Special education teachers work with students who have a wide range of learning, mental, emotional, and physical disabilities.
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.
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.
How to Become One
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.
To research schools and programs in Special Education, click here.
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
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.
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.1
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.2
- U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook
- U.S. Department of Labor, Career One Stop
Links and Resources for Special Education
National Association of Special Education Teachers - The National Association of Special Education Teachers (NASET) is a national membership organization dedicated to rendering all possible support and assistance to those preparing for or teaching in the field of special education. NASET was founded to promote the profession of special education teachers and to provide a national forum for their ideas.
Autism Society of America -We provide advocacy, education, information and referral, support, and community at national, state and local levels through our strong nationwide network of Affiliates.
The Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps (TASH) - TASH is an international leader in disability advocacy. Founded in 1975, TASH advocates for human rights and inclusion for people with significant disabilities and support needs – those most vulnerable to segregation, abuse, neglect and institutionalization. TASH works to advance inclusive communities through advocacy, research, professional development, policy, and information and resources for parents, families and self-advocates. The inclusive practices TASH validates through research have been shown to improve outcomes for all people.
International Dyslexia Association (IDA) - The International Dyslexia Association (IDA) is the oldest organization dedicated to the study and treatment of dyslexia. It is also committed to providing complete information and services to address the full scope of dyslexia and related reading and writing challenges.
National Organization on Disabilities - The National Organization on Disability (NOD) increases employment opportunities for Americans with disabilities. Our programs and services enable companies to realize the competitive advantages of hiring people with disabilities.
Council For Exceptional Children (CEC) - The Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) is the largest international professional organization dedicated to improving the educational success of children and youth with disabilities and/or gifts and talents.
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