Special Education Teacher: Education, Career Paths and Job Outlook

Learn about becoming a special education teacher, possible career paths, and the job outlook for the next decade.
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Updated on May 9, 2024
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Research shows approximately 7.3 million students with disabilities attend public K-12 schools. They make up about 15% of the total enrollment, increasing from 13% (6.4 million) over the past decade.

Special education teachers play a crucial role in today's education system. They create inclusive learning environments and empower students to succeed.

A special education teacher works with students with disabilities who require specialized accommodations. These students may experience physical, emotional, behavioral, or learning difficulties, such as:

  • Disorders involving intellectual disabilities, such as Down syndrome
  • Learning disabilities like dyslexia, dyscalculia, or dysgraphia
  • Emotional and behavioral disorders, including social withdrawal, anxiety, depression, and more

This guide discusses special education teachers' education, training and career paths.

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What Is a Special Education Teacher?

A special education teacher specializes in instruction and support for students with disabilities. Special education teachers create inclusive learning environments, address social and behavioral skills, and assess student progress. Their primary goal is to empower students with disabilities to succeed academically and socially.

Special education teachers also collaborate with students, parents, and educators to create individualized education plans (IEPs). Each plan modifies curriculum materials to suit each student's specific requirements. This effort requires advocating for disabled students and coordinating with related service providers to ensure comprehensive support.

How to Become a Special Education Teacher

There are a few ways to start a career as a special education teacher, depending on the type of career you want. Typically, to become a teacher assistant or work on the support staff, you need a two-year degree. To become a teacher, you need a four-year degree and teacher certification.

People with associate degrees in special education often work as teacher assistants or support staff in schools. A bachelor's degree in special education prepares you for many different careers. Besides teaching, you can also be a director at a preschool or childcare center. Administrative or curriculum development roles often require a master's degree.

Specific education requirements vary by state and public and private schools. Some states require teachers to earn a degree in special education. Others allow you to major in education or another subject, like math or science, and minor in special education.

Public school teachers usually need at least a bachelor's degree and state certification or licensing. Private schools usually require a bachelor's degree, but not do not always require a licensing or certification.

Associate Degree in Special Education

Associate programs in special education usually require 60 credits and two years of full-time study. These programs typically focus on understanding disability populations and developing strategies to support their learning and development.

The coursework may cover topics such as inclusive education, behavior management, assessment techniques, and how to collaborate with families. You may also study legal and ethical considerations in special education.

Bachelor's Degree in Special Education

A bachelor's degree in special education usually requires 120-180 credits and takes four years of full-time study. These degree programs provide comprehensive education. Students learn about different disabilities, like learning disabilities, autism, intellectual disabilities, and emotional/behavioral disorders.

They learn about inclusive education, IEPs, behavior management, assistive technology, and differentiated instruction. Practical experiences and field placements are often included to provide hands-on training.

Master's Degree in Special Education

Earning a master's degree in special education can help you qualify for a promotion or salary increase. You can go after higher positions like instructional coordinator or school principal. It also gives you the power to pursue more specific roles, such as academic counselor.

Master's programs in special education may include topics such as teaching strategies for students with disabilities, integrating exceptional learners into regular classrooms, and evaluating special education behavior.

Students in master's programs may also take a series of classes in research design and analysis, preparing them to incorporate research into their practice or continue their education at the doctoral level.

Certifications and/or Licensure

The requirements for becoming a certified teacher vary by state. Most teachers begin their careers with an apprentice or provisional teaching license, which is valid for 1-3 years.

Some states may allow educators to renew their beginner license once. After that, they must qualify for a professional teaching license.

A professional license may require graduate courses in special education. It may also require professional development programs.

The American Academy of Special Education Professionals offers board certification in special education. This voluntary professional credential recognizes your commitment to education for exceptional children. This certification requires a relevant master's degree and five advanced professional development courses.

The International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards offers an autism certificate for educators. The certificate specializes in autism spectrum disorder. Applicants need to finish 14 credits for autism education. They also have to pass a competency exam and pay a fee. Renewal requires ongoing education.

Special Education Teacher Career Paths

Special education degree programs usually offer several study options for students. These options can lead to the career path that aligns with your personal. For example, you can choose to work with certain age groups. Or, you could work in support areas that enhance student education.

Early Intervention

An early intervention concentration focuses on helping children with developmental delays or disabilities from birth to age five. These professionals help children with communication, motor skills, thinking, and emotions. They can assess, make personalized education plans, teach parents, and collaborate with other education professionals.

Elementary Education

An elementary education specialization focuses on teaching and supporting children with disabilities in elementary school settings. They provide personalized instruction, accommodations, and support for students with disabilities.

These disabilities may include learning disabilities, autism spectrum disorder, or intellectual disabilities. Elementary special education teachers learn about inclusive classrooms, behavior management, and adaptive instruction.

Secondary Education

A secondary education concentration teaches students with disabilities in grades 6-12. This concentration prepares students to teach specific subjects like English, math, science, social studies, or foreign languages. It may also emphasize the importance of inclusive classrooms.

Special Education Technology

Teachers in this concentration use technology to assist students with disabilities. Different tools and programs can make learning easier. These include software programs, mobile applications, and communication devices.

A special education technology concentration teaches you how to choose and adapt tools to meet the needs of students. For example, some students may perform better when presented with information on screens instead of in books.

Gifted Education

Special education also encompasses instruction provided to gifted learners. Students who select this focus can learn about fast-paced curricula, condensed lessons, and identifying and evaluating gifted students. They can also learn about opportunities for gifted students, like advanced classes and enrichment programs.

Career Outlook for Special Education Teachers

The career outlook for teachers in special education is generally positive. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), special education teachers earned a median annual wage of $62,950 in May 2022. Although employment rates are not expected to rise, there are about 33,500 job openings each year for special education teachers.

Career Outlook for Special Education Teachers
Job Title Average Base Salary (April 2024) Typical Entry-Level Degree
Special Education Paraprofessional $22,516 Associate Degree
Teacher Assistant $26,317 Associate Degree
Special Education Teacher $53,393 Bachelor's Degree
Educational Specialist $58,354* Bachelor's Degree
Director of Special Education $83,582 Master's Degree
Source: Payscale
*As of March 2024

Frequently Asked Questions About Special Education Teachers

What challenges do special education teachers face?

Special education teachers face several unique challenges in their field. Some teachers struggle adapting to students who need individualized attention or specialized instruction. Managing behavior can be tough when students exhibit challenging behaviors. These behaviors may result from difficulties in communication or self-regulation.

What skills do special education teachers need?

Patience, creativity, and empathy are key for working with children with disabilities. Special education teachers must know behavior intervention, positive reinforcement, and de-escalation. These strategies address challenging behaviors. Special education teachers must also understand the Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and other relevant laws and regulations that govern special education.

What else can I do with a special education degree?

A special education degree gives you career options outside of the classroom. You can pursue curriculum development, education administration, or early intervention. Also, special education graduates find work with state and federal agencies. They may also work for residential care facilities, rehabilitation hospitals, and nonprofit organizations.

Note: The insights on this page — excluding school descriptions — were reviewed by an independent third party compensated for their time by BestColleges. Page last reviewed December 13, 2023.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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