Vocational and Educational Services for Individuals with Disabilities (VESID)
Special Education and Vocational Rehabilitation Services

                                   Keeping Quality Teachers
The Art of Retaining General and Special Education Teachers

Building a Framework: Improving Working Conditions


“The climate within a school building and the workforce conditions it encompasses act as either a support or a deterrent for teacher retention.” (Westat, 2002c; Ingersoll, 2001; Gersten, et al, 2001; Johnson, et al, 2001). As previously cited in Section One, the climate within the school district and building reflects many factors that embrace a variety of working conditions. Further scrutiny reveals just how powerful working conditions are in influencing the retention of all teachers as demonstrated by the following observations.

“How teachers are paid was a part of it, but overwhelmingly the things that would destroy the morale of teachers who wanted to leave were the working conditions. Bad! Bad! Bad! Working in poor facilities, having to pay for supplies, etc.” Los Angeles teacher talking about a high-turnover school. (Darling-Hammond, 2003).

“Data suggest that the roots of the teacher shortage largely reside in working conditions within the schools and districts.” (Ingersoll, Smith, 2003).
“The high attrition of teachers from schools serving lower-income or lower-achieving students appears to be substantially influenced by the poorer working conditions typically found in those schools.” (Darling-Hammond, 2003).

When teachers leave, they tend to migrate to other teaching jobs or leave the profession altogether. Understanding why they leave and where they go can aid in determining how to retain the best and most promising. In a study of why teachers moved or migrated, the following basic improvements in workforce conditions were noted (Birkeland, Johnson, 2003)

  • Appropriate work assignments: new teachers often get the least desirable classrooms and the most challenging students.
  • Sufficient curriculum guidelines: the teaching subject matches the teacher qualifications and curriculum materials, and teacher guides are available.
  • Efficient discipline systems: consistent, school-wide behavior policies exist and focus on classroom learning.
  • Good communication with parents: parents are involved in the hiring process, and the school encourages various types of participation for parents.
  • Sharing ideas and resources with colleagues: opportunities to interact with other professionals and improve teaching skills.
  • Respect and support from administrators: principals provide supervision, instructional guidance, and express confidence in their teachers.
  • Opportunities for professional development: teachers are encouraged to try innovative approaches and seek professional growth.

Almost all the teachers in the study left to teach in schools with better achieving students and higher socio-economic levels. At first it might appear that these teachers were seeking to work with a different “class” of students, but in reality they sought better working conditions. It is the purpose of this section to identify those conditions and offer solutions that, if implemented, can positively impact retention of a quality workforce.

Working Conditions — Description and Self-Assessment

Several examples of working conditions affecting retention have previously been referenced in this document, including administrative support, induction and mentoring programs, and pay increases. Though they are included, in part, in this section, administrative support as well as induction and mentoring are both factors that have such a profound effect that they warrant their own sections in this document. All conditions have been categorized in the form of a self-assessment that administrators and leadership teams can review for the purposes of: 1) determining the factors supporting teacher retention in their schools, and 2) assisting and selecting strategies to effectively enhance those factors.

To assist in the application of the self-assessment, the working conditions are organized by those that affect all teachers and those that strongly impact special educators. The conditions are also organized by category. Though the research is replete with examples of working conditions, the following categories lend a structure previously absent. In an effort to keep the descriptions manageable, only several examples are provided for each category. A more complete list of examples is found in Appendix 2-1. The structure will enable local schools and districts to better organize this information and communicate it to their communities of support. The categories include the following.

Leadership/Decision Making

         “When teachers are asked why they leave their jobs, working conditions are at the top of the list” (National Commission on Teaching America’s Future, 2003). The commission recommended three strategies in its report, all of which involve state, district and building-level leadership including superintendents, special education administrators and principals. The eight working conditions listed under this category all possess a direct link to decision making at these leadership levels. School boards are also essential in setting policies that support teachers (see Appendix 6-6). In addition, all factors affecting general educators impact special educators. The conditions and examples that more strongly impact those teaching professionals in special education are identified as well.

  1. Provide building and district level support for teachers (Ingersoll, 2003; Michigan State Department of Education, 2003).

Increasing support could range from a visible commitment to a retention plan to instituting opportunities for classroom visits.

Special Education. Traditional communication patterns tend to separate administrators and teachers as well as general and special education staff. Improving the knowledge base and communication for all involved is a critical support strategy (Michigan Department of Education, 2003; Council for Exceptional Children, 2002).

  1. Establish policies that support teachers (National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, 2003).

Teachers want to know that schools are organized for success and that policies exist to support them in pursuit of that success.

Special Education. Systems support means that the district, school board and school administrators who understand the responsibilities of special educators collaborate with and support their special educators (Michigan Department of Education, 2003; Council for Exceptional Children, 2002).

  1. Supporting teacher control over curriculum and instruction (National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, 2003).

Classical top-down school leadership needs to be re-examined, and teachers must be recognized as professionals who have expertise to make good learning decisions for their students.

