How to Become a Special Education Teacher
Apr 07, 2023
How to Become a Special Education Teacher
If you enjoy working with people, especially young students, then majoring in special education may be just the right fit for you. Special education teachers collaborate with other professionals to address the special needs of students and their families. A rewarding job, special education teachers work closely with their students to help them grow.
In the classroom, special educators use their adaptability and compassion to deliver instruction in a way that meets the diverse needs of all their students. Because special education teachers use creative teaching methods in a variety of ways, every day brings something new—making for an exciting career. If you think a special education career is the one for you, keep reading to find out more about how to become a special education teacher.
What is a Special Education Teacher?
Before discovering what you can do with a special education degree, we first need to explore the roles and responsibilities of a special education teacher. To do that, we’ll also need to look at how the field of special education compares to general education.
What is Special Education?
You can imagine that in the history of education, there has always been a need to recognize different ways of learning, just as individuals have their own unique needs. Still, you may be wondering, what is special education, exactly, and how did it become what it is today?
In the United States, lawmakers prioritized the inclusion of those with special needs in public education. According to Suzie Dalien, writing for Special Ed Resource.com, the 1975 Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA) law established that “those with a wide range of learning disabilities like physical disabilities, speech, mental issues, behavioral problems and more” would be entitled to free public education in “the least restrictive environment possible.” The EAHCA law, later renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), created designated special education teachers, per Special Ed Resource.com.
The field of special education has evolved over the years. What’s important to know, though, is that special education has made inclusive education possible for those with diverse needs and is an ever-growing field that will continue to adapt.
What Does a Special Education Teacher Do?
The role of special educators is similar to that of general education teachers. They share some of the same tasks; they plan and teach lessons, prepare activities and grade student work. Like the goal for a general education classroom, special education teachers guide their classes to grow and develop.
Special educators, though, particularly focus on presenting curriculum in a way that is accessible to everyone. Because special education teachers work with diverse groups of students, they adapt their instruction of different subjects to fit the unique needs of each individual. They may change their teaching styles or use different technology or resources. Special educators adjust instruction as students learn and grow, making each day different in this field.
Additionally, special educators write Individualized Education Programs, or IEPS, for their students. An IEP is a guiding plan that highlights a student’s accomplishments and details targets. The program will outline steps for how the student can achieve objectives, including the special education services they need. Special education teachers collaborate with other professionals, like school administrators or education specialists, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Special educators will lead IEP meetings with parents, reviewing updates throughout the school year and developing and refining the individual education plan to help a student succeed.
Where Do Special Educators Work?
A majority of special education teachers work in public schools, but some work in private schools, per the BLS. Special educators work with students at a variety of academic levels, from elementary education through secondary education, or high school. Working with different levels of students, special educators may need to teach various subjects, such as social studies, physical education and health education.
Special education teachers also work with students beyond kindergarten through high school. For example, some may teach early childhood special education, while others work at transition programs for young adults.
What Skills Are Needed?
There are several skills special educators use to complete their daily tasks. Ultimately, special educators play an important role—they help their students learn to work, function, and live in their communities. Special educators have a significant impact on their student’s lives, and that work begins with the skills they use in the classroom. Here are some of the skills you will need to develop to set yourself up for success as a special educator.
1. Communication and Listening Skills
Communication is key for many professions. For special education teachers especially, communication and listening are essential in addressing students’ needs—and working with their families and caregivers. Furthermore, teachers can serve as models for good communication. As Micah Fikes writes for ECAP, “When a teacher possesses excellent listening skills, the teacher can lead by example and help children develop this important life skill.”
Because they work closely with students who have various disabilities or needs, special education teachers need to have compassion. Crucial for many professions, compassion helps special educators to connect with their students.
Organization—Special educators must be able to keep organized in their work. Just as it is important for special education teachers to keep documents and student records organized, it is also important for them to maintain an organized classroom space. Special educators can foster a productive learning environment by intentionally organizing objects within the classroom, such as activity stations and desks, according to ECAP.
Teachers, particularly in special education, must be able to adapt to accommodate their students’ needs, as stated in ECAP. As students develop, special education teachers may need to use their creativity to change their teaching to better benefit their students.
How to Become a Special Education Teacher
After going over the roles of a teacher in special education, what are the steps to get started in this rewarding career?
Enrolling in a strong special education program is the first step. To be ready to educate the next generation of learners, teachers need to have the proper training and tools, so entering a degree program is a strong first step. According to the BLS, all states require a bachelor’s degree to be a special education teacher in a public school. Many private schools also require one, so it’s important to find a teacher preparation program that works for you.
For special educators, finding a special education program offers more foundation that is specific to the field. Moreover, to become a special educator in some states, you need to have a degree specifically in special education, as reported by the BLS. As you think about becoming a special education teacher, you’ll want to check the requirements in your state. You’ll also want to find a higher education program that gives you the best preparation to work in the field, like a special education degree program.
Once you’ve completed your teacher education and earned your bachelor’s degree, obtaining special education certification or licensure is next. Generally, if you want to teach in a public school, you should expect a teacher certification requirement; private schools do not always require certification.
