What is a Special Education Teacher?
A special education teacher is a professional educator that works with children of all ages that have special needs. For example, special education teachers may work with children with various physical, emotional, and cognitive disabilities including autism, downs syndrome, and cerebral palsy.
Special educations teachers adapt and adjust a general education curriculum to meet the individual needs of their students. In addition to working in public schools, special ed teachers also work in private schools and programs for children with special needs.
What Does a Special Education Teacher Do?
Most people are familiar with the responsibilities of a teacher. But the role of a special education teacher is a little different than a general education teacher. Special education teachers develop and implement a curriculum for children with special needs.
The exact responsibilities of a special education teacher vary depending on the student’s disabilities and the teacher’s specialty. For example, some teachers specialize and teach reading while others teach a broader curriculum. Teachers may also specialize and work with children with a specific learning issue, such as autism.
Similar to teachers in general education, special education teachers must develop lesson plans, instruct lessons, and track their student’s progress. Implementation of lessons and specific techniques and strategies used may vary based on the subject being taught and the needs of the students. In general, the responsibilities of a special education teacher can be divided into a few different categories including the following:
Developing Individualized Education Programs
Special education teachers along with a student’s therapy team develop an individualized education program (IEP) for each student. The IEP maps out the student’s goals and plans for education and services, such as occupational and speech therapy. Special education teachers assess students and collaborate with therapists to develop student’s goals.
Teachers also review progress on IEP goal’s and update and write new goals as needed. Teachers may use specialized software to write and manage IEPs.
Implementing Lesson Plans
Implementing the lesson plan is also a large part of the day to day responsibilities of a special education teacher. For example, teachers might lead large group instruction on subjects, such as math, reading, and life skills. They may also assign projects and administer tests. Depending on the needs of the student, teachers may use different assistive technology devices, such as computer software to communicate with children.
Special education teachers also must manage their classrooms. For instance, classroom management involves redirecting students when behavior issues develop. Teachers must also supervise and direct teacher’s aides and volunteers in the classroom.
Administrative duties are also part of the job of a special education teacher. Administrative responsibilities may include grading tests, recording student’s progress, and meeting with parents and other educators. Teachers often use computers to prepare lesson plans and record their student’s grades.
Why are Special Education Teachers Important?
Special education teachers are needed to ensure all students including those with challenges are provided with a quality education. General education teachers are not trained in how to adopt a curriculum for children with special needs.
Students with special needs require teachers that have knowledge of how various disabilities and conditions influence learning needs and styles. Special education teachers are experts on disabilities and can advocate for children with special needs. The bottom-line is special education teachers are needed to help students with special needs reach their potential.
What Do You Learn in a Special Education Teaching Degree Program?
The exact curriculum for a special education teaching degree program may vary depending on whether it is a bachelor’s degree or master’s degree program. Usually, special education teacher programs include general teaching classes, such as educational psychology, theories of education, and human development.
Special education teaching programs also include specialized classes related to teaching students with special needs. Programs also require teachers to complete an internship teaching in a special education class.
Although it is not a complete list, students in a special education teaching program usually learn the following:
- Legal Issues in Special Education: This course introduces students to the laws and legal issues related to education for people with special needs. Topics discussed include reasonable accommodations for students, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and developing the least restrictive environment for special needs students.
- Introduction to Learning Disabilities in Special Education: This class provides a general introduction to learning disabilities. Common learning disabilities and their cause are reviewed. Interventions and educational approaches are also covered. Students also learn about services and agencies at both the state and federal level that serve people with disabilities.
- Theories in Teaching Diverse Learners: Students learn various models of instruction for working with a diverse population of children. Theories on how to facilitate an inclusive learning environment for students with cognitive and physical differences are discussed.
- Behavioral Management in Special Education: This course focuses on strategies and classroom management skills for working with children with behavioral and emotional special needs in the classroom. The focus is on developing ways to help students make behavior adjustments, which facilitates a positive learning environment.
- Designing Curriculums for Students with Cognitive Delays: Students in this class learn how to modify and develop an appropriate curriculum for students with special needs. Emphasis is placed on implementing curriculums using various materials, instructional methods, and assessments within an inclusive classroom.
- Communication Disorders in Children: This class provides information on common communication and speech problems including their causes and therapeutic approaches for special education teachers. Common disorders discussed may include delays in language development and articulation problems.
- Interdisciplinary Studies of Disabilities: This class examines cultural and societal views on disabilities. Topics discussed may include bioethics, human rights, and discrimination.
- Assessment for Students with Special Needs: Participants learn various techniques and methodologies on providing testing and assessment for group instruction for students with various special needs. Modifying assessments for students with mild, moderate, and severe disabilities is also included.