  1. Assure appropriate class assignments for teachers (Birkeland, Johnson, 2003). 

    Assignments should be based on the qualifications and experience of teachers, as well as consideration for preparation time.

  3. Establish adequate pay scales and financial incentives (Harvard Graduate School of Education, 2002; National Commission on Teaching America’s Future, 2003).

    Compensation systems signal what skills and attributes are valued and what kinds of contributions are rewarded.
  4. Enforce equitable application of licensing and certification regulations (Birkeland, Johnson, 2003; National Education Association, 2003; Council for Exceptional Children, 2002). 

States and school districts should not hire out-of-field and need to ensure that teachers have adequate credentials or licenses before hiring. In critical circumstances when provisional certification is allowed, a means for assuring eventual certification should be in place.
  1. Establish induction and mentoring programs (Villani, 2002).

Connecting and supporting new teachers through mentoring and an overall induction process is a proven strategy for increasing teacher retention.

Special Education.
Formal induction and mentoring programs have been found to increase retention. Simply meeting with other new teachers and receiving informal help from colleagues have been beneficial for special and general educators, but that is not enough. Formal mentoring programs in which mentors are trained and supported are powerful retention tools (Cook, Williams, 2003).
  1. Establish and conduct personnel evaluation systems (National Clearinghouse for Professions in Special Education, 1998).

Teachers need regular feedback and accurate information on job expectations.

School Climate

“Even the best induction programs cannot compensate for an unhealthy school climate.” Many factors contribute to a climate that reflects the school culture in supporting all who work within. The four conditions described are among the most critical. (OSEP, 2002; Fieman-Nemser, 2003).

  1. Establish and enforce a comprehensive student support and discipline system (Birkeland, Johnson, 2003).

Teaching is possible only in a climate of order, where consistent behavior policies that focus on student learning and support are shared by all.

  1. Institute measures that assure student results and outcomes (National Commission on Teaching America’s Future, 2003).

Successful schools are learner-centered and assessment-centered where teachers use tools and strategies that provide continuous feedback that helps both students and teachers monitor learning.
  1. Establish a safe environment for staff, students and community members (National Education Association, 2003).

Environments in which all feel safe are primary characteristics of small schools — schools that have high retention rates. Policies and practices that promote better attendance, higher student achievement, closer relationships, and a greater commitment to the school can be provided anywhere.
  1. Assure that a climate of respect exists for all (National Education Association, 2003).

Teachers look for schools where they can feel like professionals — sharing ideas and resources with colleagues and receiving respect and guidance, and where school culture and norms reflect that respect for all.

Special Education. General education teachers and the public may have negative achievement expectations of students with disabilities that influence student efforts, actions, and outcomes (Birkeland, Johnson, 2003).


Just as a system of transportation needs an infrastructure of roads, bridges, rail systems and the like to assure the delivery of needed commodities, the education system requires structures to be in place to assure the delivery of knowledge and skills in an environment conducive to retention of high quality administrators and teachers. The following seven conditions are aspects of that structure over which all schools have a measure of control.

1.    Assure the teacher-to-student ratio supports students and doesn’t overwhelm teachers (National Commission on Teaching for America’s Future, 2003).

2.    Provide adequate planning time for teachers (National Commission on Teaching for America’s Future, 2003).

While all teachers work under tremendous time constraints, experienced teachers generally are able to complete their planning more quickly. For new teachers, adequate planning time can allay feelings of being overwhelmed.

Special Education. Survey results have indicated that teachers are dissatisfied with the non-instructional aspects associated with special education teaching that consume a lot of time such as meetings and legal issues. Collaboration is often required, but extra time is often not allocated for this planning (Menlove, 2003; Council for Exceptional Children, 2002).

3.    Provide curriculum guidelines aligned with state learning standards (Birkeland, Johnson, 2003).

The presence of guidelines, materials and teacher outlines throughout a school and district can provide needed direction and guidance to beginning teachers.

4.    Provide a structure for team planning and teaching (National Education Association, 2003).

Teachers often report feeling isolated in their classrooms. Team planning and teaching can be an important step in retaining a high quality teaching force.

Special Education. Special educators need to be a part of at least two learning communities — one with their school-based general education colleagues and the other with their discipline-based special education colleagues. Structural arrangements to facilitate collaborative instructional strategies are needed in addition to creating a sense of community (Breeding, Whitworth, 2000; Council for Exceptional Children, 2002).

5.    Assure an adequate supply of materials (Harvard Graduate School of Education, 2003).

Providing teachers with the necessary teaching tools to do a good job, without having to rely on their own resources, is basic to teaching. Teachers too often report they do not have the materials they need that are age appropriate and aligned with the curriculum and state learning standards.

6.    Provide technological support in classrooms (OSEP, 2002; National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, 2003).

Teachers often report the need for adequate, up-to-date technology as well as the support and skill development necessary for using that technology.

Special Education. Special education teachers rated their skills lowest on using technology in education, lacking confidence in their ability to use technology in instruction (OSEP, 2002).

