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Special Education Teacher: How To Become A Special Education Teacher Job Outlook & Resources

How To Become A Special Education Teacher

Teaching is one of the most noble professions to pursue, and becoming a Special Education Teacher requires an especially strong and selfless personality.  Special Education Teachers are the instructors who work with students who have physical, emotional, or learning disabilities.  Normally Special Education Teachers work with pre-kindergarten through high school students, though there are options to teach Special Education students in a university setting.

While this is not a profession for the faint-hearted, it can be incredibly rewarding.  Listed below are a number of commonly asked questions and resources available to help you begin your journey towards a career in Special Education.

Education

Getting Started with a Bachelor’s (4-Year) Degree

Typically, a 4-year Bachelor’s degree is required to become a Special Education Teacher.  Special Education Teachers are also expected to complete a certain amount of time as a supervised student teacher in the field in order to gain experience and complete their training.

It is recommended that you receive a Bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education, Special Education, or in an academic subject (such as English or Physics) with a minor in Special Education in order to pursue this career.  A Bachelor’s will normally prepare you to teach students in the k-12 range with mild to moderate disabilities.

Earn a Graduate Degree for Specialization

It is possible to receive a Master’s or Ph.D. in Special Education (or a related field) if you wish to specialize in instruction for those with a particular disorder (such as the Autism Spectrum).  Getting a doctorate would enable you to pursue teaching Special Education at a university level.

A Master’s degree would ordinarily require an additional 1-2 years of study, while a doctorate (Ph.D.) normally necessitates up to 4 or more years of study beyond the Bachelor’s degree.

Obtain a License to Teach

In most states, a special license or certification is required to teach at a public school; however, private schools will not always require a license.  Most states will have their certification or licensure requirements listed on their webpage for the Department of Education.

Additional Certifications

Some states will require some form of teaching credential in order to work in public schools, and some private institutions may require these as well.  Special Education credentials may include, but are not limited to:

  • CSET/ CBEST
  • Education Specialist Instruction
  • Educational Specialist for the Deaf/ Hard of Hearing
  • Educational Specialist for the Blind
  • Educational Specialist for Moderate/ Severe Disabilities

Sample Courses for a Degree in Special Education

Those interested in pursuing a career as a Special Education Teacher should expect to see a number of psychology courses in their degree requirements, including child psychology, child assessment, behavioral support, abnormal psychology, and instruction for disabled students.  Studying psychology can help prospective Special Education Teachers gain a deeper understanding of how their students learn and retain information, as well as learn more about the various conditions that their pupils may have.

Universities will often offer courses on how to teach students with specific disabilities, such as Autism Spectrum Disorders, deafness or blindness, and more.

These courses would be in addition to the usual curriculum expected of those in the educational field.  Typically, those training for a career in teaching would be expected to complete classes in classroom management, student assessments, instructional strategies, and more.

Job Description / Responsibilities

Special Education Teachers instruct their students in the state-approved curriculum, but must moderate or alter the speed, exercises, and activities of their lesson plans to match the needs of their students.  This can involve such strategies as multisensory learning, repetition, phonetics, and more.  Because Special Education Teachers often have classrooms filled with students who have a wide range of disabilities, they may often have to implement multiple strategies or styles of teaching in order to best serve the needs of all of their pupils.

Additionally, Special Education Teachers are expected to help their students develop social and behavioral skills to enable them to succeed outside of the classroom.  Special Education Teachers are expected to work closely with parents, social workers, testing specialists, and other professionals in order to develop Individual Education Plans (IEPs) for their students, and must keep accurate student records as required by state/ federal laws or district regulations.

Special Education Teachers often partner with their General Education counterparts, since Special Education students are routinely included in General Ed. Classrooms.  They may also act as consultants for General Education teachers who are working with students who have unique needs.

Job Outlook

According to the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, job growth for Special Education Teachers in the U.S. is slower than average, with a 6% projected increase in job availability before 2024.  Because of the limited number of new positions, it is best to begin working with career counselors at your university right away.  They can help direct you to job boards to find positions, polish your resume, and will even provide advice on how to manage your social media presence in order to assist you in landing a job.

