Online Degrees Blog Your Guide on How to Become a Special Education Teacher

Your Guide on How to Become a Special Education Teacher

12 October
Young girl with Down Syndrome works with her teacher in the classroom.

In the 2021-2022 school year, 7.3 million students—representing 15% of all public school students—received services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).1 Special education teachers enrich the lives of students who face cognitive, physical, or emotional challenges by helping them access the general curriculum or develop essential life skills. Because of the unique needs of these students, it takes tremendous dedication and energy to be a special education teacher.

As highly-trained professionals, special education teachers balance meeting the needs of students in the classroom with managing the administrative work of creating and complying with multiple individualized education plans (IEPs).2

Keep reading to learn more about what a special education teacher does and how you can obtain the education needed to become one.

What does a special education teacher do?

A special education teacher usually works in an elementary, middle, or high school to support students with dis/abilities. While special education teachers have many of the same duties as traditional teachers, because their students have additional needs, they also have additional responsibilities.3 Some of the specific job requirements of a special education teacher are discussed below.

Develop Individualized Education Plans (IEPs)

An IEP is a legally-binding document outlining the educational goals, accommodations, and services a student with special needs requires to succeed academically. IDEA mandates that public schools offer a “free appropriate public education” to eligible students with dis/abilities. Schools must develop an IEP for each student who qualifies for special education services. Special education teachers work with parents, caregivers, and other professionals to develop an effective IEP for each student.4

Plan lessons and adapt curriculum

Like other teachers, special education teachers plan lessons for the students in their classes. However, they have to adapt the curriculum to meet the needs of their students and comply with the IEP accommodations and goals.

Before adapting the curriculum, the special education teacher first identifies each student's unique needs—ranging from cognitive and learning challenges to sensory impairments and behavioral issues—covered in the IEP. The special education teacher then sets achievable learning objectives tailored to each student, providing a roadmap for what the adapted lessons should achieve.

Textbooks, worksheets, and other educational resources may need modification. For example, a student with reading difficulties might require audio books or simplified text, while a visually impaired student may need Braille materials. Special education teachers often work with professionals, such as speech therapists or occupational therapists, to incorporate their expertise into lesson plans.5

Manage behavior

Special education students often face behavioral challenges that can interfere with their learning and social development. Special education teachers typically approach behavioral management by assessing the root causes of a student’s behavior. This may be done in conjunction with the student’s academic assessment.

They may consult psychologists or behavioral therapists to identify triggers, patterns, and underlying issues contributing to specific behaviors. As with academic goals, behavioral goals are often incorporated into a student’s IEP.6

To help students meet their behavioral goals, a special education teacher may use techniques such as positive reinforcement, visual or auditory cueing, and social skills training.7 They continuously assess the effectiveness of their strategies and make adjustments as needed, often revisiting and revising the behavioral goals set in the IEP.

Education requirements to teach special education

Becoming a special education teacher requires specialized training to develop the skills and knowledge needed to meet the needs of students with dis/abilities. The general process typically includes a combination of formal education and practical experience.

Bachelor’s degree

You can obtain a four-year bachelor of special education that offers general and special education coursework. A bachelor’s degree will generally cover not only general education, but also topics such as assessing students, modifying the curriculum and learning environment to meet their needs, and special education law.8

Practical experience

As part of your bachelor’s degree, you’ll complete a practicum or internship for 16 weeks.8 Through this experience, you’ll gain hands-on practice working with children with special needs with the supervision of an experienced special education teacher. The practicum usually begins with a period of observation, followed by a period of co-teaching or teaching small groups in the mentor teacher’s classroom.9

State exams and certification

Each state has its own guidelines, and you can check with your state Board of Education to find the licensing requirements for your state. Many states use the Praxis II exams, which test your knowledge in specific areas. The special education Praxis II exam tests core knowledge and applications. The test includes 120 questions, and you have two hours to take it. It covers the following content categories:10

