Special Education Teacher Career Guide

A special education (sometimes called SPED or shortened to special ed) teacher works with children of different ages who have a range of learning, cognitive, emotional, or physical challenges. This guide provides information on what special education teachers do, how to become one, and special education teacher salary and job outlook.

Table of Contents

How to Become a Special Education Teacher

Special education requirements in all states call for licensure 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. 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 most common pathway toward a career in teaching special education is:

  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, though exam requirements vary depending on the certifying state.

Some states 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.

Education Schools and Certification by State

Each state has its own process for becoming a teacher. Below, you will find schools in your state that offer teacher preparation programs, as well as information on traditional and alternative certification pathways specific to your state.

Special Education Teacher Job Description

The role 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 are 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.

They may teach at the elementary, middle, or secondary school level at public or private schools, and their students range in ability. 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.

Common Tasks

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.

Helpful Skills and Experience

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. 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.

Special Education Teacher Salary and Job Outlook

There are 498,040 special education teachers in the US, and the special education teaching profession is expected to see no job growth through 2032.1. 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 $62,950. Following is an employment, salary, and outlook breakdown of special education teachers:

Special Education Teacher Level# Employed2-6Median Annual Wage2-690th Percentile Annual Wage2-6Projected Job Growth 2022-321
Kindergarten and Elementary School195,010$62,390$101,1000%
Middle School82,970$62,990$100,5600%
Secondary School152,490$63,560$102,8500%
All Other42,780$63,950$121,8503%

Additional Resources

Frequently Asked Questions

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

Answer: Nationally the average pay for special education teachers tends to be 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