Special Education Teacher Career Guide

A special education teacher works with children of different ages, promoting 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. A special education 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 special education teachers do, how to become a special education teacher, and special education 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 elementary, middle, or secondary school level at a public or private school, and their students may range from having mild to severe learning and/or behavioral 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 identifying children who have disabilities or special needs. They adjust lessons to fit the needs of each individual child as part of 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 special needs children may have communication disabilities. These teachers also must communicate with an entire of team, including parents, other 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 employers require a master’s degree for special needs teachers, though others only require a bachelor’s degree. While private schools usually require a bachelor’s degree, they do not always require certification, and they may or may not require a master’s degree. Whether at the bachelor’s or master’s level, a focused special education degree is usually expected. To qualify for licensure to teach in public schools, the degree must typically include a teacher preparation program approved by the state in which it is located. The following steps are the common pathway towards a career in teaching special education:

  1. Earn a bachelor’s degree in special education.
  2. Complete a student teaching internship in a special education classroom.
  3. Take your state’s required tests for special education teachers.
  4. Apply for your teaching license.
  5. Begin applying to open special education positions.

Traditional and online bachelor’s degree programs in special education require coursework in methods, foundations of education, assessment, assistive technology, special education law, and planning and curriculum focused on special needs. Most states require student teaching placement in a special needs classroom for teacher licensure in this area. Certification in special education also requires tests in general content and special education specifically, though exam requirements vary depending on the certifying state. Once certified, a teacher may then begin looking for special education jobs in their respective state. Some states do offer alternative licensure programs for prospective teachers, though in many cases special education is not an approved career track through alternative certification due to the intensive preparation required to work with children with differing needs.

Special Education Teacher Salary and Job Outlook

Most public elementary, middle, and high schools hire special education teachers. The general national trend is that special needs children enrollment is increasing and the number of special education teachers with the right qualifications are in short supply. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary for a special education teacher was $56,800 in 2015, with the highest-paid special ed teachers in secondary schools.1 Overall, the special education teaching profession is expected to see jobs growth of about 6% through 2024.1

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

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 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: Nationally the average pay for special education teachers tends to be slightly higher, by about $1,000 per year, than that of preschool, elementary, middle, and secondary school teachers focused on teaching the standard curriculum.1,2,3,4,5 However, salary differences can vary greatly in different regions.

Question: Do special education teachers get summers off?

Answer: 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. US Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Special Education Teachers: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/special-education-teachers.htm
2. US Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, High School Teachers: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/high-school-teachers.htm
3. US Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Middle School Teachers: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/middle-school-teachers.htm
4. US Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Kindergarten and Elementary School Teachers: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/kindergarten-and-elementary-school-teachers.htm
5. US Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Preschool Teachers: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/preschool-teachers.htm