Special education teachers work with students who have a wide range of learning, mental, emotional, and physical disabilities.
What they do
Special education teachers 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. They 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.
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.
How to become a Special Education Teacher
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.
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.
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.
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.
Overall employment of special education teachers is projected to grow 3 percent from 2019 to 2029, about as fast as the average for all occupations. Employment of preschool education teachers is projected to grow 8 percent from 2019 to 2029, much faster than the average for all occupations. However, because it is a small occupation, the fast growth will result in only about 1,900 new jobs over the 10-year period. Demand will be driven by school enrollments and the need for special education services.
Similar Job Titles
Exceptional Children Teacher (EC Teacher), Exceptional Student Education Teacher (ESE Teacher), Inclusion Teacher, Intervention Specialist, Learning Support Teacher, Middle School Special Education Teacher, Self-Contained Special Education Teacher, Special Education Resource Teacher, Special Education Teacher, Early Childhood Special Educator (EC Special Educator), Emotional Disabilities Teacher, Hearing Impaired Itinerant Teacher (HI Itinerant Teacher), Learning Support Teacher, Resource Program Teacher, Severe Emotional Disorders Elementary Teacher (SED Elementary Teacher), Severe/Profound Mental Handicaps Special Education Teacher, Special Education Inclusion Teacher, Career and Transition Teacher, High School Special Education Teacher, Interrelated Special Education Teacher, Learning Disabilities Special Education Teacher (LD Special Education Teacher), Resource Teacher, Special Day Class Teacher (SDC Teacher)
Elementary School Teacher (except Special Education), Middle School Teacher (except Special and Career/Technical Education), Secondary School Teacher (except Special and Career/Technical Education), Adult Basic and Secondary Education and Literacy Teachers and Instructors
The trade associations listed below represent organizations made up of people (members) who work and promote advancement in the field. Members are very interested in telling others about their work and about careers in those areas. As well, trade associations provide opportunities for organizational networking and learning more about the field’s trends and directions.
- Alpha Delta Kappa International Honorary Organization for Women Educators
- American Speech-Language-Hearing Association
- Council for Exceptional Children
- Council for Learning Disabilities
- Council of Administrators of Special Education
- International Dyslexia Association
- International Literacy Association
- Kappa Delta Pi, International Honor Society in Education
- National Association of State Directors of Special Education
Magazines and Publications
With patience, resourcefulness and strong communication skills, special education teachers create a positive learning environment for students with special needs. Special education teachers work with students who have learning, mental, emotional, and physical disabilities. They teach reading, writing, and math, and—for students with severe disabilities— they also teach communication and basic life skills. A special education teacher begins by developing an Individualized Education Program for each student, then implementing it and tracking student progress. Communicating with parents, counselors, other teachers, and administrators helps ensure they meet students’ needs. Tasks vary based on the student’s needs; teachers might develop flashcards for a student with hearing loss, facilitate a small group to teach collaboration for a project, or create a quiet corner for students with autism. Many use assistive technology to communicate with students. Most special education teachers work in public schools, with students ranging from preschool through high school. They generally work during school hours, following the traditional 10-month school year schedule. The work can be highly rewarding, but also emotionally demanding and physically draining. Special education teachers need a bachelor’s degree in special education or in an education-related field; or a content area, such as math or science with a minor in special education. A license is required to teach in public schools. States may offer a general license in special education, or disability-specific credentials, such as autism or behavior disorders.
Content retrieved from: US Bureau of Labor Statistics-OOH www.bls.gov/ooh,
CareerOneStop www.careeronestop.org, O*Net Online www.onetonline.org