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Teacher shortages, special education, and kids of color

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Schools around the country are facing a huge shortage of special education teachers and other staff. How is the teacher shortage impacting kids with disabilities or learning and thinking differences? What about kids who are marginalized?

Co-host Marissa Wallace starts the episode with a story about how her husband, a Black man, was offered a special education teaching job even though he’s in the field of finance. This kicks off a discussion with co-host Julian Saavedra about why there’s a teacher shortage — and its impact. Julian and Marissa share their experiences as parents and teachers, and they react to news stories from around the country. They also share tips for families on what to do when schools say they can’t deliver services because of staff shortages.

Episode transcript

Julian: Welcome to "The Opportunity Gap," a podcast for families of kids of color who learn and think differently. We explore issues of privilege, race, and identity. And our goal is to help you advocate for your child. I'm Julian Saavedra.

Marissa: And I'm Marissa Wallace. Julian and I worked together for years as teachers in a public charter school in Philadelphia, where we saw opportunity gaps firsthand.

Julian: And we're both parents of kids of color. So this is personal to us.

Welcome back to "The Opportunity Gap." I'm here with my co-host, Marissa, and our producer, Andrew. Marissa, how are you?

Marissa: I'm good, Julian, you know, but I do have a crazy story to tell you. This is a wild story. So today, while I was working with one of my students, I, like, overhear this conversation. Romario is on the phone. Romario is my husband. And, um, so he's on the phone, having this conversation, sounds all jazzed. He's saying, you know, "Oh, well, if I had a choice, like, I'd either choose Washington, DC, or New York City." And I'm like, what is this? It sounded kind of job-related. So he gets off the phone. He says, "Listen, I just got this, like, great offer." And I'm like, oh, tell me more.

Now, mind you, my husband is in school for finance. He is, you know, someone who prior to finance was into engineering. So that's, like, his area of expertise. So he was like, "Yeah, this company called, and they wanted to know if I would be interested in taking a special education teaching position and I could relocate." Right? "And they'd give me a sign-on bonus."

And I'm like, oh, we're that desperate? We are that desperate in the United States right now, that we are just looking at people's LinkedIn and being like, "Oh, hey, even though nothing on your LinkedIn page screams educator, you're not certified, but let me call you and offer you the red carpet because that is how much we are in need of teachers." Isn't that wild? And he was ready to go for it.

Julian: No, no shade to my brother, my good brother Romario, no shade to him, but he's not qualified to be a special education teacher at all.

Marissa: Not at all. Even maybe, like, a math teacher, science, but, like, they went right in for a special education teacher.

Julian: I'm just floored that that came out of nowhere.

Marissa: Now I'm, like, curious. I'm like, what is on his LinkedIn site? Like, I know he has a picture, so I'm like, are they, like, profiling? They're like, "Oh, a Black male, let me call this guy and offer him a job." Or was there something in, like, what was it that made this company think that they were going to get him to be a special education teacher, of all things?

Julian: So, Marissa, that is actually a really good introduction into what we're talking about today, specifically how the teacher shortage is impacting the entire nation.

Marissa: Absolutely.

Julian: Andrew did some research regarding the teacher shortage. Andrew, do you want to tell us a little bit about what your findings were?

Andrew: Yeah, here's a really interesting article from ABC News. This is from the start of the 2021–2022 school year. The Massachusetts governor deployed the National Guard to be bus drivers to take kids to school.

Julian: What?!

Andrew: Here's another article, from the "New York Times." Title is "Substitute Teachers Never Got Much Respect, but Now They Are in Demand." So because of these staff shortages, some schools are canceling classes. Others are basically hiring whatever substitute teachers they can find. In the article, so I'm looking at it now, they're talking about Oregon, which passed some law or executive order basically saying that you could bypass the regular certification to become a substitute teacher.

Julian: I don't know if y'all are familiar with the phrase "glow up," but talk about a glow up for our substitutes. They went from the bottom to now they are highly in demand.

Marissa: The hard part, though, is there's not enough of them though.

Julian: Is there ever enough?

Marissa: Right. And that's what I'm saying. They've had such a tough time. I know, like, currently there's, um, what's happening in my son's school is that they're actually to the point where their substitute shortage is real too. So what goes on is when a teacher's out, kids get dispersed throughout the school. So a good friend of mine whose daughter is also there, her fifth-grade student has spent all last week in a third-grade classroom.

