SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) – Working for more than 30 years in the field of special education, Michelle Powers said one problem has remained constant over the years. 

The problem? Finding enough qualified people to fill the open positions. 

“We’ve always had special education as a critical need and we’re beyond being a critical need,” Powers told KELOLAND News. “Now we’re really in almost a crisis state in terms of filling the need across our region, across our state and even across the nation.” 

Powers, a former state director of special education in South Dakota, has a doctorate degree in education and currently works as an assistant professor at Augustana University. She said she receives six to 10 job announcements each day looking for special education teachers and believes the need for special education teachers has never been higher. In the Sioux Falls School District, there’s a need for 20 positions in special education. 

“I’m seeing school districts be really creative and really forward thinking in ways that they can make it possible to recruit and retain high quality teachers,” Powers said. “And that’s good, because that’s what’s needed right now.” 

Creative solutions and higher pay might be the best solution, according to Dr. Joe Hauge. Hauge is the Executive Director of the Black Hills Special Services Cooperative, which works with 12 public school districts in western South Dakota near the Black Hills. 

Hauge said hiring speciality positions throughout education has been difficult, but added special education has been even harder to fill in the past two years. 

“It’s nearly impossible to find applicants,” Hauge said, adding there’s fewer college graduates with special education degrees and the challenges of the job can lead to burnout. 

“You have to have a huge heart,” Hauge said. 

Powers agreed special education teaching brings on extra degrees of documentation, process and procedures. 

“You are working closely with families, close collaboration with your colleagues,” Powers said. “The uniqueness of the role and the needs of our students dictate what we’re doing from day to day. Just like in any other high need field, like nursing, it can wear and over time, individuals will tap out.” 

Augustana graduates 5 with special education in 2022

Special education is not a standalone degree at Augustana or at the University of South Dakota. It’s typically paired with elementary education, but Powers said she’s seen special education partnered with a psychology major. 

In May 2022, Powers said Augustana had five students graduate with elementary education and special education majors. She said nearly all of her students had accepted job offers in March. 

“Everyone that’s out seeking a job has a job,” Powers 

Augustana had 105 students enrolled in elementary education with 43 also taking on special education and 55 taking on secondary education. 

In the Board of Regents system, Black Hills State, Dakota State, Northern State and USD each offer special education as part of education majors. At USD, there were 15 graduates in 2021 with elementary education and special education, while NSU had 12 and BHSU had seven. DSU had 16 special education and teaching graduates, while NSU had nine and BHSU had seven. 

Powers said the best way to fill open special education positions in South Dakota is through “grow your own models.” 

Both Powers and Hauge pointed to higher pay as a helpful tool, but they also noted more signs of respect and value would also help recruitment efforts.  

“It is a profession that needs to be regarded as a profession,” Powers said. “Many people, (do) not necessarily think our roles are that intense, but there is quite a bit of preparation and constant review and reflection about what we’re doing.” 

Powers called on people to expose themselves to the work of educators and especially work of special education. She noted additional substitute teachers are always in need and that would help people be exposed to the demands teachers face every day. 

For special education, Powers said anyone interested would have the comfort of job security because of the high demand. 

“If you love giving back, if you love service, if you love working with children and young adults, it’s a fantastic field,” Powers said. “It really does give you back more than probably you give it in and of itself. Our graduates are excited for that.”