“When we are short-staffed, the kids are not going to be safe,” Roffers, the Hiawatha teacher, said to applause. “We are expected to take being beaten on and hit and spit on and have poop thrown at us. … And you know, when we bring this up, it’s like, ‘Well that’s part of the job.’ When do we say, ‘It really isn’t part of our job?’ ”
That fear and frustration appear to be scaring aspiring teachers away from the field of special education. At the Minnesota colleges that train teachers, the number getting licensed in special ed has fallen 14 percent in the past five years.
“A lot of them hear the stories about teachers getting injured, about the burnout factor, and they become hesitant to pursue a career as a special education teacher,” said Rachel Endo, chair of Hamline University’s teacher education department.
Meanwhile, special ed teachers are quitting faster than their peers in regular classrooms. Across the country 269,800 teachers left the profession in 2008, according to the most recent federal data; 18 percent of them taught special education, the highest percentage of departures from any subject area.
With a click of a button, Ethan Larson comes into view on Deb Moorse’s computer screen. Today, the blonde boy with a subtle lisp is working on his S’s with Moorse, a speech and language pathologist.
“The pencil was with the whistle in the dresser that the dinosaur ate!” he giggles into a headset.
“I like the way you put your tongue behind your teeth, Ethan,” Moorse says as she enlarges his face on her screen.
Teacher and student are separated by almost 90 miles — Larson is in Walnut Grove while Moorse works from an office in Benson Junior High.
The Southwest/West Central Service Co-op, which employs Moorse, serves 18 counties over 12,500 square miles in the southwest corner of the state.
Without virtual teaching “kids would go without services because there just aren’t enough people in our area to provide them,” said Mary Palmer, the co-op’s special ed director. About 100 students work with speech therapists online.
Kayla DeJong is one of dozens of traveling specialists who work for the co-op. The school psychologist logs about 1,200 miles a month on her Honda Civic, switching to an SUV in winter.
“There are some days in the winter when the roads can be pretty dicey,” DeJong said of her commutes, which include a 104-mile round-trip drive twice a week to work with students in Slayton.
Rural schools, if they’re lucky, might receive one or two candidates for the state’s toughest positions to fill: speech pathologists, psychologists and teachers for emotionally and behaviorally disturbed students.
“That’s not a very deep talent pool,” said Benson Superintendent Lee Westrum.
Schools often turn to the Minnesota Department of Education for so-called variances that allow teachers who aren’t licensed to work with certain disabilities to teach those students. Almost one in 10 special ed teachers has a variance and special ed accounted for 40 percent of the variances granted last year.
Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius defended the variances, noting they generally go to licensed teachers who simply don’t have the right license for the students they are teaching that year.
“It’s not like you have an unlicensed person in the classroom typically,” she said.