7.    Provide assistance to special educators for completing paperwork responsibilities (Menlove, 2003; Cook, Williams, 2003).

 Special Education. Frustration with paperwork requirements of special education is a major issue identified by many special educators leaving the field.


An adequately prepared workforce requires skills, competencies and the opportunities for continuous improvement reflected in these two categories.

1.    Provide opportunities for professional development (OSEP, 2002: National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, 2003; National Education Association, 2003).

           Teachers are professionals whose practice must be continually upgraded as the content in their field changes, as research offers new perspectives, and as new technologies become available — strong professional development opportunities must be embedded in the fabric of public education.

           Special Education. With needs expressed by special educators to build their skills in the areas of interpreting standardized test results, accommodating the learning needs of culturally and linguistically diverse students, and using literature to address teaching and learning problems, professional development opportunities need to be offered (Cook, Williams, 2003; Council for Exceptional Children, 2002).

2.    Assure that teachers have the skills to work with a diverse student body (Sargent, 2003; National Education Association, 2003).

Students in schools comprise an increasingly diverse mix of races, religions, lifestyles, abilities, cultures and ethnic groups. It is essential that teachers have the skills they need to feel comfortable and teach effectively.

Community Involvement and Support

Increasingly, teachers in their desire to stay in a school or district are identifying community and parental involvement and support as supportive factors. Not only does this involvement contribute to the school climate, but also it provides the needed support to pass budgets and secure resources. Two categories are illustrated here.

1.    Establish a system of communication with parents (Birkeland, Johnson, 2003).

Family support is a factor in student achievement and families make great teacher allies. Effective relations must be intentionally constructed.

2.    Establish mechanisms for community involvement in support of teachers and students (Harvard Graduate School of Education, 2002).

Though salaries and benefits are often thought of first in the context of community support, other opportunities for recognition and support are easily provided.

Special Education. Community support for education can be manifested in various ways. It is a crucial element to assure that the community understands the needs of its special education students and that students will be supported when they leave school to enter the community (Council for Exceptional Children, 2002).


The above working conditions and functions were cited in the literature as affecting retention of general and special educators. A school that has more of these in place and scores high on the instrument will have a more satisfied staff and student body with teachers more likely to stay, grow and become more effective in their roles. By applying the following Self-Assessment Instrument in Appendix 2-1, a school or district can begin to retain a quality workforce by identifying needed strategies and taking action.

Appendix 2-1 provides an instrument that focuses on numerous aspects of working conditions proven to influence the retention of a quality workforce. It is designed as a tool to assist in identifying areas of strengths and needs. 


Breeding, M. &Whitworth, J. (2000). Preparing, recruiting, and retaining special education personnel in rural areas. National Conference of the American Council on Rural Special Education. Alexandria, VA.

Birkeland, S. & Johnson, S. (2003). The schools that teachers choose. Educational Leadership, 60 (8), 20-25.

Council for Exceptional Children. (2000). Bright futures for exceptional learners. CEC Publications.

Cardos, S., Johnson, S. M., Liu, E., Kauffman, D., & Peske, H. (2000). Barely breaking even: Incentives, rewards, and the high cost of choosing to teach. Harvard School of Education. Spencer Foundation. ngt@gse.harvard.edu.

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Fieman-Nemser, S. (2003). What new teachers need to learn. Educational Leadership, 60 (8), 25-30.

Holloway, J. (2003). Sustaining experienced teachers. Educational Leadership, 60 (8), 87-91.

Ingersoll, R.R. & Smith, T. (2003). The wrong solution to the teacher shortage. Educational Leadership, 60 (8), 30-34.

Michigan State Department of Education. (2003). Resolving issues related to special education teacher retention: A report of the state improvement grants supply and demand strategies group.

Menlove, R. (2002). Utah special education shortages study. Utah State University and Utah State Office of Education.

The National Clearinghouse for Professions in Special Education at the Council for Exceptional Children. (1998). Retention of special education professionals: A practical guide of strategies for educators and administrators.

The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future (2003). No dream denied: A pledge to America’s children.  

The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future. (2003). Teaching in America’s future. www.nctaf.org

National Education Association. (2003). Meeting the challenges of recruitment and retention: A guidebook on promising strategies to recruit and retain qualified and diverse teachers. www.nea.org

New York City Department of Education. (2003). An exit survey of new teachers who left the New York City public schools within one year.

Office of Special Education Programs. (2001). Study of personnel needs in special education report

Rebora, A. The retention imperative. Education Week. arebora@epe.org.

Sargent, B. (2003). Finding good teachers and keeping them. Educational Leadership, 60 (8), 44-48.

The Southeast Center for Teaching Quality. (2002). Recruitment and retention strategies in a regional and national context.

Williams, J. (2003). Why great teachers stay. Educational Leadership, 60 (8), 71-76.


Villani, S. (2002). Mentoring programs for new teachers: Models of induction and support. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, Inc.


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