How to Become a Special Education Teacher

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Special education teachers work with students with learning, behavioral, and physical disabilities. In classrooms across the country, special education teachers adapt lesson plans for students with disabilities and create inclusive learning environments. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the career outlook for special education teachers remains strong, offering job growth and above-average salaries.

Most special education teachers need at least a bachelor's degree in a related field, which takes about four years of full-time study to complete. They also typically need teaching licensure. During a bachelor's in special education degree, undergraduates take courses on topics like differentiated instruction, diagnostic assessment, and positive behavior support. They also complete student teaching requirements to build classroom-ready skills.

This page provides information on how to become a special education teacher, including education and certification requirements.

What Does a Special Education Teacher Do?

Career Basics

Special education teachers adapt lessons and curricula for students with disabilities. They may teach subjects like reading and mathematics while also teaching basic life skills for students with moderate or severe disabilities. Special educators typically develop Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) for each of their students based on assessments. They use the IEP to set goals and track student progress. In addition to working in the classroom with students, special education teachers coordinate with other teachers, administrators, and counselors. They also regularly meet with parents.

Special Education Teacher Salary and Job Growth

According to the BLS, special education teachers earned a median annual pay of over $61,000 in 2019, with the top 10% of earners making over $98,000 annually. The BLS projects jobs for special educators to grow 3% between 2018 and 2028.

Salaries for special education teachers vary by factors like location, education, and experience. For example, special education teachers with a master's degree typically earn more than those with just a bachelor's degree. Additionally, special education teachers at public schools often earn higher salaries than those at private schools.

Four Steps to Becoming a Special Education Teacher

The following sections cover how to become a special education teacher, including education and certification requirements.

Step 1
Earn a special education degree
One of the main special education teacher requirements is earning a bachelor's degree. During a bachelor's degree in special education, learners study evidence-based teaching practices and gain hands-on training through a student teaching experience.
When researching special education programs, prospective students should check a program's accreditation status. In some states, only an accredited special education degree meets the requirements for a teaching license.
Step 2
Choose an area of specialization
Learners earning a bachelor's degree in special education often pursue a specialization to build advanced skills in a certain area, such as elementary education, gifted and talented education, or autism spectrum disorders. The specialization may require additional coursework or work experience, depending on the program.
Step 3
Obtain state certification
Graduates with a bachelor's degree in special education who are interested in teaching at public schools must apply for state certification or licensure. During the certification process, candidates must provide documentation demonstrating their bachelor's degree and student teaching experience. Most states also require candidates to pass specialized exams and a background check.
Step 4
Find a special education teaching position
Finding a teaching position represents the final step in becoming a special education teacher. Licensed special education teachers can apply for special education jobs at public elementary and secondary schools. Most special education teachers work in public schools, but a small number also work in private schools or in residential facilities.

Preparing to Become a Special Education Teacher: Schools and Programs

Depending on the school, students can earn a bachelor's degree in special education or a bachelor's degree in teaching with a concentration in special education. Several schools offer online special education degrees, including the University of Georgia and Western Governors University.

During an online bachelor's degree in special education, learners complete coursework online and student teaching requirements at an approved local site. An accredited online special education degree meets the education requirements for a teaching license in every state.

When evaluating special education programs, prospective students should consider several factors, such as admission policies, start dates, and graduation requirements. They should also consider transfer policies, program length, delivery format, and financial aid opportunities to find a good fit.

Courses in Special Education Teacher Programs

During a special education degree, students complete courses on topics like inclusive instruction, classroom management, and differentiated instruction. In addition to coursework, special education learners complete student teaching experiences under the supervision of an experienced special educator.

The following list outlines several courses commonly found in bachelor's in special education programs.

Introduction to Special Education

In introductory classes, students build foundational knowledge in special education, studying topics like the best practices in the field, special education theory, and the legal requirements for special education. Coursework may also examine individualization, differentiated instruction, the role of IEPs, and the assessment process. The course prepares students for upper-division special education classes.

Diagnostic Assessment

In classes on diagnostic assessment, special education majors learn to conduct standardized academic assessments of students. Students learn how to select effective assessments, administer and interpret the results, and develop academic goals based on diagnostic assessments. Students also learn how to create reports after conducting assessments and convey assessment results to administrators and parents.

Positive Behavior Support

This course teaches learners how to promote desired classroom behaviors. Students explore research-backed strategies to maximize instructional time by encouraging positive behaviors. The course also covers consequence strategies and prevention methods. Students learn how to create an inclusive, effective learning environment.

Inclusive Practices

Inclusive practice courses emphasize best practices to support students with diverse learning abilities in the classroom. Coursework introduces students to guidelines like the Universal Design for Learning and other methods to promote inclusivity in the classroom.

Teaching Exceptional Learners

In this course, students learn how to adapt classroom learning environments for students with different abilities, including gifted students. Students learn how to create inclusive environments, implement IEPs, and integrate evidence-based practices in the classroom.

