A Phenomenological Study of the Resiliency of Special Education Teachers

A Dissertation

Submitted to the Faculty

of

Drexel University

by

Travis G. Cunningham

in partial fulfillment of the

requirements for the degree

of

Doctor of Education

February 2015

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© Copyright 2015 Travis G. Cunningham. All Rights Reserved

This Ed.D. Dissertation Committee from The School of Education at Drexel University certifies that this is the approved version of the following dissertation:

A Phenomenological Study of the Resiliency of Special Education Teachers

Travis G. Cunningham

Committee: ____________________________________ Kathy D. Geller, Ph.D.

____________________________________ W. Edward Bureau, Ph.D. ____________________________________ Fred Balcom, Ph.D. ____________________________________ Date

iv

Dedication

I dedicate this dissertation to the memory of my grandparents Sandra Jo and

Maurice Don Parenteau who I wish were here to see my accomplishments, my parents

Guy and Ramona Cunningham, my wife Bethany, and my three amazing children,

Savannah, Gavin, and Avery. As the first in my family to graduate college, I dedicate

this to my grandchildren, and future generations of family that I pray aspire to pursue

their education and fulfill all of their dreams.

v

Acknowledgments

A special thank you to the Twin Rivers Unified School District and

Superintendent Dr. Steven Martinez for allowing me access to information necessary to

complete this dissertation.

Thank you to the 19 special education teachers who participated in the one-on-one

interviews and focus group. They gave me transparent and sincere responses that enabled

me to hear their personal stories and lived experiences of being long-tenured special

education teachers.

To my committee chair, Dr. Kathy Geller, for her continued support, recursive

comments, suggestions, and patience that have enabled me to persevere throughout this

dissertation process. Also, thank you to the other committee members Dr. Fred Balcom

and Dr. Ed Bureau.

Thank you to my friends who were there to continually give me encouragement,

support, and the strength to complete my research. Thank you to Meredith Linden for

reading and editing my project. To Cohort 5 who were there to encourage me to never

give up and with me in sharing this journey.

And finally, thank you to my wife Bethany and my children, Savannah, Gavin,

and Avery whose love, faith, and unconditional patience gave me everything I needed to

persevere, believe in myself, and reach for my dreams.

vi

Table of Contents

LIST OF TABLES ……………………………………………………………………………………………… vii

LIST OF FIGURES …………………………………………………………………………………………… viii

1. INTRODUCTION TO THE RESEARCH …………………………………………………………..1

Introduction to the Problem ……………………………………………………………………………….1

Statement of the Problem to Be Researched …………………………………………………………3

Purpose and Significance of the Problem …………………………………………………………….3

Research Questions …………………………………………………………………………………………..5

Conceptual Framework ……………………………………………………………………………………..6

Definition of Terms …………………………………………………………………………………………13

Assumptions and Limitations of the Study …………………………………………………………15

Summary ……………………………………………………………………………………………………….16

2. THE LITERATURE REVIEW …………………………………………………………………………17

Introduction to Chapter 2 …………………………………………………………………………………17

Literature Review ……………………………………………………………………………………………19

Summary ……………………………………………………………………………………………………….33

3. RESEARCH METHODOLOGY………………………………………………………………………34

Introduction ……………………………………………………………………………………………………34

Site and Population …………………………………………………………………………………………35

Research Design and Rationale ………………………………………………………………………..37

Research Methods …………………………………………………………………………………………..39

vii

Ethical Considerations …………………………………………………………………………………….46

4. FINDINGS, RESULTS, AND INTERPRETATIONS …………………………………………48

Introduction ……………………………………………………………………………………………………48

Findings ………………………………………………………………………………………………………..51

Results and Interpretations ……………………………………………………………………………….88

Summary ……………………………………………………………………………………………………….95

5. CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS ………………………………………………97

Introduction ……………………………………………………………………………………………………97

Conclusions ……………………………………………………………………………………………………98

Recommendations …………………………………………………………………………………………103

Recommendations for Further Research …………………………………………………………..108

Summary ……………………………………………………………………………………………………..109

LIST OF REFERENCES …………………………………………………………………………………….112

APPENDIX A: INTERVIEW PROTOCOL ………………………………………………………….117

APPENDIX B: LETTER/EMAIL OF INVITATION ……………………………………………..119

APPENDIX C: CONSENT TO TAKE PART IN A RESEARCH STUDY ……………….123

APPENDIX D: FOCUS GROUP PROTOCOL ……………………………………………………..126

viii

List of Tables

1. Data Collection Timeline …………………………………………………………………………………46

2. Participant Demographics ………………………………………………………………………………..51

ix

List of Figures

1. Research stance of Travis Cunningham ……………………………………………………………….6

2. Conceptual framework for the study ………………………………………………………………….12

3. Graphical representation of the three research streams ………………………………………..18

4. Graphical representation of the three research methods used ………………………………..40

5. Findings and themes of the study ………………………………………………………………………52

x

Abstract

A Phenomenological Study of the Resiliency of Special Education Teachers Travis G. Cunningham, Ed.D.

Drexel University, February 2015

Chairperson: Kathy D. Geller

Nationally, there is a special education teacher shortage creating a lack of qualified special education teachers and threatening the quality of education special education students receive. To understand what compels qualified special education teachers to stay in the profession, this study analyzed the lived experience of those who have stayed for 10 or more years in a single district.

Prior research has largely followed a deficit model that explained cause and effect relationships between why teachers leave the field and the factors that led them to that decision. This study sought to understand what compels them to stay.

The following research questions guided this study: (a) What is the nature or essence of the experience of teaching special education for many years? (b) How do special education teachers describe what compels them to stay in the special education classroom? (c) How do long-tenured special education teachers understand and perceive the nature of their resiliency? The three guiding questions were explored through in- depth semi-structured interviews, a focus group, and researcher observations and field notes.

Nineteen participants, all special education teachers in the Twin Rivers Unified School District, participated in this study. Twelve teachers were interviewed. The interviews were analyzed to gain thick, rich, descriptive insights into their lived experiences of teaching special education for many years. Along with the 12 interviews, a focus group with seven participants was conducted. Five thematic findings emerged from In Vivo Coding: (a) personal characteristics beyond demographics influence teacher resiliency, (b) an ethic of care toward special education students supports resiliency, (c) positive and supportive relationships with professional peers support resiliency, (d) negative challenges build resilience and influence a teacher’s desire to stay committed to the profession and the district, and (e) tenure influences a teacher’s decision to stay.

Given the findings of this study, the following four recommendations are offered to K-12 administration as they seek to build support and acquire resources for their special education teachers: (a) develop and maintain a special education mentorship program, (b) provide professional development in special education, (c) personally support and maintain a relationship with your special education teachers, and (d) develop a rewards program to acknowledge special education teacher accomplishments.

xi

Key terms: special education, teacher retention, teacher attrition, teacher resiliency, administrative support, teacher mentors, special education professional development

1

Chapter 1: Introduction to the Research

Education a

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