Become a Special Education Teacher:
Degrees and Careers

An ECE Special Education Teacher Guide

Special Education Career Guide

Special education teachers have some of the most difficult jobs in education, and, depending on where you live, there may or may not be special programs built to assist you. However, the jobs these teachers do are some of the most important and life-changing in the whole education sector. Students with dyslexia and other learning disabilities, if left without special assistance, may never make it through school. Students with hearing impairments are still having trouble joining the workforce, but the education made possible by those who teach them, using ASL and other advancements, have made it possible for them to become entrepreneurs; creating a place for other hearing-impaired graduates to thrive and grow. The same goes for students who are blind, have issues with mobility, learning disorders, problems focusing, autism, and a number of other challenging situations. Special education teachers take a stand for universal education and do their best to provide these students with the same opportunities everyone else has.

Qualities of a Special ED Teacher

If you have a lot of patience, compassion, and a love for children, you might make an excellent special education teacher. Only a small percent of all teachers become special education teachers. However, many remarkable early childhood education or elementary education degree programs require classes in working with children who require additional assistance with emotional, physical, and intellectual development. The level of developmental severity will vary from student to student. Some children may only require a few hours a day to assist with reading; whereas, other children may require full-time special education.

The reason the general classroom and the special education classroom are sometimes separated is to ensure each student receives as much attention as possible to better the chances of developmental success for everyone. Students who have dyslexia, ADHD, autism, mental health issues, physical restrictions, and more are likely to spend time in a special education setting. Each student will have a special need that simply cannot be addressed in a general education classroom. It is this extra attention and the specialized training of special education teachers that improves the lives of many special needs students. These students receive the care and compassion they require while still being amongst other children for a more traditional experience. Without special education teachers, the quality of life of these students and their families would greatly suffer.

What will you do as a Special Ed Educator?

Special education teachers will work with children who have varying degrees of emotional, learning, mental, and physical disabilities. These teachers must adapt all subjects from the general classrooms to be able to teach students in the special education classroom. Subjects may include math, reading, writing, and communication. Each day in a special education classroom will be different and teachers must be able to adapt and remain flexible when behavioral issues arise.

Special education teachers will be required to work with a wide variety of teaching professionals, such as counselors, psychologists, general classroom teachers, administrators, and more. You will also work closely with the parents. It is important to note that parents with children who have special needs are likely to be equally as passionate as you are. It may be difficult for them at times and they may have more demands and expectations than parents in the general classroom. At the end of the day, special education teachers must be prepared to meet parents and expect them to be emotionally charged at times.

Degree Requirements for Special Ed Teachers

You will require a minimum of a bachelor’s degree to become a special education teacher in any state. Some states will require a specific bachelor’s degree in special education, whereas other states may require a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education or elementary education with a minor or emphasis in special education. These specialized classes help prospective teachers become highly trained in the unique settings and circumstances of a special education classroom.

Special education teachers will be required to maintain a specific GPA and complete a specific number of hours of supervised classroom experience. This is typically done during an undergraduate degree program. You will also be required to complete a teacher preparation program. Most top schools offer this preparation program as part of undergraduate teaching degrees. You could also take an individual teacher preparation course for if you’re a transfer or if you have a bachelor’s degree outside of teaching. Additionally, always remember that every single prospective teacher must complete an extensive background check to work with children.

Exams and Licenses

Each state will have different requirements for exams, certification completions, and licensures. Most states require the completion of a general teaching certificate to prove knowledge and comprehension of the materials that will be taught. These must be completed before licensure can be obtained. You will be required to take at least one PRAXIS or state-specific exam. PRAXIS offers several exams in special education and elementary education. Some of these exams include: Special Education: Core Knowledge and Applications; Special Education: Core Knowledge and Severe to Profound Applications; and Special Education: Teaching Students with Learning Disabilities.

The licensure or endorsement required will be unique in each state and for each employer. You might have to receive specific training by working with certain disabilities to be able to teach in some classrooms. You should be prepared for the fact that you never know the type of disabilities with which you will work, as each school will have a unique group of students every year. In most states, you can take alternative paths to obtain licensure if you did not follow the traditional teacher degree path and you wish to change careers. These alternative paths vary from state-to-state

Special Education Teacher Salaries

The vast majority of special education teachers work in public elementary schools. A small portion of special education teachers will work in private schools, preschools, secondary schools, private homes, or work for specialized schools dedicated entirely to children with special needs and disabilities. Many smaller school districts will often have all children with special needs in one classroom at the same time. Larger schools and private schools might be able to afford teachers to specialize in specific developmental needs.

Due to the fact that budgets are smaller in small towns versus larger cities, you will likely make less money in small school districts. Some school districts, regardless of size, may not dedicate nearly enough funds for children with special needs. These special education teachers may make less than in school districts that compensate appropriately. In many school districts, special education teachers are in great demand; therefore, as a result, salaries for special education teachers will be even higher than a teacher in general classrooms.

Career & Salary Chart

Occupation Average Salary
Special Education Assistant $21,000
Special Education Teacher (pre-k, Kindergarten, elementary) $46,000
Director of Special Education $73,600
Special Education – Autism $49,700
Special Education – Sign Language $39,200

Career & Salary Outlook

The career outlook for people working in special education is a positive one with an expected growth rate of 8% between 2016 and 2026. This is slightly higher than traditional teacher roles and on par with job growth for all industries during the same time frame. Career change can occur within the special education department, particularly in school districts with more than one class for children with developmental challenges. It is also possible to become an administrator within special education or for the entire school. Some special education teachers will continue their education to become counselors or psychologists. It is important to continue your education no matter the career path you seek to stay on top of current trends and the latest proven methodologies with the greatest success rates for your students.

It is possible that you might have to work all 12 months of the year. However, other school districts still take off two months in the summer. Many teachers choose to pick up additional work during this time to compensate for their salary. Some teachers will take on more responsibility in the school to make more money, such as coaching a sport or tutoring students on their own time. If you work in a school dedicated to special needs children, you might have more resources and greater flexibility in your career development. Most school districts have limited funding and resources which can make teaching in special education a challenge. Your creativity and ability to adapt will be your saving grace in a public school.

Job Duties of a Special Education Teacher

  • Observe and assess the skills of students to determine exact needs.

  • Plan and organize activities customized to the abilities of each student.

  • Monitor and track goals, progress, and performance throughout the year.

  • Meet with administrators, other teachers, counselors, and parents to discuss the progress of each student.

  • Adapt and create lesson plans for the needs of each student.

  • Use the latest technology as learning tools and to encourage integration and engagement.

  • Provide transition preparation for each student to move to the next grade and to be able to adjust to life once they graduate.

  • Be able to mentor and teach students one-on-one, in groups, and as an entire class.

  • Mentor and supervise assistant teachers who are training or trained to work with students who have disabilities.

  • Educate parents on tools they can use at home to improve development even further.

Useful Skills and Certifications

  • Patience
  • Professionalism
  • Superior Communication Skills
  • Willingness to Adapt
  • Acceptance of Change
  • Exceptional Organizational Skills
  • Courses in Special Education

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