  • Development and Characteristics of Learners
  • Planning and the Learning Environment
  • Instruction
  • Assessment
  • Foundations and Professional Responsibilities

Graduate degree

If your undergraduate degree isn’t in special education, or you want to advance your career, pursuing a master’s degree can be an excellent option. A master’s in special education can open doors to specialized and higher-paying positions.11

Board certification

National Board Certification is a voluntary process which establishes national standards for what teachers should know and be able to do. Teachers who want to pursue National Board Certification can apply to the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS). The certification process is demanding, but challenges teachers to grow and improve even further.12

Exploring the opportunities and challenges for special education teachers today

Being a special education teacher is both rewarding and challenging. Most special education teachers work in public schools, but there are also ample opportunities in private schools. Private schools typically have different hiring requirements, and some might offer smaller class sizes or more specialized programs.

Job growth and salary for special education teaching careers

The demand for specialized educators remains high due to persistent shortages in the special education teaching field.13 According to the U.S. Department of Education, 42 states and Washington, D.C. face a shortage of special education teachers.13 Denise Marshall of The Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA) points out the repercussions, such as schools limiting crucial services in students' IEPs.13

With an increase of 800,000 special education students over a decade and anticipated teacher retirements, there's an urgent call for more investment in special education training.13

While the special education teacher salary varies based on location, experience, and education level, having advanced degrees or additional certifications can potentially increase earning potential and helps to ensure special education teachers are fully prepared for diverse classroom settings and the field’s unique challenges.

Collaborative efforts: How special education teachers work with general education teachers

A special education teacher works not only in traditional classroom settings but also in resource centers, residential facilities, and inclusive learning environments. They often collaborate with other teachers, especially general education teachers, to ensure that students with dis/abilities have access to the general education curriculum.

This collaboration is critical, as it allows for the integration of specialized techniques into the mainstream classroom, benefitting all students.

Additional training and endorsements

Beyond a bachelor's degree and state-required certification, many special education teachers opt for continuing education courses to stay updated on teaching methods, classroom management, and special education law. Some also pursue a special education endorsement, which further qualifies them to work with students with specific conditions like autism spectrum disorders.

The reward of teaching special education

Teaching special education is not just about following the education requirements; it's a profound commitment to shaping the futures of exceptional students. Special education teachers provide valuable resources and tailored support, ensuring that their students not only grasp the general education curriculum but also develop essential basic life skills.

Understanding the range of learning dis/abilities and conditions, from autism spectrum disorders to physical impairments, is paramount. This understanding allows these educators to craft individualized strategies, fostering environments where students develop both academically and personally.

Moreover, many special education teachers work collaboratively with other staff members and professionals. By teaming up with general education teachers, they ensure that special education students are integrated and have equitable access to learning opportunities in mainstream classrooms. Their role often extends beyond traditional classroom teaching, delving into areas of counseling, mentorship, and life coaching.

For those pondering on how to become a special education teacher, it's crucial to appreciate that the profession demands immense patience, empathy, and continuous learning. From navigating special education law to staying updated with innovative teaching methods, it's a career that calls for dedication and passion.

However, the rewards are immeasurable. Whether it's witnessing a student overcome a learning obstacle or being a pillar of support for families navigating the challenges of dis/abilities, the impact of a special education teacher is profound and lasting.

In this noble profession, educators don't just teach; they transform lives, ensuring that every student, irrespective of their challenges, has the tools and encouragement to succeed in the classroom and the broader world.

In conclusion, with the right training, passion, and dedication, you can truly make an impact in the lives of students as an exceptional special education teacher.

Advance your teaching career with KU, the leader in special education

If you’re ready to take the next step in becoming a special education teacher, the University of Kansas School of Education and Human Sciences offers the #1 Online Master's in Special Education program.14 KU's experienced faculty members will help you develop the skills you need to become a leader in special education.

You can customize your learning path by choosing from one of four specialties, including:

Contact one of our admissions outreach advisors today to learn more.

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