Gull Lake Richland Elementary has seen a shortage of teachers this school year, mainly in the specialized help programs. According to Mlive the state average ratio of student to teacher is 22.6:1, which is 6.7 students higher than the national average.
“When I got out of college in 2001, there were no jobs,” Richland Elementary’s Special Education teacher Mackenzie Shepard said. “Most of my class had to move out of state. Now we have six [job openings] in the middle of the year.”
Students who wish to go into special education are often being encouraged by friends, family and teachers to change their minds because of the difficulties and challenges those teachers face.
“Everytime I tell people I’m going into deaf education, someone gives me a look of ‘why would you do that to yourself?’” senior Ari Dugan said.
Because this downturn in graduating teachers, especially in special education, is a shortage of teaching staff. One of the programs that has has suffered the most at Gull Lake has been the Richland Special Education program.
“They [students] need consistency. We lack the manpower to give them the support they need.” Shepard said. “The biggest challenge we have is unsafe behaviors, again we don’t have the manpower.”
It can be difficult for a student to receive the help they need. There are many difficulties that teachers face when dealing with special needs students.
While teachers try their best to work with the student to accommodate their learning style, a teacher can not take valuable time away from other students if only one of them is struggling. It’s not unusual to have students are in classrooms and remain undiagnosed.
“It can be difficult to get a student diagnosed. It scares parents because no one child is alike, and there may not be an immediate solution,” Shepard said.
If a student qualifies, he or she can be sent to a special education teacher who works with them and other students who similarly struggle within a traditional classroom setting.
However, more parents are opting not to send their children as they are not receiving care suited to their needs. This is not any of the staff’s fault, but the fact that there is not enough of them to individually work on a strategy with a student; many students require care that must be tailored to his or her specific needs.
There’s also a stigma often attached to special needs students.
“People how are visibly disabled tend to receive more patience than those with just learning disabilities. If you can clearly tell some has down syndrome, it’s easier for them to be accepted,” Shepard said.
However this stigma does not just apply to students with special needs, but also those who wish to study special education in college.
“When I went to college, there were 40 of us in the class. However you also had to apply to get in. Last I heard, there were 10 (in the class) this year,” Shepard said.
A good portion of this stigma comes from how socially accepted it is to be disabled.
“Publicly you don’t see disabilities. Parents are afraid to take their children out in public in case they draw attention,” Shepard said. “There are a lot of places in Kalamazoo that aren’t accessible.”
According to Shepard, the problem often comes back to support. If a child receives the support he or she needs, that student can be successful.
“It can be very difficult to communicate with parents who only want the best for their child. There are alternatives, but sometimes those alternatives aren’t clear.”