Becoming a special education teachers requires deep compassion and immense patience. Special education teachers work with children who have emotional and physical disabilities or learning problems. Individuals interested in becoming a special education teacher must answer several questions, such as, “Do I have the skills to deal with special needs children?” “What degrees are required to become a special education teacher?” Will I work in public or private schools?
This comprehensive guide provides information about special education degree programs, prospective career paths, salary information and related occupations.
Special education teachers typically work in elementary or secondary schools with students with physical or mental disabilities. Teachers teach students course curriculum at each student’s pace and help students develop basic life skills so they can function independently beyond the classroom. Special education teachers typically work on a full-time basis following the school district’s academic calendar. They are typically off during school holidays and for summer vacation, but may have additional work or conferences to attend during the summer. Some schools operate on a year-round schedule with a one week break every eight weeks and a five-week break during the mid-winter season.
Special education teachers interact with general classroom teachers, parents, and administrators on a regular basis. Teachers must regularly assess student’s learning progress using critical thinking skills and work with students struggling with dyslexia, ADHD, learning disabilities or mental and physical handicaps. They prepare individualized learning plans based on each student’s needs.
Special education teachers may specialize in a specific area of training to help students with autism, language or communication problems or hearing-impaired students. The bulk of teaching responsibility involves creating and implementing an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). All special education teachers must earn their bachelor’s degree before teaching special education, but some states require an additional master’s degree and/or certification in special education. Some states may require a license to teach in a public school setting. Private schools may not require licensure.
Approximately 64 percent of special education teachers are covered by union contracts or are a member of a union.
Demand for special education teachers is predicted to remain steady for the next decade and salaries are expected to remain competitive compared to other teaching and education jobs. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the median annual wage for special education teachers was $54,520 in 2014. Those serving as special education teachers in elementary and secondary schools, or working in educational support services earned the highest average annual wages. Teachers with advanced certification, a master’s degree or special skills may earn a higher-than-average salary.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics states that the top five states offering the highest salaries in special education are as follows:
The map below highlights the 10th, 50th, and 90th percentile earners in each state.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports job growth for the special education industry is expected to be 6% through 2022. Demand for special education teachers with specialized skills and certifications will increase, especially for younger students who are diagnosed with special needs and disabilities at a younger age. Special education teachers seeking employment at secondary schools or with organizations offering educational support may be able to earn higher wages than teachers who work in a typical school setting.
Top 10 States with the Most Job Growth
All states require special education teachers to obtain a license and bachelor’s degree in education and special education. Some states may offer an alternative special education licensing program for individuals with a bachelor’s degree in a subject other than teaching. Some states and/or employers require even more education, with a master’s degree requirement in special education for all special education teachers. Individuals interested in working with special needs children must check the specific degree requirements of their state.
In all cases, the first step toward a career as a special education teacher is earning a bachelor’s degree. Coursework typically includes classes in subjects such as child assessment, educational psychology, behavior support, communication techniques and disabled student instruction. Degree programs in special education on both the bachelor’s and master’s levels are abundant and offered by both public and private colleges and universities both offline and online.
Special education degree programs prepare students for a career as a teacher, specifically for K-12 students with mild to moderate disabilities. Unlike traditional teaching programs, special education degrees focus on overcoming the challenges of teaching special needs students. All students completing a special education degree program complete coursework in instructional strategy, classroom management, social-emotional learning, and assessments. They also learn how to use assistive technology and specialized software programs.
All states require special education teachers to be licensed to teach special needs children in a public school, and some private schools may also require licensing. Licensing is typically offered by the state or specific school district jurisdictions. General licenses allow teachers to work with students with a variety of disabilities, while others offer licenses or endorsements in specific disability categories.
Some states offer special education teachers the ability to teach immediately after graduating with a bachelor’s degree under the under the supervision of an experienced teacher, with full certification awarded following completion of the teaching program. Most states require teachers to complete a program of student-teaching, lasting from one to two years. Many colleges and universities offer student teaching programs as part of their special education degree coursework.
