SHERIDAN — Danielle Holler refers to her job as a calling.
When she was 12 years old, the current Sheridan High School special education teacher had a neighbor who was diagnosed with Down syndrome. As Holler got to know him, it spurred her curiosity in special education and working with children with developmental and academic delays.
When she was a junior high school student, Holler worked with students who struggled with math. When she moved up to Sheridan High School, she was a teacher’s assistant for a special education instructor.
“It’s something I’ve always been interested in,” Holler said. “The more I researched it, the more I wanted to go into it.”
As of April 18, the Wyoming School Boards Association listed 24 vacancies for special education positions — more than any other subject in the state. Nationally, 49 of 50 states listed special education jobs, including Wyoming.
But Sheridan County School District 2 is bucking the trend.
While schools elsewhere are actively seeking special education teachers to fill spots on staff, SCSD2’s turnover and vacancy rates remain minimal.
Typically, SCSD2 has to fill one or two of vacancies annually. This year, every special education teacher in the district is expected to stay.
While the state is continuing its efforts to increase the number of special education teachers, educators say there are few more rewarding jobs out there.
Most in the profession agree that special education instructors have to possess a unique set of skills and have a passion for the job.
For Nicholas Flores, a special education teacher at Sagebrush Elementary School, his passion for the job began while in college. He originally intended to go into elementary education, but shifted his focus to special education.
“I quickly learned there was something more appealing about special education — working specifically with those who struggled with learning,” Flores said. “You have to collaborate with others to figure out the best alternatives when everything else has failed…that challenge appealed to me.”
Special education teachers must also work with a wide variety of students, teachers and parents.
Becky Motsick, a special education teacher who has previously worked as a standard classroom teacher, said successful special education teachers must be able to read each student’s needs and adapt teaching to the student.
“I like the challenge,” Motsick said. “But I also like that it’s not the same thing every day.”
Retention and recruitment of special education teachers continues to be an issue at the state and national level.
Nationally, special education teachers leave the teaching profession at nearly double the rate of their general education colleagues — 12.3 percent per year compared to 7.6 percent.
The problem is not lost on state officials.
The Wyoming Department of Education’s Equity Plan notes the lack of highly-qualified special education teachers due to a higher difficulty for districts to recruit those teachers, the University of Wyoming not having an undergraduate special education program and more liability and paperwork for teachers.
To combat these issues, the Equity Plan suggests helping paraprofessional staff become special education teachers, training principals on how to support teachers when dealing with student behavioral issues and compliance with Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and to compensate special education teachers for extra time spent holding case management meetings.
WDE Chief Academic Officer Brent Bacon said there are few special education graduates from the state’s only four-year university, which means districts have to cross state lines to find teachers.
UW has a master’s program in special education, whereas nearby schools such as Black Hills State University, Chadron State University and Montana State University-Billings offer special education endorsements with their bachelor’s programs.
Last year, the WDE offered tuition reimbursement for special education teachers. The state offered up to 10 stipends totaling up to $12,000 for teachers to earn their special education endorsement.
UW and the WDE officials are working to develop more options for graduates to earn special education endorsements, hoping to create a larger pool of applicants for Wyoming schools.
SCSD2 Special Education Director Traci Turk said her district has successfully made connections with in- and out-of-state special educational programs, which has led to a healthy applicant pool for every position they’ve had open.
SCSD2 educators attribute their overall success in finding and retaining special education teachers to the district’s overall approach to education.
Flores said Sheridan itself is a selling point. He cited the district’s location, compensation packages and high achievement as incentives for all teachers to stay within the district.
In addition, though, teachers at the district receive support from supervisors and co-workers to make the job easier.
“The support that we have is huge — not only in the schools, but in the district,” Holler said. “There is always someone there to help us out and do what they can. Everyone here is student first, and I think that’s the mindset we have here in this district.”