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“NOBODY ASKED ME!” UNLEASHING THE COLLECTIVE VOICE OF SPECIAL EDUCATION TEACHER-ACTIVISTS TO UNDERSTAND THE IMPACT OF CASELOAD POLICIES ON TEACHER BURNOUT, ATTRITION, AND STUDENT LEARNING OUTCOMES
Since the inception of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), school districts throughout the United States have found themselves on the losing end in the battle to keep special education teachers (SETs) in the classroom. The SET shortage cripples schools’ ability to provide individuals with exceptionalities (IWEs) with a free and appropriate education as promised in IDEA. Despite the long-term devastation that the SET staffing crisis has inflicted upon historically marginalized students, policymakers at the federal, state, and local levels fail to capitalize on the experiences of the individuals who are closest to the problem: the special education teachers. This dissertation aimed to legitimize the lived experiences of 27 former and current K-12 special education inclusion teachers in urban, Mid-Atlantic school districts to understand the aspects of caseload management that have the greatest influence on SET burnout and attrition. Using a convergent parallel mixed-methods design, this study described participants’ prior experiences, as well as the process of co-constructing a caseload policy designed to decrease SET exhaustion and intent to leave. Overwhelming administrative duties, large caseloads, insufficient planning time, role conflict, and a lack of support from general educators and school administrators, contributed to SETs’ emotional and physical depletion, and their motivation to leave special education. The results also suggested that many schools did not have the proper infrastructure to provide SETs with the appropriate working conditions that are needed to optimally serve students who are the most removed from opportunity. Recommendations include the establishment of caseload policies that guarantee reasonable workloads for SETs, required special education coursework in administrator and general educator preparation programs, induction programs to support novice SETs, and full, equitable funding of IDEA.