Special education teachers work with students who have a wide range of learning, mental, emotional, and physical disabilities. They adapt general education lessons and teach various subjects, such as reading, writing, and math, to students with mild and moderate disabilities. They also teach basic skills, such as literacy and communication techniques, to students with severe disabilities.


Special education teachers typically do the following:

  • Assess students’ skills to determine their needs and to develop teaching plans
  • Adapt lessons to meet the needs of students
  • Develop Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) for each student
  • Plan, organize, and assign 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 student’s progress with parents, 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 after graduation

Special education teachers work as part of a team that typically includes general education teachers, counselors, school superintendents, and parents. As a team, they develop individualized educational programs (IEPs) specific to each student’s needs. IEPs outline goals and services for each student, such as sessions with the school psychologists, counselors, and special education teachers. Teachers also meet with parents, school administrators, and counselors to discuss updates and changes to the IEPs.

Special education teachers’ duties vary by the type of setting they work in, student disabilities, and teacher specialty.

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

Students with disabilities may attend classes with general education students, also known as inclusive classrooms. In these settings, special education teachers may spend a portion of the day teaching classes together with general education teachers. They help present the information in a manner that students with disabilities can more easily understand. They also assist general education teachers to adapt lessons that will meet the needs of the students with disabilities in their classes.

Special education teachers also collaborate with teacher assistants, psychologists, and social workers, to accommodate requirements of students with disabilities. For example, they may show a teacher assistant how to work with a student who needs particular attention.

Special education teachers work with students who have a wide variety of mental, emotional, physical, and learning disabilities. For example, some work with students who need assistance in subject areas, such as reading and math. Others help students develop study skills, such as using flashcards and text highlighting.

Some special education teachers work with students who have physical and sensory disabilities, such as blindness and deafness, and with students who are wheelchair-bound. They may also work with those who have autism spectrum disorders and emotional disorders, such as anxiety and depression.

Special education teachers work with students from preschool to high school. Some teachers work with students who have severe disabilities until the students are 21 years old.

Special education teachers help students with severe disabilities develop basic life skills, such as how to respond to questions and how to follow directions. Some teach students with moderate disabilities the skills necessary to live independently to find a job, such as managing money and 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.

Most special education teachers use computers to keep records of their students’ performance, prepare lesson plans, and update IEPs. Some teachers also use various assistive technology aids, such as Braille writers and computer software that helps them communicate with students.

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Work Environment

Special education teachers held about 442,800 jobs in 2012.

Most special education teachers work in public schools. Some teach in magnet, charter, and private schools. Some also work with young children in childcare centers.

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

Helping students with disabilities can be highly rewarding. It also can be quite stressful—emotionally demanding and physically draining.

Work Schedules

Special education teachers typically work during school hours. They also use that time to grade papers, update students’ records, and prepare lessons. They may meet with parents, students, and other teachers before and after classes.

Many work the traditional 10-month school year, with a 2-month break during the summer. Teachers in districts with a year-round schedule typically work 8 weeks in a row, are on break for 1 week, and have a 5-week midwinter break.

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 teachers are not required to be licensed or certified. For information about teacher preparation programs and certification requirements, visit Teach.org—previously known as Teacher Education and Compensation Help, or contact your state’s board of education.


All states require special education teachers in public schools to have at least a bachelor’s degree. Some of these teachers major in elementary education or a content area, such as math or chemistry, and minor in special education. Others complete a degree specifically 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. These programs typically include fieldwork, such as student teaching. Some states require special education teachers to complete a master’s degree in special education, to become fully certified.

Teachers in private schools do not need to meet state requirements. However, private schools may prefer to hire teachers who have at least a bachelor’s degree in special education.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

All states require teachers in public schools to be licensed. A license is frequently referred to as a certification. Those who teach in private schools are not required to be licensed.

Requirements for certification vary by state. However, all states require at least a bachelor’s degree. They also require completing a teacher preparation program and supervised experience in teaching. Some states require a minimum grade point average. Most states require teachers to pass a background check. Teachers may be required to complete annual professional development classes or a master’s degree to maintain their license.

Many states offer general licenses in special education that allow teachers to work with students with a variety of disabilities. Others offer licenses or endorsements based on a disability specific category, such as autism or behavior disorders.