You may be curious, then, about how to become a certified special education teacher. Per the BLS, though the following certification requirements vary by state, teacher candidates will also need to:
- Pass a background check
- Pass certification and subject matter tests (for the subjects they will teach)
- Complete student teaching
To earn your special education teacher certification, you’ll first need to master concepts essential to teaching and special education. With that in mind, you’ll want to find a special education program that prepares you with the skills and knowledge you’ll need to start your career on the right foot.
What Does a Special Educator Need to Learn before Teaching?
Special education teachers are needed at every level of education, so the kind of subject matter and age group of students you’ll work with will depend on your choice of what you want to teach. Regardless of whether you decide to teach in high school or early childhood education, you’ll want to find a teacher education program that gives you a strong understanding of instruction and learning foundations. Teacher candidates also gain further knowledge of the field by taking courses like educational psychology or learning more about special education law and policy.
Special educators work to adapt teaching methods and styles to fit the needs of all their students. So, taking classes that prepare you to teach diverse groups of students is crucial in helping you feel comfortable reaching all of your students. Additionally, as technology continues to develop, teachers find more use for it as an assistive or educational tool—another topic that is helpful for teacher candidates to learn about while earning their bachelor’s degrees.
Collaboration is essential for special education teacher candidates to learn as well. Special education teachers work with a number of people, like families, general education teachers, administrators, and other professionals. Because collaboration is vital for common responsibilities of special educators, such as creating IEPs, courses in professional collaboration are important in a teacher candidate’s foundation.
On top of understanding fundamental teaching concepts, teacher candidates also need to develop their skills through practical experience. Student teaching is a chance for aspiring teachers to acquire experience and practice what they’ve learned. Under the supervision of a certified teacher, student teachers lead a real classroom of students, planning activities and grading student work.
Degree programs often include opportunities for student teaching, as it is required for teacher certification in most states. However, only some teacher education programs provide opportunities for students to gain field experience before student teaching—and even fewer offer field opportunities at multiple education levels. The field experience included in these kinds of programs helps teacher candidates feel confident in their choice of what level they want to teach.
Special Education Teacher Career Path
Now that you’ve learned how to become a certified special education teacher, what does a career path in this field look like?
You might first be wondering, “What is the average special education teacher salary?” According to the BLS, the median annual pay for special education teachers in 2021 was $61,820.
Career growth opportunities for special educators include mentoring less experienced colleagues or becoming lead teachers. Teachers also partake in professional development to keep up-to-date with any new special educational policies or best practices. Professional development is also a chance for teachers to hone their skills and learn new ways to reach their students.
Special education teachers can also advance their careers by completing a master’s degree. In fact, some states may require master’s degrees for special education teachers to achieve full certification, as reported by the BLS. In many states, having a master’s degree often places special education teachers at a higher annual salary. Additionally, special education teachers may choose to pursue a master’s degree or additional certification to become counselors or administrators—like principals and directors—per the BLS.
Find the Program for You
As you’ve read so far, special education is a challenging, exciting and rewarding career. Still, you will need to have an understanding of special education concepts, as well as practical skills before you can begin to teach. To do that, you’ll want to consider higher education programs that allow you to learn and develop confidence in the knowledge and experience you’ll need to succeed in the classroom.
You’ll want to look for a special education program that provides you with a robust understanding of the history of special education and the best instructional practices to help today’s students grow and learn. Search for programs that include research-based courses on instruction fundamentals, like the Foundations of Teaching & Learning and Equity & Access in Systems of Education courses taught in North Central College’s special education undergraduate degree program.
You’ll also want a strong foundation in topics essential to special education. Programs like North Central’s offer such courses, including: Special Education, Disability Law & Policy; Collaboration with Families, Caregivers, Professionals, & the Community; and Assistive Technology for Exceptional Diverse Learners with High and Low Incidence Disabilities. Gaining confidence in these important concepts while earning your bachelor’s degree will help you feel ready to excel as a special education teacher.
Because so much of special education is hands-on work—teaching and working closely with students—you’ll want to look for an educational program that gives you a variety of hands-on experiences. Some special education programs offer more than student teaching; they offer multiple chances to observe and even sometimes assist in classrooms! Having more than one field experience will help you determine or re-affirm which educational level you want to teach, so you’ll want to consider programs that allow you to become confident you made the right choice for you.
As an example, North Central’s special education program incorporates three different kinds of field experiences before student teaching: at the elementary school, middle/high school, and transition program levels. Obtaining field experience, even before student teaching, can make all the difference in jump-starting your career.
Once you find a special education program that works for you, you’ll feel prepared to begin your journey as a special education teacher.
Hannah Brauer is a communications specialist in the North Central College Office of Communications. She has a bachelor’s degree from Eastern Kentucky University, and she has four years of experience working with college students and collegiate communications.
Dalien, Suzie. (2014, October 7). “The History of Special Education.” Special Ed Resource.com. Retrieved November 16, 2022, from https://specialedresource.com/history-special-education
Fikes, Michah. (2022, March 28). “12 Skills of a Special Education Teacher.” ECAP. Retrieved December 15, 2022, from https://blog.ecapteach.com/12-skills-of-a-special-education-teacher
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2022, October 4). Occupational Outlook Handbook: Special Education Teachers. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved November 16, 2022, from https://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/special-education-teachers.htm#tab-1