Special education teachers are authorized to teach in six different areas. Teachers may want to specialize in one or more of these specific groups. Teachers who choose to specialize may be able to earn a higher salary and remain competitive in their career field. Special education teachers can pursue a master’s degree in special education with an emphasis on teaching children with autism, hearing problems, speech problems, behavioral disorders, traumatic injuries, emotional disturbances or blindness. These specialized career paths are in high demand. In many states, specialization requires certification and additional training.
Prospective special education teachers can complete both online and campus-based programs to earn a bachelor’s degree or master’s degree in special education. Those who wish to specialize in a particular area will need to complete a master’s degree program and choose an area of concentration or pursue a certificate. Online programs provide some flexibility for students that may be working on a full-time or part-time basis while fulfilling their educational requirements. Here are some of the reasons to explore different academic paths:
|Career Goal and/or educational needs||Bachelor’s||Master’s||Doctorate||Online|
|I am a licensed teacher with an associate’s degree in teaching. After meeting an autistic student in another classroom, I realized I wanted to become a special education teacher to better serve my students.|
|I have special needs kids and have always wanted to teach. I understand that these children have unique needs and can benefit from individualized, one-on-one teaching. I want to go back to school to help special needs children in a classroom setting.|
|I have a master’s degree in counseling and want to change career paths to work with special needs students.|
|I have a master's degree in special education and want to explore research and teaching opportunities.|
|I have a rewarding job as a librarian but want to be able to work directly with students, especially those with developmental disabilities and behavioral problems.|
|I have been a special education teacher for many years and now want to take on more of an administrative or leadership role within my school district.|
A large part of being a special education teacher is designing and managing learning plans for each student. These are called Individualized Education Plans (IEP) and teachers often work with a team of education professionals to develop effective IEPs.
Teaching students with developmental disabilities, emotional problems, and compromised cognitive development requires a special skill set and a certain type of personality. Special education teachers are trained professionals that understand the unique needs of these students. In order to become a special education teacher, individuals must have at least a bachelor’s degree and a state license in order to serve students in a public school setting.
Graduates of a bachelor’s degree program can pursue an advanced degree to explore research opportunities or continue to teach in a classroom setting but have access to more career opportunities. A Master of Science (M.S.) degree is more research-focused than a Master of Education (M.Ed.), which places more emphasis on classroom teaching. At the master’s level, students learn how to translate theories and research into practice, perform accurate assessments, and conduct experimental programs. Most master’s degree programs also require completion of a thesis.
Special education teachers who wish to become researchers in the field of special education can explore a doctoral (PhD) program. This level of education can prepare students for policymaking positions at the state and federal level, research and teaching positions in higher education, and even consultation positions. Doctoral students can also specialize in a certain area of study, such as positive behavior support, early intervention, low-incidence disabilities, prevention and academic interventions, and secondary/transition services.
A bachelor’s degree in special education is the minimum educational requirement for becoming a special education teacher. This is a four-year program that can be completed partially online or entirely on campus. Coursework covers topics such as classroom behavior management, literacy, instructional methods for those with mild disabilities, and collaboration with families and the community.
A Bachelor of Science in Special Education typically consists of four semesters of general education courses such as mathematics, English, psychology, and sociology. The remainder of the degree program consists of special education courses, independent study, and related electives. Some schools offer flexible online degree programs.
Below are examples of courses undergraduate students may encounter in their program, along with the skills and knowledge gained upon completion:
Teaching principles to serve children with disabilities from birth through 8 or 9 years of age
Developing and implementing an effective reading curriculum and appropriate teaching methods to work with students with special needs
Overview of behavioral strategies and techniques, such as prompting, time delay, task analysis, reinforcement, and shaping to help children with disabilities learn effectively
Using computers and technology to communicate with students and to deliver computer-assisted instruction (CAI)
Evaluating student performance using specific assessment protocol and learning how to modify instruction to achieve academic goals
Some employers require a master’s degree in special education so those with a bachelor’s degree may want to consider pursuing a master’s program to increase their employment options. Students have the option to complete a master’s program completely online, partially online, or at a campus. Master’s degrees in special education typically include a specialization component or the option to complete certification in a specific area of special needs teaching. Some schools offer both a Master of Science (M.S.) degree and Master of Education (M.Ed.) degree. The M.S. degree prepares students for research-oriented positions while the M.Ed. program prepares students for classroom teaching.
