Special education teachers work with students who have learning, mental, emotional, or physical disabilities. They adapt general education lessons and teach various subjects to students with mild to moderate disabilities. They also teach basic skills to students with severe disabilities.

Duties

Special education teachers typically do the following:

  • Assess students’ skills and determine their educational needs
  • Adapt general lessons to meet students’ needs
  • Develop Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) for each student
  • Plan activities that are specific to each student’s abilities
  • Teach and mentor students as a class, in small groups, and one-on-one
  • Implement IEPs, assess students’ performance, and track their progress
  • Update IEPs throughout the school year to reflect students’ progress and goals
  • Discuss students’ progress with parents, other teachers, counselors, and administrators
  • Supervise and mentor teacher assistants who work with students with disabilities
  • Prepare and help students transition from grade to grade and from school to life outside of school

Special education teachers work with students from preschool to high school. They instruct students who have mental, emotional, physical, or learning disabilities. For example, some help students develop study skills, such as highlighting text and using flashcards. Others work with students who have physical disabilities and may use a wheelchair or other adaptive devices. Still others work with students who have sensory disabilities, such as visual or hearing impairments. They also may work with those who have autism spectrum disorders or emotional disorders, such as anxiety and depression.

Special education teachers work with general education teachers, specialists, administrators, and parents to develop IEPs. Students’ IEPs outline their goals, including academic or behavioral milestones, and services they are to receive, such as speech therapy. Educators and parents also meet to discuss updates and changes to IEPs.

Special education teachers must be comfortable using and learning new technology. Most use computers to keep records of their students’ performance, prepare lesson plans, and update IEPs. Some teachers also use assistive technology aids, such as Braille writers and computer software, that help them communicate with their students.

Special education teachers’ duties vary by their work setting, students’ disabilities, and specialties.

Some special education teachers work in classrooms or resource centers that include only students with disabilities. In these settings, teachers plan, adapt, and present lessons to meet each student’s needs. They teach students individually or in small groups.

In inclusive classrooms, special education teachers instruct students with disabilities who are in general education classrooms. They work with general education teachers to adapt lessons so that students with disabilities can more easily understand them.

Some special education teachers work with students who have moderate to severe disabilities. These teachers help students, who may be eligible for services until age 21, develop basic life skills. Some teach the skills necessary for students with moderate disabilities to live independently, find a job, and manage money and their time. For more information about other workers who help individuals with disabilities develop skills necessary to live independently, see the profiles on occupational therapists and occupational therapy assistants and aides.

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Work Environment

Special education teachers held about 437,200 jobs in 2018. Employment in the detailed occupations that make up special education teachers was distributed as follows:

Special education teachers, kindergarten and elementary school                                     184,300
Special education teachers, secondary school 142,000
Special education teachers, middle school 86,800
Special education teachers, preschool 24,000

The largest employers of special education teachers were as follows:

Elementary and secondary schools; local 86%
Elementary and secondary schools; private                                                                       8

A small number of special education teachers work with students in residential facilities, hospitals, and the students’ homes. They may travel to these locations. Some teachers work with infants and toddlers at the child’s home. They teach the child’s parents ways to help the child develop skills.

Helping students with disabilities may be rewarding. It also can be stressful, emotionally demanding, and physically draining.

Work Schedules

Special education teachers typically work during school hours. In addition to providing instruction during this time, they grade papers, update students’ records, and prepare lessons. They may meet with parents, students, and other teachers or specialists before and after classes.

Many work the traditional 10-month school year and have a 2-month break during the summer. They also have a short midwinter break. Some teachers work in summer programs.

Teachers in districts with a year-round schedule typically work 9 weeks in a row and then are on break for 3 weeks.

Education and Training

Special education teachers in public schools are required to have at least a bachelor’s degree and a state-issued certification or license. Private schools typically require teachers to have a bachelor’s degree, but the teachers are not required to be licensed or certified.

Education

All states require special education teachers in public schools to have at least a bachelor’s degree. Some require teachers to earn a degree specifically in special education. Others allow them to major in elementary education or a content area, such as math or science, and pursue a minor in special education.

