The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that employment opportunities for special education teachers will increase by 9% from 2016 to 2026, slightly faster than the projected rate of growth for the rest of the economy. In 2018, special education teachers earned a median salary of $59,780, roughly $21,000 more than the median pay for all other occupations.
Most special education teaching positions require a bachelor's, though you can serve in some entry-level support roles with just an associate degree. All special education teachers working within public schools must hold state-issued licensure or certification.
This page provides an overview of careers in special education, including information on education and licensure requirements, a listing of common degree program concentrations, and advice on finding a job after graduation. It also features an interview with a former special education teacher and current university professor.
Skills Gained in a Special Education Program
Special education teachers and other professionals must possess a diverse skill set to serve the unique needs of their students. For example, teachers and aides who work with blind learners typically must be fluent in the Braille writing system, while those who work with deaf students may need to learn American Sign Language. Undergraduate and graduate programs focus on strategies to help future special education teachers make appropriate accommodations for learners with various challenges.
- Curriculum Design
Special education programs teach students the fundamentals of curriculum development, including needs analysis, objective design, and assessment. They also emphasize the importance of "universal design for learning," or the creation of curricula that give all students an equal opportunity to engage with the course material and learn core concepts.
Providing instruction for special needs students requires unique strategies and approaches. For example, many special education teachers now work in inclusive classrooms and must know how to modify lesson plans and instructional moves for students with mental, physical, or emotional disabilities.
Special education teachers need strong communication skills to explain concepts to learners with differing abilities. They also need excellent writing skills for drafting individualized education programs (IEPs) and progress reports for other teachers, school administrators, social workers, and parents.
- Interpersonal Skill
Collaboration plays an important role in the work of special education teachers and paraprofessionals. When writing IEPs, teachers often must interview the student, the parents or guardians, and other educators. They also need to build and maintain positive working relationships with all interested parties to effectively implement IEPs.
- Resource Facilitation
Special education teachers often must leverage outside resources to ensure students receive an adequate education and appropriate support. They may direct families to government sources of financial assistance or to nonprofit organizations that offer supplementary out-of-school learning opportunities. Special education programs equip future teachers with the knowledge and skills needed to forge these connections.
Why Pursue a Career in Special Education?
Special education careers can be stressful and challenging, but they are also exceptionally rewarding for those who wish to ensure that all students, regardless of their mental or physical abilities, have access to high-quality education.
In addition, the field of special education offers above-average salaries and ample opportunity for advancement. According to the BLS, special education teachers earned a median salary of $59,780 in 2018. The top 10% of earners, typically those with an advanced degree and several years of professional experience, earned more than $97,070 that same year.
With additional schooling, special education teachers may advance into even more lucrative roles in administration. For example, some teachers may aspire to develop curricula, teaching standards, and instructional guides specifically for students with disabilities. Instructional coordinators earned a median salary of $64,450 in 2018, with the BLS projecting that demand for these professionals will grow by 11% from 2016 to 2026.
Some special education teachers may hope to become principals or school district administrators, applying their knowledge of universal design and inclusive education to support the learning of all students. In 2018, school principals earned a median salary of $95,310.
How Much Do Special Education Graduates Make?
Your expected salary level depends on the special education career path you choose. For example, special education teachers working in public schools earn, on average, roughly $8,000 more per year than those working in private schools. Special education teachers working in secondary schools make approximately $5,000 more per year than those who teach in preschools.
Note that specialized and supervisory roles in special education may also require a master's degree and multiple years of professional experience.
Dr. Reesha Adamson
Dr. Reesha Adamson is an associate professor in the department of counseling, leadership and special education at Missouri State University in Springfield, Missouri. Previously, Dr. Adamson worked as a special education teacher in a K-5 classroom for students with emotional and behavioral disorders, as an educational provider within a juvenile justice center, and as a districtwide behavioral specialist. She has also worked as the project coordinator for the Center for Adolescent Research in Schools in Missouri.
- Why did you choose to pursue a career in special education? Was it something you were always interested in?