Both types of degrees provide advanced training and instruction with a strong focus on designing and implementing effective teaching programs, curriculum, teaching methods, and performing accurate assessments. These programs provide graduates with an advanced understanding of what it takes to work with students with mild and moderate disabilities. Online master’s degree programs can be completed on a part-time basis and offer some flexibility for students who need to balance education with other responsibilities. Some programs incorporate a student teaching component that requires the student to teach in an actual classroom, gaining valuable experience in a supervised setting.
Below are examples of coursework completed at the master’s degree level:
Understanding philosophical, psychological, and sociological basis of teacher education
Understanding of personal, social, and emotional disorders in the classroom
Understanding issues related to family and the community as it pertains to special needs students
Comprehensive understanding and examination of evaluation procedures to perform accurate student assessments and monitor student progress
Comprehensive study of theoretical issues related to teaching students with disabilities
Special education teachers who wish to advance in their careers and explore research opportunities at a university or other research facility can complete a Doctorate of Philosophy (PhD) in Special Education or Doctorate in Education (EdD). Those interested in pursuing a career in academia can complete a PhD, which is more research-focused. Those interested in a leadership role where they can work directly with government agencies, education officials and leaders, and nonprofit organizations may want to complete an EdD.
Doctoral programs are designed for full-time students and require a master’s degree for admission. Most students complete a doctoral program in three to six years, depending on the type of degree and pace of study. These programs allow students to work on applied research projects with special education experts and choose an area of specialization for further skills development. Students are expected to create presentations about their work for conferences and may also be required to create a professional portfolio.
Here is a side-by-side comparison of the PhD and EdD in special education:
|Objective||Prepares students for research roles in higher education or with research institutions.||Prepares students for leadership roles to influence policymakers and those in a position of authority.|
|Curriculum Focus||Focus on academia to master a subject within the field of special education and contribute new knowledge by conducting research and/or publishing research findings.||Focus on tackling challenges within school districts and communities; share foundational knowledge to influence decision makers.|
|Duration of Program||4 to 6+ years||3 to 4+ years|
At the doctoral level, graduates gain an expertise in a variety of areas that can help them land high-level leadership positions within special education. Some of these valuable skills include:
Special needs students often have difficulty communicating their needs and ideas with teachers, fellow students, and even caregivers. The special education teacher must be able to connect and communicate with these students using the right tone, language, and in some cases, nonverbal cues. They must also be able to communicate effectively with parents, faculty members, social workers, and other individuals involved with taking care of the student.
Educators must be flexible with their approach and be patient as they work with each student to address different needs. A special education classroom can be chaotic and disruptive at times. The special education teacher needs advanced skills and training to model good behavior and remain calm during stressful times. They must also be adaptable when students are having difficulty staying focused, are being disruptive, or if they end up leaving the classroom for any reason. This may mean taking a break from the lesson and focusing on a single child, contacting other faculty members for assistance, and developing a new plan to handle emergency situations effectively.
Special education teachers must be comfortable working with computers and learning different types of software programs. Those involved with creating IEPs may be required to use specialized software programs to perform data entry and reporting. Being able to adapt to new technologies and being comfortable introducing students to different types of digital tools and devices for better communication is an important skill to have.
Some special education teachers work directly with students in a one-on-one setting to provide tutoring assistance and support. Others may work with a group of special needs students to teach a specific subject or skill. They must have strong mentoring, coaching, and teaching skills to fulfill these tasks.
In addition to using specialized software programs to create individualized educational programs, the special education teacher needs to be extremely organized and pay attention to detail. They need to keep accurate records of each student’s progress, monitor and assess students effectively, and keep track of lesson plans throughout the school year. They must also stick to a clear schedule so that students can get comfortable with routines and structure.
Special education teachers may choose to work with students with a specific condition or disorder. For example, students with autism, gifted and talented students, and those who are visually impaired have very unique needs. Choosing to specialize to serve a particular type of student can provide an advanced skill set and specialized knowledge to prepare more comprehensive and effective teaching plans. Specializations are typically offered at the master’s degree level or as certificates. Options include:
This specialization focuses on children up to 9 years old who have developmental disabilities. Students learn how to develop sound assessment methods, identify challenges at each stage, and apply various teaching methods to ensure the student gets the quality education they need.