 Work Environment

It is most common for Special Education Teachers to work in an elementary school, middle school, or high school setting.  Special Education Teachers are sought after for both public and private schools, and will often work in tandem with General Education teachers.  Special Education Teachers will generally follow the traditional ten-month school year, though they may choose to teach or tutor during the summer.

Special Education Teachers may also find work in childcare services or other institutions.

What Are the Specializations for Special Education Teachers?

A Special Education Teacher can pursue graduate degrees (a Master’s or a doctorate) in order to specialize in teaching students with a specific kind of disability.

Some teachers choose to specialize in working with those who have Autism Spectrum disorders.  Others may choose to specialize in emotional or behavioral disorders (as opposed to physical disabilities).  Both of these specializations require a strong working knowledge of communication and behavior, as students living with these disorders are often unable to relate to their peers and experience delays or difficulties in communicating.  Both of these specializations also require strong organizational skills, as the students require structured environments with defined goals in order to succeed.

Special Education Teachers can become experts in teaching those with mild/moderate disabilities, or can specialize in working with students with severe disabilities.

What is the Career Path for Special Education Teachers?

It is most common for Special Education Teachers to start out in an elementary, middle, or high school setting.  Advanced degrees can be earned in order to move up to teaching at a university level, or if you want to specialize in treating a specific kind of disorder or disability.

Special Education Teachers can rise through the ranks of their school district by becoming supervisors or administrators, such as a principal or superintendent.

Job Options

If you are interested in working with students who suffer from learning disabilities or disorders, but are not necessarily drawn to the field of education, there are several related careers that may be a good fit for you.

Childcare Workers

Childcare workers can work at a facility such as a daycare, or can be independently contracted to care for children in their home while their parents are away.  Childcare workers share a similar responsibility to Special Education Teachers in that they are heavily involved in helping the child to develop appropriate social and behavioral skills.  But while a childcare worker may occasionally help a student with homework or schoolwork, they are not specifically trained in education.

Instructional Coordinators

An instructional coordinator oversees the school curriculums and helps to maintain or improve teaching standards in the district.  They are responsible for developing teaching material and coordinating its implementation with the staff at their school(s).  If you are interested in Special Education from a more research-based standpoint, this may be a good direction for you.

Occupational Therapists

Occupational Therapists are closer to doctors or nurses than they are to teachers.  An Occupational Therapist will use a variety of treatments and everyday activities to treat ill, disabled, or injured patients.  Occupational Therapists focus strongly on helping their patients to develop life and social skills while managing their condition(s).

Recreational Therapist

Recreational Therapists help to plan, coordinate, and implement recreation-based treatment programs for disabled, ill, or injured patients that are intended to improve their physical, social, and emotional well-being.  This can be done through myriad activities such as arts and crafts; theater or dance; community outings; and more.

Clinical Social Workers

Clinical Social Workers help people to cope with problems in their everyday lives, and ensure that children are in safe, productive, and healthy home environments.  In particular, a Clinical Social Worker is authorized to diagnose and treat mental, behavioral, or emotional issues, which makes this career a good choice for those who are interested in Special Education.

Teaching Assistant

If you are interested in Special Education but do not have the means or the inclination to pursue a 4-year degree, then you can look into becoming a Teaching Assistant.  Teaching Assistants generally help out around the classroom with the teacher’s supervision, in order to provide additional attention and instruction for the students.

Speech-Language Pathologist

Speech-Language Pathologists (commonly referred to as Speech Therapists) help to diagnose and treat disorders related to speech, language, communication, fluency, and more.   Like becoming an Occupational or Recreational Therapist, this career is a good choice for those who desire to work with those who have special needs, but aren’t interested in the field of education.

School Counselor

If you are interested in working in a school setting but do not necessarily want to teach, you can look into becoming a School Counselor.  School Counselors generally study child psychology in more depth and are available to assist the entire student body with emotional or mental needs.  In a high school setting, a school counselor may also be responsible for advising students on options for higher education or seeking employment.

Resources

There are a number of resources available for Special Education Teachers that can help with everything from finding a position to suggesting novel methods or activities to try in the classroom.

The National Association of Special Education Teachers provides the most current research in the Special Education field, along with job listings across the U.S.