I have always known that I wanted to teach. I was raised by teachers, and there is a long history of educators in our family. However, my specific interest in special education came in high school, when I was placed at a local elementary school to fulfill hours. I was put in a classroom for students with challenging behaviors and was immediately drawn to their emotional needs. I saw the complex balance of providing academic and behavioral skills and felt that I had an internal knack for reaching these students on all levels.
I then went to college and got dual certification in elementary and special education to ensure that this was the pathway I wanted to be on. It was at college that I took my first behavior modification class and became hooked on the principles of behavior management and applied behavior analysis techniques to shape behavior. Working with challenging kids who combine a mixture of mental health and behavioral needs is where I have always felt my calling and love challenging myself to help them overcome whatever obstacles they may have to be successful.
- Why did you decide to move into teaching special education courses at the higher education level?
I was working as a classroom special education teacher for the most challenging students within the school district and started wanting more knowledge. I was lucky to have a university close by that had one of the leading experts within the field for challenging behaviors. He worked closely with my school and district to assist in developing multileveled systems of support, and I was immediately drawn to the knowledge base and information that he had. I was learning constantly from his guidance with our school, and when he approached me about the option to get my doctorate under his guidance, I was excited about the opportunity. One of my passions as a teacher was always to help educate my fellow teachers in behavioral strategies for student success, and I believed that a doctorate would allow me to impact pre-service and in-service teachers to combine my passion for improving outcomes among students and my desire to be a lifelong learner myself.
- What are some of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of a career in special education?
Being a special educator is hard. The typical response is that it takes a “special person” to do that kind of work, but in reality, it takes someone who is willing to put his/her own feelings and emotions aside and do what is best for kids. You may think that we are “special people,” but in fact the kids are special. They are the untapped potential who need someone to believe in them and support them throughout all of their challenges and through their own personal ups and downs. Children need someone who is willing to ride the wave with them and travel down a pathway of uncertainty and risk.
Creating an environment of support and guidance is a special educator’s role, and we are working side by side with our students to be successful. Put mental health needs and behavioral challenges on top of that, and you typically have a child who thrives on trust and relationships but may have experienced these only on occasion. We are in special education to help children, and some days it's harder than others. I always say that adults are much more challenging to work with than kids. Helping kids learn and succeed is better than any other “win” you can have!
I also believe it has to be noted that the intrinsic rewards from being a special educator are plenty, but the extrinsic are few and far between. We are often overlooked as members of school teams, and we spend significantly long hours on our classrooms and paperwork that can overshadow our personal lives in addition to countless hours of preparation to ensure that we are supporting each student on his/her own individualized level. This can be something that is challenging in itself, and we do all of this for inadequate pay and with inadequate resources. It is a challenge that while many of our states around the country have begun expressing concerns, even after strikes and pay raises, education remains an undervalued field.
- What are some of the most crucial skills that you believe individuals pursuing a career in special education should have?
I believe empathy is critical. As an educator, you are working with kids who many times have very different backgrounds from your own and families that may have had their own challenges with the educational system. It’s important to look at the situation from a vantage point other than your own; this can typically give you a better understanding of why things are the way they are for everyone else involved. I also believe that being consistent is a needed skill, especially when working with students with challenging behaviors. Students need to know who you are deep in your core and know that you are consistently there for them -- even when mistakes happen. You are there through the good times and the bad to support students and help them overcome their challenges.
- What advice would you give to individuals who are considering pursuing a career in special education?
I believe the most critical advice I would give is to walk away at the end of the day. There is always going to be another task you can complete and another project to work on, but it is important to have a balance in your life. Burnout is real, and it is something that plagues education as a whole. There will be some nights when you do have to stay late or a weekend that you have to come in, but make those happen on occasion, not as the norm. I have always encouraged students to plan their time wisely during the day. Use it to make yourself successful and to do just that … plan!
Also, stay out of the teacher’s lounge. These areas can potentially be hazardous, as individuals will gossip and talk about “problems.” Our special education students are not immune to these conversations, and it can have a dramatic impact on your mental health if you are hearing more concerns than you really need to be. If someone has a concern, let him/her come to you. It will be more purposeful, and the individual will be telling you something he/she thinks you need to know, not something just because he/she saw you.
