Why Special Educators Stay: A Phenomenological Examination of Factors Impacting Special Educator Retention in Northern Virginia's Urban Public Schools

TR Number



Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title


Virginia Tech


Cultural stigma and a looming teacher deficit, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, have created an increased need for special educators. Considering these issues, this research used traditional phenomenological qualitative methodologies to understand why public-school special education teachers of students with low incidence disabilities (SETs-LIDs) remained in the profession. The purpose was to better understand the lived experiences of SETs-LIDs, and it was designed as a phenomenological qualitative study. The primary research question was "What factors impact SETs-LIDs who continue to teach in special education during difficult times?" Secondary questions were (a) "What are the lived experiences of SETs-LIDs that influence their retention?" and (b) "How do SETs-LIDs cope with the challenges of their work?" Data were obtained through a demographic survey and independent interviews, which were designed to better understand why public-school SET-LIDs remain in the profession. Participants were selected based on responses to the demographic survey, and inclusion criteria included SETs-LIDs with diverse employment backgrounds. Ninety-six special educators responded to the demographic survey and 15 SET-LIDs were interviewed. Textual descriptions generated from the research were work satisfaction from relationships, intrinsic or altruistic motivation, positive administrative experiences, and external factors. Structural descriptions of the research were frustration, a desire for understanding, inequity and exclusion, and uncertainty. The "what" and "how" of individuals impacted by the difficulties of SET-LID attrition were interpreted. Participants described meaningful relationships with students and administrators as being fundamental to their retention. This research also found that SET-LIDs desired resources, understanding, appropriate professional development, and expert guidance. Implications for professional practices and future research were suggested.



interview, phenomenology, special education teacher attrition, special education teacher retention, stay