In a program leading to a bachelor’s degree in special education, prospective teachers learn about the different types of disabilities and how to present information so that students will understand. Programs typically include a student-teaching program, in which prospective teachers work with a mentor and get experience instructing students in a classroom setting. To become fully certified, states may require special education teachers to complete a master’s degree in special education after obtaining a job.

Private schools typically require teachers to have at least a bachelor’s degree in special education.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

All states require teachers in public schools to be licensed in the specific grade level that they teach. A license frequently is referred to as a certification. Those who teach in private schools typically do not need to be licensed.

Requirements for certification or licensure can vary by state but generally involve the following:

  • A bachelor’s degree with a minimum grade point average
  • Completion of a student-teaching program
  • Passing a background check
  • Passing a general teaching certification test, as well as a test that demonstrates knowledge of the subject the candidate will teach

For information about teacher preparation programs and certification requirements, visit Teach.org or contact your state’s board of education.

All states offer an alternative route to certification or licensure for people who already have a bachelor’s degree. These alternative programs cover teaching methods and child development. Candidates are awarded full certification after they complete the program. Other alternative programs require prospective teachers to take classes in education before they can start to teach. Teachers may be awarded a master’s degree after completing either type of program.

Advancement

Experienced teachers may advance to become mentors who help less experienced teachers improve their instructional skills. They also may become lead teachers.

Teachers may become school counselors, instructional coordinators, and elementary, middle, and high school principals. These positions generally require additional education, an advanced degree, or certification. An advanced degree in education administration or leadership may be helpful.

Personality and Interests

Special education teachers typically have an interest in the Creating and Helping interest areas, according to the Holland Code framework. The Creating interest area indicates a focus on being original and imaginative, and working with artistic media. The Helping interest area indicates a focus on assisting, serving, counseling, or teaching other people.

If you are not sure whether you have a Creating or Helping interest which might fit with a career as a special education teacher, you can take a career test to measure your interests.

Special education teachers should also possess the following specific qualities:

Communication skills. Special education teachers discuss student’s needs and performances with general education teachers, parents, and administrators. They also explain difficult concepts in terms that students with learning disabilities can understand.

Critical-thinking skills. Special education teachers assess students’ progress and use that information to adapt lessons to help them learn.

Interpersonal skills. Special education teachers regularly work with general education teachers, school counselors, administrators, and parents to develop Individualized Education Programs. As a result, they need to be able to build positive working relationships.

Patience. Working with students with special needs and different abilities can be difficult. Special education teachers should be patient with each student, as some may need the instruction given aloud, at a slower pace, or in writing.                                  

Resourcefulness. Special education teachers must develop different ways to present information in a manner that meets the needs of their students. They also help general education teachers adapt their lessons to the needs of students with disabilities.

Pay

The median annual wage for special education teachers was $61,030 in May 2019. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $40,730, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $98,530.

Median annual wages for special education teachers in May 2019 were as follows:

Special education teachers, secondary school $61,710
Special education teachers, middle school 61,440
Special education teachers, kindergarten and elementary school                         60,460
Special education teachers, preschool 60,000

In May 2019, the median annual wages for special education teachers in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

Elementary and secondary schools; local $61,620
Elementary and secondary schools; private                                                         53,560

Special education teachers typically work during school hours. In addition to providing instruction during this time, they grade papers, update students’ records, and prepare lessons. They may meet with parents, students, and other teachers or specialists before and after classes.

Many work the traditional 10-month school year and have a 2-month break during the summer. They also have a short midwinter break. Some teachers work in summer programs.

Teachers in districts with a year-round schedule typically work 9 weeks in a row and then are on break for 3 weeks.

Job Outlook

Overall employment of special education teachers is projected to grow 3 percent from 2018 to 2028, slower than the average for all occupations. Demand will be driven by school enrollments and the need for special education services.

Demand for special education services and teachers should rise as disabilities are being identified earlier and as children with disabilities are enrolled into special education programs. 

Federal laws require that every state must maintain the same level of financial support for special education every year. This reduces the threat of employment layoffs due to state or federal budget constraints. However, employment growth may depend on increases in funding.

For More Information

For more information about special education teachers, visit

Council for Exceptional Children

Personnel Improvement Center

National Association of Special Education Teachers

For more information about teaching and becoming a teacher, visit

Teach.org

American Federation of Teachers

National Education Association

 

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