South Carolina has a teacher shortage. And in no area is that shortage more apparent than in special education.
Of all the teacher positions that went unfilled across the state last year, 17% of them were in special education, accounting for more than 105 jobs, according to the Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention, and Advancement's S.C. Annual Educator Supply and Demand Report. About 100 jobs in special education went unfilled in the 2017-18 school year.
There were nearly 5,400 certified special education teaching positions in South Carolina in the 2018-19 school year, according to CERRA, with the majority in elementary schools.
University of South Carolina assistant professor Kate Ascetta specializes in early childhood special education, and she said the key to filling those vacant jobs and keeping existing special education teachers lies in preparation and continuing support in a particularly challenging education role.
"There's a high teacher turnover rate, and the difficulties lie in recruiting and retaining those teachers," Ascetta said. "Special education tends to have a shorter, faster burnout rate in South Carolina and nationally.
"In special education, you're often asking our teachers to work just as hard as general education teachers, but they're also working on individualized education for students."
This could include tasks as basic as helping students learn to eat and speak taking a child from a vocabulary of 14 words to more than 500 in a few months. Or it could mean helping a student learn how to interact with others or manage his or her emotions.
"These are things that are not always required of general education teachers," Ascetta said. "The students' needs can be more demanding, and you're also held to more legal standards. And we tend to see a much higher rate of challenging behavior that can take a toll on teachers' ability to cope and manage their classrooms."
Ascetta is helping launch the USC College of Education's new special education program, featuring a series of six online courses for early childhood undergraduate students as well as existing teachers that lead to a certification.
Previously, special education courses were taught only at the master's degree level at USC, Ascetta said.
Addressing the shortage of special education teachers and retaining existing educators starts with identifying and supporting students intent on becoming teachers, she said.
"Are those teachers-in-training getting the content...