- Overview of Education of the Severely Disabled: This class examines the characteristics and categories of severe impairments and disorders. Laws, teaching strategies, and assistive technology devices are explored.
What are the Requirements to Become a Special Education Teacher?
All public schools in the United States require special education teachers to have formal education and either a license to teach or certification. Additional requirements vary by state.
The minimum educational requirements to become a special education teacher are a bachelor’s degree. Exact bachelor’s degree requirements vary by state. For instance, some states require a bachelor’s degree in special education.
Other states may accept a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and completion of a special education endorsement program. A special education endorsement program is intended for those applicants that already hold a degree in elementary or secondary education. Most special education endorsement programs can be completed in a year of full-time study.
A bachelor’s degree in special education prepares graduates to start teaching special education in private and public schools. Admission requirements for a bachelor’s degree program in special education include graduation from high school. Some schools may have additional requirements.
Most special education bachelor’s degree programs can be completed in four to five years of full-time study. Usually, programs require completion of 125-135 credits. Classes in a bachelor’s degree special education teaching program typically include laws for special education, curriculum development, and supervised classroom instruction.
Teachers that want to further their education can earn a master’s degree in special education. Teachers with a master’s degree may also work in administration or as an instructional coordinator.
Admission requirements for a master’s degree program in special education include a bachelor’s degree in special ed or elementary education. Although it may vary, usually a G.P.A of 3.0 is required for admission. Some programs also require one or two years of full-time teaching experience.
Most master’s degree programs in special education can be completed in two years of full-time study. Usually, 32-45 credits are required. Classes may include special education methods, managing student’s learning and behaviors, and autism spectrum disorders. Some master’s degree programs in special education allow students to select an emphasis to focus on, such as autism spectrum disorders or applied behavior analysis.
The highest level of education for special education teachers is a Ph.D. A Ph.D. prepares teachers to work in leadership positions in special education, such as a superintendent, curriculum director, or professor.
Admission requirements typically include a master’s degree in education, letters of recommendation, and a special education teaching credential. The exact credit requirements to complete a Ph.D. program vary, but usually, 90 credits are required. Ph.D. programs in special education can be completed in three to four years of full-time study. Classes may include practices in special education, elements of qualitative research, and advanced study of disabilities.
Licensure is mandatory to work as a special education teacher. All public schools in the United States require special education teachers to be licensed to teach. Some states refer to the license as a certification or credential. Private schools may also require licensure, but requirement might vary by school.
Requirements to earn a special education teaching license vary by state. But a bachelor’s degree in special education or elementary education with a special education endorsement is required. Completion of supervised teaching experience is also needed along with a criminal background check. Applicants are also required to pass standardized teaching licensure exams in the state they wish to work.
Special Education Teacher Certification
Although state licensure is required to work as a special education teacher, board certification is optional. Board certification in special education is offered through the American Academy of Special Education Professionals. The certification represents advanced knowledge and training in the field. To be eligible, candidates must hold a master’s degree in special education or a closely related field and pass a certification exam.
What is an Online Special Education Teaching Degree?
An online special education teaching degree involves the same type of classes and training as a conventional teaching program except you do not have to travel to the classroom.
Classes and requirements are similar whether a teaching program is online or in person. The difference is an online teaching program offers classes online or through a hybrid of both in person and online classes.
Individual programs may vary, but most special education online teaching degree programs may have classes that students take in real time by logging onto a computer and viewing the class as it occurs. Other online programs may involve watching lectures and reading assignments at a convenient time.
Most online teaching programs have opportunities for students to participate in discussions with teachers and classmates through posting to discussion boards or logging into a group chat at a set time. Online special education teaching degree programs also require students complete an internship teaching for a specific number of hours at a school.
What Does it Take to Be a Special Education Teacher?
Working as a special education teacher can be a very rewarding career. Special education teachers have the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of children with special needs and help them reach their potential. But the job can also be challenging. Having certain skills, qualities, and traits can increase the chances of being an effective teacher. Below are some of the skills it takes to be a special education teacher.
- Knowledge of Assistive Technology Devices: Teachers that work in special education need to be familiar with various assistive devices and technology for use in the classroom. Assistive technology can address several types of learning difficulties. Depending on the needs of the student, devices, such as braille, talking calculators, and FM systems to assist with hearing loss, may be helpful for students.
- Familiar with Behavioral Intervention Strategies: Special education teachers should have expertise in developing behavioral intervention plans (BIP). A BIP is developed to teach positive classroom behaviors. It can stop problems and help students learn problem-solving skills.
