The Ultimate Guide to the Special Education Teacher Career

Published by Jennifer on Wed May 19, 2010

With over two million new special education teaching careers expected this year, you might think about seeking a career in this field. What is involved in this career track, and what can you expect as far as the training you’ll need, the earnings you’ll make and other related occupations that might capture your interest? These points and more are covered here, in our ultimate guide to the special education teacher career.

A Special Education school in Brooklyn New YorkWill This Career Fit You?

First, special education teachers, like any other teacher, must be organized, patient and have the ability to motivate students. Additionally, all states require teachers to be licensed and hold at least a bachelor’s degree, although some states may require a master’s degree. But, special education teachers also must understand their students’ special needs.

As a Special Education Teacher, You Also Must:

  • Realize that you may work with a variety of disabilities, including severe cognitive, emotional or physical problems. Most special education teachers instruct students at the preschool through high school levels, although some teachers may work with infants and toddlers or college-aged students.
  • Learn how to work with young students who may suffer from disabilities that range from speech or language impairments to hearing or visual impairments to traumatic brain injuries.
  • Know how to develop a Individualized Education Program (IEP) for each student who receives special education. This program sets personalized goals for the student and is tailored to that student’s individual needs and abilities. Teachers work closely with parents, school administrators and other teachers to develop this program and to inform all about the child’s progress within the school environment. This plan also helps others to promoted learning outside school.
  • Design and teach curricula, grade papers and homework assignments and are involved in the student’s behavioral, social, and academic development. Some teachers, depending upon the age of the student, also provide students with career counseling or help that student learn life skills such as balancing a checkbook.
  • Become involved with communicating and coordinating with others involved in the child’s well-being, including parents, social workers, school psychologists, occupational and physical therapists, school administrators, and other teachers.
  • Be able to work in a variety of environments, including classrooms and resource rooms, or even in hospitals, homes or residential facilities.
  • Learn to rely more and more on technology and specialized equipment such as computers with synthesized speech, interactive educational software programs, and audiotapes to assist children.

Work environments are moving away from hospitals and residential facilities as more students attend schools and special programs outside those former environments. Still, special education teachers may be subject to programs that are year-round, enabling education that leaves no lapses for the student to regress during that time off.

ClassroomEducation and Training

Many colleges and universities offer programs in special education from the undergraduate through master’s degree and doctoral degree levels. But, many special education teachers often undergo longer periods of training than general education teachers simply because of the nature of the work. The last year of most programs usually is spent student teaching in a classroom supervised by a certified special education teacher.

All 50 states and the District of Columbia require special education teachers to be licensed. In some States, special education teachers receive a general education credential to teach kindergarten through grade 12. These teachers then train in a specialty, such as learning disabilities or behavioral disorders. Many States offer general special education licenses across a variety of disability categories, while others license several different specialties within special education.

You can compare special education teacher certification and licensure at the National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality. This site shows that special education teachers are, basically, categorized by five different levels:

  1. Special Education Teacher Certification/Licensure
  2. General Special Education Certification/Licensure Information
  3. Early Childhood Special Education Certification/Licensure
  4. K-12 Special Education Teacher Certification/Licensure/Endorsement
  5. Disability- and Severity-Based Special Education Teacher Certification/Licensure

Each one of the above categories includes even more categories, with the last level holding the most opportunity. Another resource to learn more about special education teacher certification includes the National Association of Special Education Teachers (NASET).

Social WorkWhat Happens After Education and Training?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, special education teachers held a total of about 473,000 jobs in 2008. Nearly all worked in public and private educational institutions; however, a few worked for individual and social assistance agencies or residential facilities, or in home-bound or hospital environments.

After some years on the job, special education teachers can advance to become school supervisors or administrators. They also may earn advanced degrees and become instructors in colleges that prepare others to teach special education. In some school systems, highly experienced teachers can become mentors to less experienced teachers.

The number of special education teachers is expected to increase by 17 percent to 2018, which is faster growth than found in most occupations. However, this field also expects to grow faster than average, as a large number of openings will result from the need to replace special education teachers who switch to teaching general education, change careers altogether, or retire. At the same time, many school districts report difficulty finding sufficient numbers of qualified teachers. As a result, special education teachers should have excellent job prospects.

After a few years in this career, what happens if you tire of your job, it becomes too stressful, or you just want a change? Some jobs that are similar to special education teachers include (all links to job descriptions at the Bureau of Labor Statistics):

Some or all of these listed career paths may require more education and training.

Other Resources

Other than the resources already linked above, you might find the following resource helpful:

  • Council for Exceptional Children: The Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) is the largest international professional organization dedicated to improving the educational success of individuals with disabilities and/or gifts and talents.
  • Do2Learn: For over ten years Do2Learn has, through funding from several sources including the National Institutes of Health, used technology and the web to provide special learning resources for individuals with disabilities and the professionals and caregivers who serve them.
  • National Center for Special Education Personnel and Related Service Providers: This program works to increase the nation’s capacity to recruit, prepare and retain diverse highly qualified special educators, early intervention and related service providers.
  • TeacherVision: This section of the TeacherVision site provides curriculum strategies and classroom management techniques for students with different learning needs.

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