responsibility to ensure educational equity of and care for the personal and educational needs of all students with disabilities. With the political climate surrounding public education seemingly rife with tumultuous changes, the roles and responsibilities of special education teachers have become increasingly intensified and there are more stringent consequences for students, teachers, and schools tied to student performance. These, and many other challenges, can lead to dire consequences for teachers and their students if left unaddressed. For example, the national shift toward the inclusion of students with disabilities with their typically-developing, same-aged peers has also resulted in greater co-teaching models (general education teachers partnered with special education teachers in the same classroom) that increase tension around teachers’ roles (Brownell, Sindelar, Kiely, & Danielson, 2010). Without appropriate training and time for meaningful collaboration, co-teaching is likely to result in an imbalance in the shared responsibility of general and special educators to the students, and may lead special education teachers to feel like glorified assistants (Murawski, 2009). Other challenges for special education teachers include mounds of paperwork and a responsibility to continuously validate instructional decisions with data for a group of students with wide variability of needs and a high demand for attention (Gersten, Keating, Yovanoff, & Harniss, 2011).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Transactions of Care: Intentional actions between school leaders and their special education teachers that strengthen the presence of caring school leadership in schools.

School Leader: Individuals with knowledge and respect for instruction and the personal and professional role of teachers and a commitment to collectively engage in the success of teachers and students.

Care: A desired quality of interpersonal relationships in which members are mutually committed to the success and wellbeing of the other.

Reciprocity: The provision that caring encounters are a mutual exchange of both giving and receiving in a relationship.

Equity: Remediating differences with proportionately fair practices.

Intensification: Changes in structural and cultural working conditions which increase demands and pressures over time.

Caring School Leadership: A social relationship at the foundation of school community creating capacity to care through the experience of caring and being cared for.

Burnout: Persistent, negative, work-related state of psychological exhaustion.

Working Conditions: Environmental factors such as workload, class size, and administrative support that have been found to be central to special education teacher retention.

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