Lastly, I would tell students that they have chosen a career that will be one of the most rewarding in their lives, but they need to find a group of individuals who know and understand what they are doing and can ride the waves with them. I found my people in an organization that supports students with emotional and behavioral disorders, and some people find them with a spouse or colleagues, but no matter where you find them, you need them -- to share the joys and the sorrows, to raise you up and celebrate, but also to help you find a room to cry in when emotions get to be too much!
- Any final thoughts for us?
I love being a special education teacher and could not imagine any other job. I also love helping to create the next generation of teachers. We are at a unique crux where we have the ability to change perceptions about education and educators through policy and activism. I’m excited to see the next generations and what they can accomplish to continue fighting for equal rights and supporting the individual with whatever special needs and supports they may have.
How to Become a Special Education Teacher
Earn Your Degree
All special education teachers working in public schools must have some form of state-issued license or certification. While licensure requirements vary, all states mandate that special education teachers hold at least a bachelor's degree.
Some states may specifically require that teachers earn a bachelor's in special education, while others allow special education teachers to major in elementary education, secondary education, or a content area like math or science. Undergraduate programs in special education combine classroom instruction with structured and experiential learning opportunities often referred to as student teaching.
Through alternative pathways, learners who have earned a bachelor's degree in a field unrelated to education, such as political science, may qualify for licensure by completing supplementary coursework in teaching methods and child development. They also typically need to work under the close supervision of an experienced teacher for at least one year.
Some roles in special education may require an advanced degree. For example, instructional coordinators and school principals usually need a master's degree in a relevant field. A master's may also help you qualify for positions like teacher leader or department chair. Finally, if you hope to teach or conduct special education research at a college or university, you will likely need to earn a doctoral degree.
How Many Years of College Does It Take to Become a Special Education Teacher?
Most bachelor's programs in special education consist of 120 credits, which full-time students can complete in four years. Some online undergraduate programs offer accelerated tracks that allow you to finish your studies in less time. Part-time students may need up to eight years to meet all of their program's graduation requirements. All degree programs require learners to complete a student teaching component under the supervision of an experienced special education professional.
Master's programs usually require one year of full-time study. Doctoral students may need 4-7 years to earn their degree, depending on how much time they devote to researching and writing their dissertation.
Concentrations Available for Special Education Majors
- Early Intervention
- Special education students concentrating in early intervention typically train to work with children from birth to age five. They may learn to identify signs of early developmental disabilities, educate families on providing proper support to children with physical disorders like cerebral palsy, or conduct early childhood research.
- Elementary Education
- A specialization in elementary education prepares teachers to work with children in preschool, kindergarten, and elementary school. Coursework in this area often covers subjects such as customizing instruction for students with special needs, understanding special education law and policy, and recognizing specific learning challenges that emerge in early life.
- Secondary Education
- Students who concentrate in secondary education learn how to instruct youth in middle and high school. They must often master curriculum design and instructional skills across multiple content areas, though some special education teachers focus specifically on a subject like math, reading, or science. This concentration may also emphasize the importance of inclusive classrooms.
- Special Education Technology
- Some aspiring teachers study the tools and technologies that support learners with special needs. For example, students with dyslexia often perform better when presented with information on-screen instead of in books. Thus, special education teachers may benefit from incorporating the use of smartphones and tablets into their lesson plans.
- Gifted Education
- Special education also encompasses instruction provided to gifted learners. Degree candidates who choose this concentration may study subjects such as accelerated curricula, compacting lessons, and gifted student identification and assessment. They may also study resources available to particularly talented students, such as advanced placement classes and after-school enrichment programs.
What Can You Do With a Special Education Degree?
You can embark on a variety of careers with a special education degree. For example, if you hold an associate degree, you may find work as a childcare worker or preschool teacher. If you hope to serve as a special education teacher in a public K-12 school, however, you must earn a bachelor's degree.
A growing body of research shows that students with special needs learn better in standard classrooms. As a result, teachers who earn a bachelor's in special education may also find work as kindergarten and elementary school teachers, middle school teachers, and high school teachers.
More inclusive learning environments also increase the need for administrators with a background in special education. For example, a graduate of a special education program may choose to become a school counselor, helping learners overcome behavioral or socioemotional issues through counseling and skill development. Special education teachers can also advance into roles like principal, superintendent, and state academic officer.
