Special Education Teacher Career Guide

A special education teacher works with children of different ages in developing and managing their growth in conjunction with their special needs. The type of children a special education teacher works with will generally have cognitive, emotional, or physical disabilities. Often, a teacher will modify the general education curriculum to make sure each student’s special individual needs are met. Special education jobs require a teacher to be patient, accepting and understanding. This guide provides further information on what middle school teachers do, how to become a middle school teacher, and middle school teacher salary and outlook.

Special Education Teacher Job Description

Being a teacher of children with special needs can be challenging, but also extremely satisfying. While it can be physically and emotionally draining to help students with mental and physical disabilities, it is also rewarding to help them progress and succeed. Similar to teachers of other subjects, special education teachers plan lessons, instruct children, and assign activities to children, grading assignments and tests, tracking students’ progress, and meeting with parents to discuss overall progress. They may teach at the primary or secondary school level at a public or private school, and their students may range from having small learning disabilities to severe physical or mental disabilities. Some have their own classroom, where they teach a group of special needs students, and others work in a general classroom on an individual or small group basis, where disabled children learn alongside other students.

Special Education Teacher Requirements and Common Tasks

The job of a special education teacher includes assisting general education teachers in first identifying children who have disabilities or special needs. Then, they adjust lessons to fit the needs of each individual child. These are called Individualized Education Programs (IEPs). Since they will be responsible for instructing students with a broad range of disabilities, developing IEPs is important for these teachers. One child may require the use of flash cards for sharpening math skills or focused attention on reading, while another may require a teacher to help with basic life skills, such as how to answer questions or follow instructions. . Special education teachers need to be patient, calm, organized, inspiring and accepting. The job requires interactions with special needs children who are very different and come from all types of backgrounds. Special education students have various needs that require special attention and understanding to fulfill. Good communication skills are critical in a special education career, since many special needs children may lack the ability to understand or communicate themselves, and because these teachers also must communicate with an entire of team including parents, general teachers, and counselors, who all work together to ensure and measure success.

How to Become a Special Education Teacher

Special education requirements in all states call for a teacher to be licensed in order to teach at a public school. Some states require a master’s degree for those in public schools, though others only require a bachelor’s degree. While private schools usually require a bachelor’s degree, they typically do not require certification, and they may or may not require a master’s degree. Special education teachers are also required to complete a special education teacher’s training program. Some states offer alternative licensure programs for college graduates, when they would otherwise require a master’s degree, just for special education teachers.

Traditional and online bachelor’s degree programs in special education require coursework in methods, foundations of education, assessment, assistive technology, special education law, as well as planning and curriculum. Most special education programs require a certain amount of coursework in a specialty area, such as math, history, English, or science. Many online schools offer special education programs. These online schools offer accredited programs that provide a great deal of flexibility for students.

Most states require several hours of practicum placement to be completed in local schools each semester. Special education programs require this kind of coursework to prepare a student for state certification. Typically certification also requires tests in general content and special education, federal fingerprinting, and a child abuse workshop. This may vary depending on the certifying state. Once certified, a teacher may then begin looking for special education jobs in their respective state.

Special Education Teacher Salary and Job Outlook

Most public elementary, middle and high schools hire special education teachers for their special needs children enrolled in the district. While the exact number of special education jobs varies by geography, the general trend is that special needs children enrollment is increasing and the number of special education teachers with the right requirements are in short supply. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary for a special education teacher was $55,060 in 2012, with the highest paid teachers in secondary schools.1 Overall, the special education teaching profession is expected to see a growth of about 6% through 2022, lower than the growth projected for other teachers.1 Since screenings are being done earlier in children’s lives, those with special needs are being identified sooner, increasing the need for primary school teachers who specialize in special education. Job prospects may be better in the southern and western states, since enrollment rates are expected to be higher there.1 Special education teachers may also choose to supplement that income by coaching or participating in running extracurricular activities in the school. Furthermore, teachers may become supervisors or administrators, especially if they go on to earn advanced degrees. Experience in this field may also qualify one to become instructors in college to prepare others who want to work in the special education field.

Helpful Skills and Experience

First and foremost, teachers of special needs children should be patient and kind-hearted. They need to have a passion for helping these children succeed. Organizational skills, excellent communication and presentation skills, and sound decision-making skills are important for any prospective teacher. Teachers with prior experience in teaching, especially of children with disabilities, will stand out from others.

Additional Resources

The National Association of Special Education Teachers (NASET) – NASET provides support for special education teachers, job listings, important news, and resources.

The Council for Exceptional Children – An advocacy association for special education, this website provides information about professional development, policies and standards in the field, and other helpful resources for special education teachers.

Special Education Degrees and Programs

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Frequently Asked Questions about Becoming a Special Education Teacher

Question: Do I need a teacher certification to teach special education?

Answer: While certification requirements vary from state to state, public schools do require that special education teachers be certified. Private schools may not require a state certification. You can check with your state Board of Education or college program for further information on certification requirements in your state.

Question: Do special education teachers get paid more than general teachers?

Answer: The median pay for special education teachers was almost exactly the same in 2012 as the pay for high school teachers, but slightly higher than that of preschool, elementary, and middle school teachers.1-5

Question: Do special education teachers get summers off?

Answer: Most special education teachers typically work a 10-month school year, with two months off during the summer. Teachers’ schedules will vary according to their school’s schedules, but some also use those months to prepare lessons for the coming school year or to teach summer courses if they would like supplemental income.

1. Bureau of Labor Statistics: http://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/special-education-teachers.htm
2. Bureau of Labor Statistics: http://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/high-school-teachers.htm
3. Bureau of Labor Statistics: http://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/middle-school-teachers.htm
4. Bureau of Labor Statistics: http://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/kindergarten-and-elementary-school-teachers.htm
5. Bureau of Labor Statistics: http://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/preschool-teachers.htm