Julian: Yeah. I mean, it's also coupled with the amount of teachers that are calling out because of the stress and potentially quarantining their own children. So the amount of teacher absences has definitely increased, combined with the lack of people to fill in, and you have yourself a problem. What else do we have, Andrew?

Andrew: Yeah, this next one, this is the "Washington Post" article. Title is "The Principal Is Cleaning the Bathroom: Schools Reel With Staff Shortages." This is interesting in this article because I think it was the first time that I saw that they mentioned actually kids with disabilities or students with disabilities losing out on services.

Julian: Yeah. I mean, I can definitely think about my own experiences over the last four months, and that we've all become jacks of all trades. You know, I have tools in my office that I have to use to fix things. Or one day we might find ourselves in the cafeteria; one day we might be cleaning. And so it's funny, but it's also really difficult, especially with our students with disabilities or getting the services they need because of staffing shortages.

Marissa: All kinds of complications.

Andrew: Yeah, and there are some reports about the federal government statistics on this, just to put, like, real hard numbers.

Marissa: Yeah.

Andrew: There are 460,000 unfilled state and local education jobs, right before this school year. That's almost three times as many as the start of last school year. Just educators, just workers in general, it just tends to happen with schools. It tends to have a bigger impact because those are the ones that parents and families see.

Julian: And can you repeat that number again? Like, how many unfilled state and local education jobs are out there?

Andrew: Yeah, so I looked at the government statistics on this, and they said that there were 460,000 unfilled state and local education jobs before the start of the school year — 460,000. That's half a million. It's almost three times as many as the start of the last school year.

Julian: Wow. I mean, I can only speak to my own experience. In my own school, we are experiencing pretty major shortage of special education. I mean, we need to fill at least 12 positions, and that's not including the food services, the bus drivers, the climate staff, secretaries, I mean, just in general, everybody has been overworked. And we really hope that it's not going to start negatively impacting our students.

Andrew, thank you so much for sharing this information. I think it's a great start-off to have our conversation.

Andrew: Anytime.

Julian: So, Marissa, what do you think about all this?

Marissa: I definitely agree that there's a teacher shortage this year. However, I'd like to push that there's been a teacher shortage I think especially in the area of special education for, honestly, since I can remember. I know back when we first started our friendship, when we were working together, it wasn't that bad at that time. I don't remember the teacher shortage at that particular time in our school being as severe as it is now.

Within the last five years and more specifically now, after being in the thick of the pandemic, especially when we think about our kids going back to being in person, I feel like that's impacted a decline for sure. Which has added, of course, to the teacher shortage.

Julian: Why do you think this is happening? What are some of the reasons why the shortage is so prevalent right now?

Marissa: I mean, if you look at it as a whole, I feel like there's multiple layers to this. One reason that I feel like the shortage of teachers in special education is real is because a lot of new teachers who are just coming into it, they're coming into this teaching profession at this very interesting time in our history where there's a lot more areas that are gray that we have to figure out how to best serve our students. And so even though you might've went and got your certification and did your classes and this, that, and whatever about how to support students, they might know all of that information, but putting it into practice in a virtual slash in-person world, I think has added this extra layer of stress that some very new teachers that are coming into this are leaving quick.

And then you have the opposite, right? Then you have the veteran teachers who have been doing this work for 10, 15, 20 years. And have also either gotten burned out because again, it's, like, adding additional parts to their workload of having to navigate the pandemic alongside of supporting their students, writing documentation.

Julian: Yeah, the burnout is definitely real. Just from what I see, regardless of where you're located, what region you might be in, it seems like the appeal to become an educator is not as strong as it might've once been in prior generations. And you're right, it's stressful, it's extremely stressful. And special education, to me, requires a very specific type of person. Like, somebody that goes above and beyond. Every building I've ever been in, our best special educators are amazing teachers, probably some of the most caring individuals in the building. I mean, I remember you and how you would advocate for your kids above everybody else.

Keeping that up, it requires a lot of energy. And if you're stressed out with life in general and with the pandemic, it makes it a lot harder to want to jump into this.

Marissa: I appreciate the shout-out.

Julian: What about our students that are people of color? What about our students who are in our marginalized communities? What about our students that are already experiencing just systemic oppression? How does this impact them?