Associate Degree in Special Education
Associate programs in special education usually consist of 60 credits and require two years of full-time study. In addition to general education coursework in subjects like English and the humanities, learners in these programs often study topics like early-childhood behavior management, linguistically and culturally diverse learners, and introduction to curriculum design.
While you may work as a preschool teacher in some districts with just an associate degree, most states require K-12 teachers to hold a bachelor's. Many public colleges and universities hold articulation agreements with community colleges in their state, making it easier for students to transfer credits from an associate program into a bachelor's program.
- Special Education Paraprofessional
Special education paraprofessionals support teachers in and outside of the classroom. For example, they may supervise student transportation services, assist in the grading of assignments, or respond to behavioral issues. Paraprofessionals may also assist with basic care duties for students with physical disabilities. Most of these jobs require a postsecondary certificate or associate degree.
- Preschool Teacher
Preschool teachers work with students younger than five years old, helping them develop important language, social, and motor skills. They may also provide basic instruction in subjects like reading or arithmetic. While you can qualify for many of these roles with just an associate degree, roughly 50% of preschool teaching positions administered by federal Head Start programs now require a bachelor's.
Bachelor's Degree in Special Education
Earning a bachelor's degree prepares you for many different careers in special education. In addition to teaching roles, you can also serve as a preschool or childcare center director, overseeing the care and enrichment of students with special needs.
Undergraduate programs in special education include coursework in subjects like behavioral support strategies, collaborating with partners for student success, and instructional strategies for learners with mild to moderate exceptionalities. Most programs also feature a supervised teaching experience, allowing students to get feedback on their instructional methods from experienced educators. Most states require some form of student teaching as a prerequisite for licensure.
- Special Education Teacher, Preschool, Kindergarten, or Elementary School
Special education teachers who work in preschools, kindergartens, and elementary schools provide foundational instruction in subjects like reading, arithmetic, and basic science while making appropriate accommodations for their students' physical, emotional, or mental disabilities. They must also develop IEPs to guide and track the support offered by other educators, counselors, and social workers.
- Special Education Teacher, Middle School
Middle school special education teachers typically work with children in grades 6, 7, and 8. They build on students' elementary schooling, helping them develop the academic and social skills needed to succeed in high school and beyond. While many of these teachers work exclusively with special needs students, an increasing number now serve in inclusive classrooms.
Master's Degree in Special Education
Earning a master's degree in special education can help you qualify for a promotion or salary increase. This advanced credential also empowers you to pursue more specialized and senior roles, such as instructional coordinator, academic counselor, or school principal.
Master's programs in special education offer instruction in subjects like targeted instructional strategies for youth with disabilities, incorporating exceptional learners into general education classrooms, and the behavioral principles of special education assessment. Students in graduate programs also typically 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.
- Director of Special Education
Special education directors oversee the delivery of instruction and support to students with special needs. They often work at the district level, coordinating the efforts of principals and curriculum designers at multiple schools. While not always required, a master's degree may give you a competitive edge when applying for these roles.
- Intervention Specialist
Intervention specialists provide intensive and often individualized assistance to children dealing with emotional, behavioral, and mental issues. Depending on the state in which you work, you may need a master's degree to qualify for licensure as an intervention specialist.
Doctoral Degree in Special Education
To teach or conduct research at a college or university, you typically must first earn a doctoral degree. A doctorate in special education may also position you for certain leadership roles, such as superintendent or chief academic officer.
Doctoral programs typically begin with three years of study in areas like special education law, neuroscience, and advanced statistics. After completing this coursework, doctoral candidates must then pass a comprehensive examination to begin working on their dissertation. The dissertation process involves collecting original research and summarizing the methodology and findings in a written document, usually 100-200 pages in length. Students may need 4-7 years to complete and successfully defend their dissertation.
- Postsecondary Professor
Postsecondary professors conduct research and instruct students at colleges, universities, and trade schools. They may also perform a variety of administrative functions, such as chairing a special education department or overseeing the student admission process. While you may be able to teach at some community colleges with just a master's, most of these roles require a doctorate.