The Council for Exceptional Children offers a detailed list of job openings throughout the U.S. for Special Education Teachers, along with information on professional development and articles on the most recent research or news in the Special Education field.

The Department of Education website for your state will be able to provide you with information on job listings, as well as the requirements or standards for becoming a Special Education Teacher in your area.

O*Net provides detailed information about the required skills, tools, and knowledge needed for a career in Special Education.

Do2Learn is a website that offers activities and exercises for Special Education students that will help them to develop social and behavioral skills, as well as improve their academics.

Teacher Vision offers articles, publications, and activities that help you to effectively run your classroom and keep your students engaged.  There are multiple publications available that deal specifically with teaching Special Education students.

Understood is a website which provides information on learning disabilities and the evaluations used for them.  Understood also gives members access to community resources for working with disabled individuals.

The National Education Association posts the most up-to-date news in Special Education, along with guides or advice on common issues experienced by Special Education Teachers throughout the U.S.

LD Online offers news, advice, and general information on the Special Education field and learning disabilities.

The Child Development Institute is one of the frontrunners for child psychology and developmental research in the U.S.  Their website offers all of the most current research, as well as articles on how to help children with learning disabilities or special needs.

Special Ed News is a web publication that posts all of the most recent news in Special Education.

The Learning Disabilities Association of America provides a wealth of information for Special Education Teachers and parents alike.  There are articles on learning disabilities, information on the assessments for different disorders, and even advice for classroom management.

Skills

 Adaptability/ Flexibility

Special Education Teachers are often required to teach students with a range of disabilities or needs, and so must be able to change their approach or teaching style in order to best serve the needs of each individual pupil.  Because of the nature of a number of emotional and behavioral disabilities, a strategy that works well for one student may not work for another, even if they both have the same condition.  A Special Education Teacher must be constantly ready to try new methods and think outside of the box.

 Non-Verbal Communication

Many Special Education students rely on body language or non-verbal cues to communicate.  Because of this, Special Education Teachers must be adept in assessing non-verbal communication, include (but not limited to) facial expressions, gestures, and posture.  This skill can be vital in determining a student’s comfort level, their needs or desires, or can even help the teacher identify the presence of a medical emergency.  It is not uncommon for Special Education Teachers to take courses in Body Language while pursuing their degrees.

Empathy

It is vital that a Special Education Teacher be able to connect emotionally with their students.  The ability to see from the student’s perspective will enable the teacher to better develop teaching methods or strategies to suit their unique needs.  This is also incredibly important in identifying problems that can trigger aggravated emotional responses, so that the teacher can take steps to avoid upsetting or frustrating their pupil.

Patience

Special Education students will not always learn course materials with the same speed or ease of their peers, and may have to revisit the same lesson numerous times in order to fully understand it.  A Special Education Teacher must possess the patience to let the students learn at their own pace, and be willing to try out multiple methods if necessary.  The profession also requires a high level of patience for working with students who have difficulty (or are incapable of) communicating effectively with others.

Creativity

As mentioned before, Special Education Teachers often need to think outside of the box in order to find methods that will best reach their students.  A Special Education Teacher will need to become familiar with each student’s particular needs and style of learning, and be able to adapt their lessons accordingly.

What is the Necessary Equipment for a Special Education Teacher?

Special Education Teachers may be expected to become familiar with a variety of tools and technology, depending on the needs of their classroom.

Technology for Physical Disabilities

There are a variety of devices and software programs available to help students suffering from physical disabilities manage life in the classroom, and a Special Education Teacher should be familiar with how most – if not all – of these work.

For instance, you may be expected to know how to work braille devices for blind or visually challenged students, or be capable of using captioning software/ machinery for those who are deaf or suffer from hearing loss.  There are also screen-magnification programs, voice recognition software, and other computer programs to help students who struggle with sight, hearing, or motor functions.

Standard Educational Technology

Just like those who teach in General Education, Special Education Teachers should be fluent in computer use, and be able to easily navigate the internet.  A knowledge of how to work email and standard office-based programs (ex. Microsoft Word, Excel, Powerpoint, etc.) is a necessity.  Familiarity with other classroom-based devices, such as projectors, copiers/scanners, touch-screen monitors, etc., is recommended.

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