For prospective teachers, lesson in supply, demand highlights special needs

By Ann Carrns
Globe Correspondent / July 11, 2010

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Considering a career in education? You may need to learn more than just how to teach.

The sluggish economy, combined with uncertainty over federal stimulus aid, has public school districts cutting back on spending on everything from supplies to staff. But over the long term, demand is expected to be strong for teachers who are proficient in math and science, as well as those trained to work with students with special needs or who can speak a language other than English.

A good indicator of where the greatest demand lies is in the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s waiver activity. The department granted more than 1,300 teaching waivers for the 2009-2010 school year, allowing school districts to hire teachers who aren’t formally licensed for particular subjects or specialties, due to difficulty in finding qualified candidates. (Those hired must show “continuous progress’’ toward licensure while in the job.) Three-quarters of the waivers were issued for positions teaching students with disabilities or other special needs, with the remainder issued for posts teaching math, science, and students learning English as a second language.

By far, though, the fastest-growing teaching segment is in special needs. While growth in student enrollment overall is expected to slow, special education needs are rising, in part because of better and earlier diagnoses of developmental problems. Teachers trained in specialty areas, such as teaching children with autism or those with multiple disabilities, are expected to be in particular demand. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts “faster than average’’ growth in special education jobs, with the number of special education teachers expected to rise 17 percent between 2008 and 2018.

“If I were a special education teacher, I wouldn’t be as concerned’’ about potential staff cuts, says Nora Todd, a licensing specialist with the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

A quick glance at websites advertising teaching positions in Massachusetts confirms the trend. Fitchburg public schools, for example, are seeking experienced, licensed special education teachers at “all levels.’’ The state education department’s website lists roughly 25 positions in the special needs category, and the jobs section of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents website lists numerous special education positions.

Tom Scott, executive director of the superintendents association, says special education slots are among the most challenging to fill because such jobs are demanding. “In special education, you’re dealing with the most fragile students and complicated educational issues,’’ he says.

Adding to that, special education teachers typically deal closely not only with their students, but with their students’ families. “Parents of special education kids have expectations and need lots of counseling and support,’’ Scott says, “and that adds to the workload.’’

In addition to passing the state teacher examination, those seeking licensure for special education typically must complete extra course work and demonstrate experience working with such students, says the MTA’s Todd: “It can be a little more time consuming.’’

Teachers who are up to the challenge, however, may earn slightly higher pay than in traditional teaching positions. The median annual salary for middle school special education teachers in 2009 was nearly $55,000, compared with less than $54,000 for general education teachers, according to the federal government.

Hoping to increase her job prospects, Alanna Marie Dias, 22, is pursuing a master’s degree at Wheelock College that combines elementary education and special education. When she completes her work in August, she’ll be licensed to teach from kindergarten through Grade 8. Because special needs students are typically integrated into traditional classrooms, Dias decided she wanted to better understand how to meet the needs of those students more effectively. Plus, she says, “I knew it would make me more marketable.’’

School districts also have a great need for teachers who specialize in math and science. Historically, college students strong in math have tended to choose careers in engineering or technology, which typically offer higher salaries than teaching. But emphasis is now being placed on making sure teachers are proficient in math at all levels, especially since last spring, when nearly three-quarters of prospective Massachusetts elementary school teachers completing the state’s licensing exam failed the math test.

Colleges are seeking ways to encourage students with an affinity for numbers to focus on teaching math and science. Wheelock College, for example, is participating in a National Science Foundation-funded program that offers scholarships of up to $6,000 per year for incoming undergraduates who want to major in teaching math or science, says Julie Wollman, vice president of academic affairs at Wheelock, which emphasizes teacher preparation in its undergraduate and graduate programs.

“Special needs, English language learners, and math and science are definitely the three key areas where the need is the highest,’’ Wollman says.

Another area that is expected to see growth is bilingual teachers. Growth in numbers of non-English speaking students is expected to bolster demand for bilingual teachers and those trained to work with non-native English-speaking children, according to the federal government. According the US Department of Education, between 1979 and 2008, the number of school-age children who speak a language other than English at home increased from 3.8 million to 10.9 million — or, from 9 percent of the population in that age group to 21 percent.

Massachusetts, in particular, has a large immigrant population, including Brazilians, who speak Portuguese; Haitians, who may speak Creole or French; as well as children from numerous Asian countries speaking myriad languages, including Vietnamese. And more than a third of Boston’s public school students have a native language other than English.

The greatest need in the city’s schools continues to be filling positions in special education, which typically constitute a third of hires each year, but the district also expects to significantly increase hiring of teachers who are trained to work with non-native English speakers, says William Horwath, assistant superintendent for human resources.

“It’s been a high need for us, and it will be an even higher need,’’ Horwath says.

For the coming school year, the district expects to hire as many as 50 educators to teach English as a second language; such teachers do not have to speak a foreign language, but must be trained in techniques to teach English to non-native speakers. The system also expects to hire 40 people to teach subjects such as math or history — to students who aren’t yet proficient in English. Such students typically are taught in “sheltered’’ classrooms, with other students who speak the same native language. These teachers must be able to communicate with students in their primary language to clarify what they’re learning, as well as speak to their families.

The system has set a goal of having 80 percent of its teachers be dually licensed, meaning that in addition to being licensed to teach elementary education, a teacher will also be licensed in special education or English as a second language by 2014.