- Academic Dean
Academic deans hold broad responsibility for teaching and learning activities at colleges and universities. They approve curricula, lead search committees, resolve student issues like plagiarism, and supervise various academic departments. Most academic deans have both a doctoral degree and several years of experience as a professor
Where Can I Work as a Special Education Graduate?
Most people who earn a degree in special education serve as teachers. However, they may also find work as educational administrators who create and oversee programs for students with special needs. Some special education graduates work in the nonprofit sector, while others act as public advocates for children and families.
Your professional opportunities are largely shaped by where you live, your chosen industry, and the degree you have earned.
Employment for special education teachers varies considerably from state to state. For example, roughly 17,400 were employed in New York in 2018, while only about 270 worked in Delaware. New York also boasts the highest salaries for special education teachers, with an annual mean wage of $86,330 in 2018. By comparison, special education teachers in Alabama made an average salary of only $46,810 that same year.
Generally, urban centers offer more jobs and higher salaries than rural areas, though smaller communities often have lower costs of living. When deciding where to live and work, make sure to also consider factors like quality of life and educational opportunities for you and your family.
- Elementary and Secondary Schools
Special education teachers who work at elementary and secondary schools teach students with various mental, physical, and emotional disabilities. Most serve in classrooms, though others may administer enrichment and skill-development programs.
Average Salary: $65,650
- State Government, Excluding Schools and Hospitals
Many state governments oversee local school districts to ensure that special needs students receive an adequate education. Administrators in these state offices may conduct site visits, facilitate the distribution of funds, and train teachers in new instructional practices.
Average Salary: $63,040
- Educational Support Services
This industry comprises nonprofit organizations and quasi-governmental agencies that supplement the education offered by local school districts. For example, some nonprofits help families identify tutors who specifically work with students with disabilities.
Average Salary: $61,100
- Local Government, Excluding Schools and Hospitals
Local governments often provide services to special needs children and their families. They may, for instance, provide specialized transportation to and from school for children with physical disabilities. Municipal staff may also work as liaisons to teachers and educational administrators, coordinating access to other forms of public assistance.
Average Salary: $59,760
- Residential Intellectual and Developmental Disability, Mental Health, and Substance Abuse Facilities
Despite the growing trend of inclusive classrooms, some students have disabilities so severe that they cannot learn in mainstream environments. Some special education teachers work within schools and organizations that exclusively cater to students with intellectual, developmental, and behavioral issues.
Average Salary: $47,590
How Do You Find a Job in Special Education?
In addition to checking national employment sites like Indeed and SimplyHired, you can look for teaching and administrative openings on your local school district's website. Your state's department of education or department of mental health may also advertise job openings of interest to you.
As you review job listings, work on growing your professional network. Attend networking events organized by your college, a local business group, or one of the professional associations listed below. Reach out to experienced teachers and school leaders to arrange informational interviews and to discuss your career plan.
Finally, earning a graduate degree in special education can demonstrate your expertise to potential employers.
Professional Resources for Special Education Majors
NASET represents special education teachers working in public and private schools across the country. The association provides a wealth of professional resources on subjects such as developing IEPs, special education law, teaching English language learners with special needs, and supporting students with severe physical disabilities. NASET also hosts a career center.
AASEP is primarily known for providing board certification to special education teachers and administrators. Board certification signals expertise, experience, and a commitment to ongoing education. To qualify, candidates must hold a master's degree, complete a series of online courses, and pass a set of five exams.
CEC works to ensure the academic success of children with exceptionalities. The council conducts extensive public advocacy on behalf of its members and constituents. CEC also provides professional development resources to educators, publishes books and scholarly journals, and convenes conferences on subjects like bullying and tiered intervention systems.
NASDSE promotes collaboration among state education agencies tasked with supporting students with physical and mental disabilities. In addition to organizing an annual research and networking conference, the association hosts a variety of online resources in areas such as the role of charter schools in special education and working with students on the autism spectrum.
With more than 3 million members, the NEA is the nation's largest professional organization for teachers and education professionals. The association provides free access to lesson plans and classroom management tools, shares research and policy briefs on a variety of topics in special education, and offers scholarships to both aspiring and current teachers.