Some states allow special education teachers to transfer their licenses from another state. Other states require even an experienced teacher to pass their state’s licensing requirements.

All states offer an alternative route to certification for people who already have a bachelor’s degree. Some alternative certification programs allow candidates to begin teaching immediately, under the close supervision of an experienced teacher.

These alternative programs cover teaching methods and child development. Candidates are awarded full certification after they complete the program. Other programs require prospective teachers to take classes in education before they can start to teach. They may be awarded a master’s degree after completing either type of program. For more information about alternative certification programs, contact the Teach-Now.


Some special education teachers need to complete a period of fieldwork, commonly referred to as student teaching, before they can work as a teacher. In some states, this program is a prerequisite for a license to teach in public schools. During student teaching, they gain experience in preparing lessons and teaching students in a classroom setting, under the supervision and guidance of a mentor teacher. The amount of time required for these programs varies by state, but may last from 1 to 2 years. Many universities offer student teaching programs as part of a degree in special education.


Experienced teachers can advance to become mentor or lead teachers who help less experienced teachers improve their teaching skills.

Teachers may become school counselors, instructional coordinators, assistant principals, or principals. These positions generally require additional education, 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.


The median annual wage for special education teachers was $55,060 in May 2012. 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 $36,740, and the top 10 percent earned more than $87,390.

The median annual wages for special education teachers by grade level in May 2012 were as follows:

  • $56,830 for special education teachers, secondary school
  • $55,780 for special education teachers, middle school
  • $53,820 for special education teachers, kindergarten and elementary school
  • $52,480 for special education teachers, preschool

Special education teachers typically work school hours. They may meet with parents, students, and other teachers before and after classes. They also use this time to grade papers, complete paperwork, and prepare lessons.

Many work the traditional 10-month school year, with a 2-month break during the summer. Some teachers may work for summer programs. Teachers in districts with a year-round schedule typically work 8 weeks in a row, are on break for 1 week, and have a 5-week midwinter break.                                  

Union Membership

Most special education teachers belonged to a union in 2012.

Job Outlook

Employment of special education teachers is projected to grow 6 percent from 2012 to 2022, slower than the average for all occupations. The employment growth of special education teachers will vary by type. (See table below.) However, overall demand will be driven by increasing enrollment and continued need for special education services.

Better screening and identification of various disabilities in children are expected to increase the demand for special education services. In addition, children with disabilities are being identified earlier and enrolled into special education programs, increasing the need for special education teachers in preschool and kindergarten grades.

Compliance with laws requiring free public education for students with disabilities should result in some jobs. As school districts continue to use inclusive classrooms, special education teachers will be needed to assist general education teachers to work with students who have disabilities.

However, overall employment growth of special education teachers will depend on government funding. When state and local governments experience budget deficits, school districts may close or consolidate some schools and lay off employees, including special education teachers. As a result, employment growth will likely be limited by tight government budgets.

Job Prospects

Many job opportunities will stem from the need to replace teachers who leave the occupation each year.

Because helping students with disabilities can be quite stressful—emotionally demanding and physically draining—many schools have difficulties recruiting and retaining special education teachers. As a result, special education teachers should have good job opportunities. Job opportunities may be even better in parts of the country with higher enrollment rates, such as in the South, West, and rural areas.

Job opportunities also may be better in certain specialties, such experience with early childhood intervention and skills in working with students who have multiple disabilities, severe disabilities, or autism spectrum disorders.

For More Information

For more information about special education teachers, visit

Council for Exceptional Children

Personnel Improvement Center

For more information about teaching and becoming a teacher, visit


American Federation of Teachers

National Education Association

For more information about alternative certification programs, visit



Where does this information come from?

The career information above is taken from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook. This excellent resource for occupational data is published by the U.S. Department of Labor every two years. Truity periodically updates our site with information from the BLS database.

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This information is taken directly from the Occupational Outlook Handbook published by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Truity does not editorialize the information, including changing information that our readers believe is inaccurate, because we consider the BLS to be the authority on occupational information. However, if you would like to correct a typo or other technical error, you can reach us at help@truity.com.

I am not sure if this career is right for me. How can I decide?

There are many excellent tools available that will allow you to measure your interests, profile your personality, and match these traits with appropriate careers. We recommend the Career Personality Profiler assessment ($29), the Holland Code assessment ($19), or the Photo Career Quiz (free).

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