Marissa: That's, like, a really big piece of it. And I think that our students in, especially as students where they're back in person and they're in urban areas where they're already struggling with having resources prior to the pandemic — resources weren't there before — a lot of our Black and brown students then, that are either going to get ignored, they're not going to get the services. They're going to get ignored and not get the proper education, or they're going to be pushed outside of the classroom or outside of the school because their needs aren't getting met, because there's literally no one there to meet their needs.

Julian: Just thinking about today, my school right now has over 40 percent of our students within special education, and 97 percent of our students are African American. Obviously, we have a large population of folks that are fitting into multiple categories. And I can say that the lack of staffing is adversely affecting how they're able to feel success, specifically for our students of color. Do you feel like there's a shortage of special education teachers of color too?

Marissa: Absolutely. That's something that has, like, probably been happening again longer than not just pandemic times. I absolutely feel like that is something that has been a constant, because even throughout my entire career, I really — and I was fortunate, right? I feel like at least, like, working in Philadelphia, I was able to be in a more diverse setting with who I was teaching alongside of. Like, I felt like most of the schools, we had a nice diversity on our team, and I'm in a virtual charter that serves the entire state of Pennsylvania.

Julian: I'm the assistant principal, and I'll be honest, like, when I walk into the room and especially for our ninth graders, when it's a first experience with the school, so many of the moms that get to meet me, knowing that I'm one of the assistant principals, and I look like their sons, or I look like their uncles, or I look like their dad, or I look like their little brother, and I speak the same language. And I relate in that area. It makes such a difference. Not to say that folks cannot relate, not to say that our white teachers can't find ways to make that happen, but it does make a difference. Like the representation side of it makes a difference. And so not only are our students not having staff in general, but then we're lacking somebody that they feel like they can relate to.

So I guess I feel like the lack of staffing and just the struggle and the shortage of finding quality people is probably going to have an impact for years to come. And not to be Debbie Downer, like, this is heavy, and I'm sure you've heard a lot of things that might make you think that this is an untenable situation.

And in many aspects, it is really difficult. Both of us are in it right now as we speak. But, say I'm a parent — and I am a parent, by the way — but say I have a student or a child that has learning differences, and my school might not have the special education teachers that are needed. Or there might be shortages as we've been describing. What do I do? What should I be doing?

Marissa: And so there's the legal way to answer that question, right? And then there's the parent way.

Julian: Let's go with the parent way. Let's go with the parent way first.

Marissa: The parent way to me — and as a parent, I'm already, like, pretty consistently communicating with his teacher. That to me is, like, the first line of defense, right, is your student's direct teachers. As a parent, if you are noticing any of these inconsistencies, these shortages, that your kid is not receiving what they need to receive, do attempt to go to the teacher first. And build that relationship. Trying to build that relationship with the teacher, I think is the first step, whether it's on one of the apps that some schools use to communicate, whether it's, like, taking a moment to drop your kid off or pick your kid up at the end of the day, like, having those conversations and trying to build that relationship with the teacher, I think is the first step.

Julian: You and I both know the parents that are constantly in contact are the ones that we usually pay attention to. So, I mean, making it your purpose to really be intently getting to know who the teachers are, getting to know the administration, just making your name and making it known who you are in the school. Just really building that relationship starts with just picking up the phone call and asking to talk to the teachers.

Marissa: Absolutely. Yes. Sending a text message. And I get it, like, I know everyone is busy. I know everyone is working. I know a lot of families have multiple children. Like, I get that there's a time limit on things you can do. However, I feel like once you start that process, that is going to cut down then on all of those other calls that you might get, because they already have this knowledge of who you are, who your kid is. And I feel like, you're right, as an educator on the other side of it, we probably did a lot more finagling for some of the students that we knew those parents, we knew what the parent was going to say or do, and we knew what they would recommend for us to do with their kid. And so that relationship would be number one.

I do think, though, part of it is bigger than that too. I do think depending upon where your student's at, and some of it is outside of the control of the teacher. I think a lot of it, too, is as the parent, getting yourself educated and getting knowledge on what it is, what does it mean for your student to have a certain disability or a learning difference? What does it mean for them to get certain supports? What should those supports look like? That's where I worry often, too, is there has to be some ownership sometimes on the family to understand this on their own for their own interpretation, so they know how to best advocate for their student. Because the parents that do that well, it just lends itself to so much more conversation and action.

