Special Education and Teacher Burnout

Complications special education teachers have in their professional life are immense. Questions like whether there are any factors that help special education teachers deal with the realities of their profession are high on the agenda of educational circles. Researchers have been able to identify some factors that make significant contributions to stress many teachers experience (Schlichte, Yssel, & Merbler, 2005, p. 35).

Furthermore, it has been proven that in cases of great stress, novice special education teachers tend to leave their work without trying to deal with complications. This greatly contributes to the high levels of attrition related to special education teachers, which, in turn, create a crisis in the sphere of special education. Thus, teacher’s stress and subsequent burnout negatively affect them, their students, as well as the system that should be held responsible for not contributing enough to the emotional and personal stability of special education teachers (Thornton, Peltier, & Medina, 2007, p. 233).

Correlation Between Burnouts and Earned Degree

According to the study “Burnout Among Special Education Teachers” conducted by Mary Kay and Robert Zabel, there is a correlation between the degree earned by a special education teacher and the extent of their burnout. The study conducted qualitative research on the topic to evaluate the scores on the accomplishment measures, exhaustion, and depersonalization. On the basis of the t-test with participants holding either bachelor’s or master’s degrees, the scores for teachers with bachelor’s degrees were significantly lower for depersonalization and personal accomplishment than those with master’s degrees (Zabel & Zabel, 1983, p. 257).

A similar question was posed by Williams and Dikes (2015) in their research “The implications of demographic variables as related to burnout among a sample of special education teachers” – “do special education teachers’ perceptions of burnout differ substantially with respect to degree attainment?” (p. 340).

In the result of the conducted research, it was found that the percentage of high emotional exhaustion of special education teachers with the specialist’s degree was the largest – at seventy-five percent. On the other hand, this study group reported having low depersonalization indicators. Participants with master’s degree reported that their rates of personal accomplishment were higher (64%) than that of participants who attained specialist’s degrees.

Thus, both studies support the hypothesis that special education teachers that hold master’s degrees tend to report a higher level of burnout and emotional exhaustion than those with bachelor’s. Administrators in educational facilities should offer these teachers various options to stimulate and motivate, as well as other opportunities for improvement and advancement.

Gender with Regards to Burnout

To answer the question of whether gender influences burnout in special education teachers, Williams and Dikes conducted a descriptive analysis. It was concluded that females were significantly prone to emotional exhaustion compared to males. A greater number of males reported having depersonalization compared to females. When evaluating the female study subgroup, seventy-six percent of women reported low levels of depersonalization. On the other hand, both female and male subgroups have reported identical levels of personal accomplishment (Williams & Dikes, 2015, p. 342).

On the basis of a t-test, the researchers were able to find no statistically significant differences in the perceptions of emotional exhaustion between males and females. Furthermore, there were also no significant differences with regards to gender and personal achievement.

Teaching Experience and Burnout

Experience is crucial for professionals when it comes to maintaining balance within the teaching practice and staying away from burnouts. In their article “Revisiting Burnout Among Special Education Teachers: Do Age, Experience, and Preparation Still Matter?” Robert and Mary Kay Zabel (2001) investigated the connections between the amount of regular teaching experience and burnouts (p. 132).

Unlike their previous study, where there was a negative correlation found between the sub scales of burnout (emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and personal achievement), this study found no statistically relevant correlations between the depersonalization and emotional exhaustion scores in the sub scales and the regular teaching experience. On the contrary, the study has found a positive correlation between the personal achievement sub scale and the amount of regular teaching experience.

Participants included in the study group that scored the highest and the lowest indicators on every sub scales were contrasted in the study to find our whether they differed in their regular teaching experiences. Teachers that had a high score in their personal achievement sub scale had a mean of approximately three and a half years of experience while the teachers that scored low in personal achievement had a mean of approximately two years. When it comes to the sub scale of emotional exhaustion, teachers that scored the highest had a mean of three and a half years while teachers that scored the lowest had a mean of 2.7 years.

On the depersonalization sub scale, the mean for the teachers with high scores was three years while the mean for the low scores was 2.7 years (Zabel & Zabel, 2001, p. 132). Thus, there are no statistically relevant differences between the burnout levels of teachers with different levels of regular teaching experience. Furthermore, the amount of special education teaching experience does not bear any statistically significant differences in teachers that got either high or low scores in the sub scales. On the other hand, Zabel & Zabel (2001) found a relatively significant difference in the emotional exhaustion scale – mean of 12.3 years for the high scores and 9.7 for the low (p. 133).

However, as evidenced by the study conducted by Schlichte, Yssel, and Merbler (2005), teachers that newly entered into the profession are more likely to quit due to stress and burnout (p. 36). Thus, there is a high demand for reducing the instances of special education teachers’ retention to ensure the stability in the sphere and attract more teachers to the job.

Concluding Remarks

To conclude, there is significant evidence that special education teachers experience burnout in their profession thus being at risk of leaving the profession. Due to low personal accomplishment rates, high depersonalization and emotional exhaustion special education teachers are much more likely to exhibit signs of low job satisfaction as well as subsequent burnout (Emery & Vanderberg, 2010, p. 126).

In addition, the attrition rates of special education teachers are very high, adding to the overall reduction of professionally qualified teachers throughout the US. Furthermore, despite the fact that the reduction of special education teachers entrance into the profession is widely discussed, there is very little done to cope with this issue. As mentioned in the study conducted by Emery and Vanderspberg (2010), special education teachers require acceptance therapy intervention that will aid in coping with stress and ameliorating burnout (p. 127). Thus, stress and emotional exhaustion management for teachers with burnout is highly needed, including mentoring from experienced teachers.


Emery, D., & Vanderberg, B. (2010). Special education teacher burnout and act. International Journal of Special Education, 25(3), 119-131.

Schlichte, J., Yssel, N., & Merbler, J. (2005). Pathways to burnout: Case studies in teacher isolation and alienation. Preventing School Failure, 50(1), 35-40.

Thornton, B., Peltier, G., & Medina, R. (2007). Reducing the special education teacher shortage. The Clearing House, 80(5), 233-238.

Williams, J., & Dikes, C. (2015). The implications of demographic variables as related to burnout among a sample of special education teachers. Education, 135(3), 337-345.

Zabel, R., & Zabel, M. K. (1983). Burnout among special education teachers: The role of experience, training, and age. Tease, 6(4), 255-259.

Zabel, R., & Zabel, M. K. (2001). Revisiting burnout among special education teachers: Do age, experience, and preparation still matter? Teacher Education and Special Education, 24(2), 128-139.