Special Education Teacher Career Guide

A special education teacher works with children of different ages who have a range of learning or cognitive disabilities, or emotional or physical impairments. Special education teachers work to promote and manage the growth of their students in conjunction with their special needs. A special education teacher will modify the general education curriculum to make sure each student’s special individual needs are met. Special education (sometimes called SPED or shortened to special ed) jobs require a teacher to be patient, accepting, and understanding. This guide provides further information on what special education teachers do, how to become one, and special education teacher salary and job 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 challenging 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. They also grade assignments and tests, track students’ progress, and meet with parents to discuss students’ abilities and challenges they may be facing. 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 classrooms where they teach one or more groups of students while others work in general classrooms with special needs children learning alongside other students (“mainstreaming”). In some cases, the special education teacher may co-teach the class, or they may teach in support or breakout roles.

Special Education Teacher Requirements and Common Tasks

The job of a special education teacher includes assisting general education teachers in identifying and assessing children who may have disabilities or special needs. They then adjust lessons to fit the needs of each 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 flashcards 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 children who differ in abilities and come from all types of backgrounds. Students who receive special education services have various needs that require special attention and understanding. Good communication skills are critical in a special education career, since these
children may have communication disabilities. These teachers also must communicate with an entire team including parents, other teachers and support specialists, and counselors, who all work together to ensure and measure success.

Special Education Degrees and Programs

How to Become a Special Education Teacher

Special education requirements in all states call for a teacher to be licensed to teach at a public school. Depending on the school, some employers require a master’s degree for special needs teachers, though others only require a bachelor’s degree. Teachers who are already certified and want to add a special education endorsement to their license, or people who already have an undergraduate degree in something else, may pursue a master’s degree in special education. While private schools usually require a bachelor’s degree to teach, they do not always require certification. Whether at the bachelor’s or master’s level, a focused special education degree is usually expected for most jobs. 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 make up the common pathway toward a career in teaching special education:

  1. Earn a state-approved bachelor’s degree or master’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 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 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. To find out how to get your master’s in special education online, see our online master’s in special education guide.

Special Education Teacher Salary and Job Outlook

Most public elementary, middle, and high schools, along with some preschools, hire special education teachers. The general national trend is that special needs children enrollment is increasing and qualified special education teachers with the right qualifications are in short supply.1 According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual salary for a special education teacher was $61,820 in 2021, with the highest-paid special ed teachers in preschools ($62,420).1 Overall, the special education teaching profession is expected to see job growth of about 4% through 2031.1

Special Education Teacher Level# Employed2-6Median Annual Wage2-6Projected Job
Growth 2021-311
Kindergarten and Elementary School195,010$62,3904%
Middle School82,970$62,9904%
Secondary School152,490$63,56034%
All Other42,780$63,9507%

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

Frequently Asked Questions

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 around the same as elementary, middle, and secondary school teachers focused on teaching the standard curriculum.1,2,3,4 However, salary differences can vary greatly in different regions.

Question: Why do gifted students need special education?

Answer: Special education can be defined as education that is different from the norm, which can also extend to above-average learners such as gifted and talented students. These students are sometimes classified with disabled students under the larger umbrella of exceptional learners. Exceptional learners may require or benefit from exceptional education, or education that is approached differently than that which takes place in the regular classroom. While most degree programs prepare traditional special education teachers differently than teachers of gifted students, there can be some overlap in coursework among these programs due to this correlation. See our Gifted and Talented Teacher Career Guide if you are interested in this type of career.

Question: Do special education teachers get summers off?

Answer: Like general education teachers, 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.

Question: Can special education teachers teach regular classes?

Answer: That depends on the state and the school. Many states do not allow special education teachers to teach general education students, but others do. Also, private schools tend to have different standards. It is best to check with your state board of education.

1. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Special Education Teachers: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/special-education-teachers.htm
2. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2022, 25-2051 Special Education Teachers, Preschool: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes252051.htm
3. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2022, 25-2052 Special Education Teachers, Kindergarten and Elementary School: https://www.bls.gov/Oes/current/oes252052.htm
4. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2022, 25-2053 Special Education Teachers, Middle School: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes252057.htm
5. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2022, 25-2054 Special Education Teachers, Secondary School: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes252058.htm
6. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2022, 25-2059 Special Education Teachers, All Other: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes252059.htm