Julian: You know, have conversations with your kids. Ask them, like, what works for you? What doesn't work for you? Tell me about your teachers. Tell me about your day. Tell me what was going well. Tell me about these different strategies the teachers use that really help you, so that when you do have conversations in a meeting or even offhand with the school, you have something to build from.

And I gotta be honest, in our experience, and Marissa, you could back me up on this, part of the issues with our urban schools is that our parents sometimes don't know all of the rights they are afforded. They don't necessarily know as much about what they should be receiving. And so it's really on making sure that you're sharing that information with each other. We already have strong communities, and in our communities of color, that's one of the best parts of it is that it is a collective. We are together. Now we have to share our knowledge with each other so that we can work together collectively to demand the rights that our students are afforded.

Marissa: Absolutely. Being part of the process — that's the most important piece. You have to be part of the process from beginning to end. And as we think about the teacher shortage in special education, it's real. We're not going to, like, pretend like it's not this thing that's actually happening. So it's definitely real. My thought, and especially being in the world of higher ed right now, we're already having conversations that are really optimistic about what can we change to make becoming a special educator more appealing and more accessible, because it's such a need, and we need good people in these roles. And once you're in the role, like, there's a lot of fulfillment, and there's so much you can do to see those students able to learn within their abilities with the right teachers supporting them along the way. So I do feel like there is hope to move forward. This is where we're at now. Yes, there's a shortage. We are, though, actively thinking of ways to make it so that there is no more shortage, right? Like, that's the end goal. There can't be this because at the end of the day, we don't want our students to be lost. We don't want our students not to get the support they need.

Julian: So we talked about the parent way. What about the legal way? Say a school says, "Well, I'm sorry, there's a teacher shortage, so we can't really give you this service in your IEP."

Marissa: Yeah, not an option, Julian, not an option. So one of the benefits of having federal government involved in IEPs in special education — and just as a reminder, an IEP is an Individualized Education Plan — is that they're mandated, and parents have that right through their procedural safeguards to know that if it's in an IEP as what we call specially designed instruction or a related service, schools can't say no. They can, of course, a school can, but however, there's consequences to that, right? This is the right of a student to have this education and to have their needs met. And so right now, what I'm seeing is a lot of schools getting creative to make sure that they are able to meet the students' needs because you have to prioritize the individualized learning for that student. And you have to find a way 'cause it's, it isn't an option, because it can turn into a lot of legal issues, honestly. 

And I know schools that are going through it where there is due process and mediation, and overall do know their rights. And again, like, we have to keep in mind that our students have to be first, and we it's, it's a shame, the shortage is real, and it's unfortunate. Some schools are doing better than others at finding ways to make sure that they're following the legal part and getting related services for students. I know a lot of schools are starting to do things more virtually, which is helping to address this, because that's been, like, a way where people sometimes feel more comfortable with related services. They're not going into homes, or they're not going into schools. So we're finding ways to do it, but it is not a choice. It is absolutely a legal part that protects the student and the families.

Julian: So, at the end of the day, everybody deserves a high-quality education.

This has been "The Opportunity Gap," a part of the Understood Podcast Network. You can listen and subscribe to "The Opportunity Gap" on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Marissa: If you found what you heard today valuable, please share the podcast. "The Opportunity Gap" is for you. We want to hear your voice.

Go to gap to find resources from every episode. That's the letter U, as in Understood, dot O R G, slash opportunity gap.

Julian: Do you have something you'd like to say about the issues we discussed on this podcast? Email us at We'd love to share and react to your thoughts about "The Opportunity Gap."

Marissa: As a nonprofit and social impact organization, Understood relies on the help of listeners like you to create podcasts like this one to reach and support more people in more places.

We have an ambitious mission to shape the world for difference. And we welcome you to join us in achieving our goals. Learn more at "The Opportunity Gap" is produced by Andrew Lee, Cinthia Pimentel, and Justin D. Wright, who also wrote our theme song. Laura Key is our editorial director at Understood. Scott Cocchiere is our creative director. Seth Melnick and Briana Berry are our production directors.

Julian: Thanks again for listening.



  • Julian Saavedra, MA

    is a school administrator who has spent 15 years teaching in urban settings, focusing on social-emotional awareness, cultural and ethnic diversity, and experiential learning.

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