Accreditation for a Special Education Teacher Program

Prospective special education teachers should research a school's accreditation status before applying. In many states, educators need an accredited degree to earn a teaching license. Additionally, only students at accredited schools qualify for federal financial aid, and many schools only accept degrees and credits from accredited institutions.

Accredited colleges and universities meet the highest standards for granting degrees. To earn accreditation, schools must undergo a rigorous, third-party review of their student learning outcomes, faculty qualifications, and graduation requirements. Schools may earn regional or national accreditation, with regional accreditation generally considered the more prestigious of the two.

Programs within a school may also hold accreditation. For example, the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation grants accreditation to teaching programs. In some states, students must attend an accredited program to earn a teaching license. Prospective students can check the Department of Education's database to find accredited schools and programs.

Special Education Teacher Specialties

Special education students can pursue a specialization to focus their skills and prepare for specific careers after graduation. Some programs offer formal concentrations as part of a special education degree, while others let students design a custom concentration through electives.

Students can earn a specialization in elementary or secondary education. They can also pursue specializations in areas like autistic spectrum disorders or visual impairment. Many schools also offer a concentration in gifted and talented education.

Special Education Teacher Certification

Special education teachers must hold state licensure or certification to work in public schools. Requirements vary by state, but most states require a bachelor's degree from a teacher preparation program. Some states require specific classes or a special education major for certification.

Candidates may also need to pass required exams. For example, candidates for American Board's special education teacher certification must pass a professional teaching knowledge exam, a special education exam, and an elementary education exam. Certified teachers must maintain their credentials by meeting continuing education requirements.

Components of a Successful Special Education Teacher Career: Skills, Credentials, Tools, and Technology

Strong communication skills help special educators differentiate education based on each student's needs. Special education teachers must also communicate effectively with other teachers, counselors, parents, and administrators.

Patience and resourcefulness also help special educators succeed. The ability to stay calm with students and develop creative ways to present information allow special educators to effectively instruct students. A successful career in special education also requires an understanding of the tools and technology commonly used in the field, such as assistive software programs.

Special education teachers must also meet certain job requirements, which may include a teaching license with a special education endorsement or certification in special education. Some states also require a master's degree for special education jobs.

Special Education Teacher Professional Organizations

Professional organizations help special education teachers advance their careers. Many organizations offer benefits such as networking, professional development, and continuing education opportunities. The following list outlines several professional organizations for special educators.

National Association of Special Education Teachers

A national professional organization for special educators, NASET promotes and advocates for special education. Members gain access to professional development programs, newsletters and journals, and continuing education courses.

International Association of Special Education

CEC brings together educators who work with children with exceptionalities. The organization develops special education professional standards and offers webinars, professional development resources, and events. The council also publishes research in the field and hosts a career center with job postings.

National Association of Special Education Teachers

IASE encourages collaboration between special educators worldwide. Founded in 1985, IASE hosts members from 50 countries, including teachers, researchers, and professors. The association hosts international conferences and works with other special education organizations to promote the interests of individuals with special needs.

Council for Learning Disabilities

An international organization, CLD advocates for high-quality education for individuals with learning disabilities. The council promotes evidence-based research on special education, hosts conferences, and offers professional development resources. The council also posts jobs in special education.

National Education Association

Founded in 1857, NEA hosts more than three million members, including special education teachers. NEA promotes public education and provides professional development support for teachers. The association also offers resources and articles for special education teachers.

FAQs on Becoming a Special Education Teacher

What does a special education teacher teach?

Special education teachers work with K-12 students on foundational skills, such as reading and math.

What is the qualification of a special education teacher?

Special education teacher requirements typically include a bachelor's degree and licensure. Special educators may also need an endorsement in special education.

Are special education teachers in high demand?

The BLS projects 13,600 new jobs for special education teachers between 2018 and 2028.

How much schooling does a special education teacher need?

In most states, special education teachers need at least a bachelor's degree with a concentration or major in special education.

Resources for Special Education Teachers

National Center for Learning Disabilities

NCLD advocates for Americans with learning and attention disabilities. The center promotes high-quality special education instruction, offers scholarships for students, and provides research and resources for educators. NCLD also offers information on the legal responsibilities of special education programs.

Learning Disabilities Online

This site provides resources for teachers, principals, and other educators involved in special education. These resources include instructional strategies for particular learning disabilities, information on differentiating instruction, and strategies for using technology in the classroom. The site also provides resources on inclusion and accommodations.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

The IDEA governs special education services across the country. The website offers a resource page for educators that lists department-funded projects in different states. It also provides information on the legal obligations of school districts.

Office of Special Education Programs

A division of the Department of Education, OSEP organizes programs and services for children with disabilities. The office provides grants that support research, personnel development, and parent training.

Related Careers at a Glance

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