Students with emotional disturbances may have difficulty concentrating, focusing, and completing tasks. They may have a mood disorder that makes it difficult to cooperate with other children and learn in a traditional classroom setting. These students need teachers that can perform accurate assessments, correct behavioral issues, and develop a sound academic plan to help the troubled student succeed. Teachers learn and implement behavioral modification techniques and learn advanced communication skills to ensure they can guide and support the student effectively.
This specialization focuses on students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Autistic students need an individualized education program with clearly defined goals and objectives, a structured environment, and family involvement in order to succeed in an academic setting. Teachers must use a comprehensive approach by completing coursework in the advanced study of autism and autism issues.
Students with outstanding talent and those who show signs of high levels of accomplishment compared to their peers also need assistance from a special education teacher. These students need an individualized learning plan that allows them to excel at their own level and achieve higher goals. Teachers may need to develop creative approaches and learning strategies to keep these students engaged and productive.
Students with learning disabilities, emotional problems, and higher functioning disabilities may need to work with a special education teacher that specializes in teaching students with mild/moderate disabilities or severe disabilities. Characteristics of students with these disabilities include mild/moderate mental retardation, specific types of learning disabilities, emotional disturbances, and those with autism spectrum disorders. These teachers know how to work directly with students in a contained environment, such as a small classroom setting, and create special learning programs, provide life skills instruction, and address the unique needs of these student populations in the most effective way.
Students with a full-time or part-time job, family responsibilities, and other obligations may be interested in completing an online degree program. Many accredited schools offer online programs at the bachelor’s, master’s, and even doctoral levels. Even though some programs require students to complete a supervised teaching component, the remainder of the coursework may be completed entirely online. Special education degrees completed online typically require participating in live lectures led by the instructor, online discussion forums with peers and professors, and collaborating with other students to complete special projects. Some important things to look for when searching for a special education online degree include:
Many distance programs in special education are accredited by the National Association for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE). The National Commission for the Accreditation of Special Education Services (NCASES) evaluates private special education programs, supporting processes and practices that create environments conducive to learning. Accreditation ensures certain educational standards are being met and that the school is providing a quality education that meets the demands of future employers and the overall field of special education.
Almost all special education master’s and doctoral degree programs include the option to specialize or complete certification requirements for a certain area of special ed. For example, students that wish to work mostly with autistic students, students who are visually impaired, or those with mental health issues such as anxiety or bipolar disorder, can specialize or become certified in these areas. Because special education teachers work with students who have very unique needs, specialized skills in a particular area can give applicants a competitive advantage in the job market. These skills can also help aspiring teachers be more effective in the classroom.
Those interested in pursuing research studies at the master’s and doctoral levels may be interested in working on special projects that involve community leaders, social workers, nonprofits, and organizations in the community. Determine whether the online program allows for these types of projects so that you can make professional connections and network within the community. Working on collaborative projects related to special education can also open up a wealth of professional opportunities.
All states require special education teachers to hold a bachelor’s degree in special education and be licensed to teach in the state. Some states may also require the following credentials:
|Training Software||Scientific Learning Fast ForWord; Children’s Educational Software|
|Database and Query Software||Individualized Educational Program (IEP) Software; American Sign Language browser|
|Device Drivers and Software Systems||Screen magnification software; The vOICE Learning Edition; Synapse outSPOKEN; screen reader software|
|Electronic Mail Software||Email software; Microsoft Outlook|
|Voice Recognition Software||Nuance Dragon NaturallySpeaking; goQ WordQ; voice activated software|
In addition to taking care of students as a special education teacher, those with a special education degree can explore a number of related career paths that involve working directly or indirectly with students and faculty members. Special education degree programs provide basic skills and training to work with different types of students, develop lesson plans, and assess students at different levels.
Special education teachers can explore a wealth of teaching careers and related occupations in the field of special needs education. Teachers can choose to work for educational service providers or in a library setting, where they may not work directly with students.
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