- Team Player: Special education teachers work with occupational, speech, and physical therapists. They also work closely with general education teachers, aides, and school counselors to meet the individual needs of the student. Teachers must work well as part of a team to create a collaborative environment that helps children succeed.
- IEP Development Knowledge: All children enrolled in special education programs are required to have an individual education program in place. Special educator teachers along with other members of the treatment team develop the plan, which details the specific goals the student will work to achieve. Knowledge of the purpose of an IEP, writing plans, and collecting data to support IEP progress is an important skill for a special education teacher.
- Patience: Teachers working in special education need to have patience. They may need to explain lessons multiple times and manage students that are having behavior issues. Teachers need to remain calm and handle the challenges professionally.
- Understanding of Learning Disabilities: Special education teachers’ work with children with all types of needs including students that are visually or hearing impaired, as well as those with autism and other challenges. Teachers should have a thorough understanding of various disabilities, their causes, and treatments.
- Ability to Adapt a Curriculum: Special education teachers need to have the ability to take a general curriculum and adapt it to meet the needs of students with special needs. Adapting a curriculum may involve a combination of approaches. For example, teachers may give shorter more frequent assignments or break assignments down into small steps.
- Knowledge of Developing Multi-Sensory Lessons: The ability to develop multi-sensory lessons is also an essential skill for a special education teacher. Multi-sensory lessons involve using teaching methods that engage two or more senses at the same time. For example, teachers can incorporate sight, movement, and touch into a lesson. Using multi-senses can enhance a child’s ability to learn and improve memory, so the material is retained.
- Creativity: Creativity is a must for special education What works for one child may not work for another. Sometimes teachers may need to think outside the box when they present concepts to students.
What are the Benefits of Being a Special Education Teacher?
Working as a special education teacher can be a great career choice for people that like working with children and have a passion for teaching. There are several benefits to working as a special education teacher including the following:
- Family-Friendly Work Schedule: Although the exact work schedule of a special education teacher may vary by setting, many jobs have family-friendly hours. Special education teachers typically have weekends and evenings off. Some schools may also follow a traditional ten-month schedule, which means you’ll get summers off.
- Increased Marketability: Special education teachers have an additional certification and specialty, which increases marketability. Special education teachers also usually face less competition to get jobs.
- The Opportunity to Have an Impact on a Student’s Future: As a special education teacher, you have the chance to make a difference in a child’s future. Teachers in special education not only teach academics but they also teacher self-care and life skills. Knowing you are doing meaningful work every day is one of the biggest benefits of working in the field.
- Teachers Work in a Collaborative Environment: You are part of a team when you work as a special education teacher. You have the chance to work with therapists, social workers, and parents. Working in a collaborative environment provides teachers with support to do their job more effectively.
- Varied Responsibilities: The job of a special education teacher always brings something different. No two days may be exactly the same. Students are different. Classes may be different, and you might need to vary your approach to the same lesson. Every day can bring a child’s accomplishments, a rewarding moment, or a laugh.
- Personal Growth: When you think of becoming a special education teacher, you may consider what you can teach your students. But your students can also teach you a lot about determination, perseverance, and reaching your goals. Working with special needs students can be inspiring. For example, teachers may develop more creativity or patience. You might be surprised at how much you can learn and grow as a person.
What is the Demand for Special Education Teachers?
According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the need for special education teachers is expected to grow by about eight percent through the year 2026. The need for special education teachers may vary by setting. For instance, the demand for special education teachers in preschools is expected to grow by about 11 percent.
The increased growth in special education teachers at the preschool level is due to children with disabilities and special needs being identified at younger ages than in the past. Teachers that hold additional or specialty certifications, such as those that work with students on the autism spectrum, may also have increased opportunities.
What Professions are Similar to Special Education Teaching?
Several careers offer responsibilities similar to a special education teacher including:
High-school teachers teach various academic subjects and prepare teens to enter the job market or attend college. Most high-school teachers teach one specific academic subject, such as math, science, or English. High-school teachers are required to have a bachelor’s degree and a state-issued license or credential.
Recreational therapists plan and direct recreational treatment activities for people with illnesses, disabilities, and injuries. Therapists may use different modalities, such as music, games, and art to improve a person’s emotional and physical well-being. Recreational therapists need to have a bachelor’s degree in recreational therapy.
Childcare workers may have different responsibilities depending on the setting and age of the child they care for. For example, childcare workers that work with young children may supervise play, and attend to basic needs, such as feeding. Childcare workers usually need a minimum of a high-school diploma. Some states also require childcare workers to complete a certain number of college credits in education.
Instructional coordinators work with schools and teachers to develop curriculums and oversee teaching standards. Usually, an instructional coordinator needs a master’s degree in education.