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Teacher assists student in special education class
Teaching Careers Updated November 14, 2017

Special Education Teacher Careers: Job, Education and Salary Information

By Room 241 Team October 4, 2012
Teacher assists student in special education class

A special education teacher works with students who have physical, mental or social difficulties. The job requires a background in many disabilities so the teacher can build bonds of trust in students. That bond helps teachers develop students’ academic and life skills.

If you’re a special education teacher, your work day might include activities like these:

  • Scheduling an after-school parent conference and pulling together recent data so you can talk about the child’s improvement. You might make notes advising the parents on how to work with their child.
  • Working with an 8-year-old who has cerebral palsy who needs help with motor skills and eating skills.
  • Teaching three children who have learning disabilities together in a circle, since their skills are roughly equal.
  • Helping a high school student who has a speech impediment learn to improve his diction.
  • Providing a quiet, structured learning environment to a middle-school student who has a sensory-processing challenge.
  • Co-teaching a kindergarten class where several students have been diagnosed with ADHD.

This article describes many aspects of being a special education teacher from elementary through high school. It includes salary and job prospects, a job description, personality characteristics that point to job satisfaction, and resources that can help you advance in a special education career.

At-a-glance
> Who makes a good special education teacher?

Teaching at the various levels
> Elementary school
> Middle school
> High school

Professional development
> Continuing education
> Professional associations

Related careers
> Jobs beyond teaching

Best of the Web
> Sites and Twitter handles to follow

At-a-glance: special education teachers

Elementary school Middle school High school
Education Bachelor’s degree and state-issued teaching certificate Bachelor’s degree and state-issued teaching certificate Bachelor’s degree/ master’s preferred and state-issued certification
Typical study time 4 years 4-5 years 4-5 years
Median salary $55,810 $57,280 $58,500
Job growth outlook +6% +6% +6%

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

A teaching degree plus a special education specialty is required for work in public schools.

Special education teachers also work in colleges and universities with students who are pursuing degrees. Most colleges require teachers to hold at least a master’s degree.

Who makes a good special education teacher?

Someone who is:

  • Patient
  • Kind
  • Compassionate
  • Well organized
  • Flexible
  • Creative

If these traits describe you, then a special education career could be your calling. People who are committed to enriching the lives of children with disabilities and who can deal with lots of paperwork may have what it takes to succeed as a special education teacher.

Before you devote your life to this career, keep in mind that you may end up spending most of your time working one-on-one with students in specially designed classrooms. You’ll need to be comfortable doing your job without other adult colleagues around. Think about whether that appeals to you.

Special education teachers work so closely with students that they can become more emotionally involved than other teachers might. Letting go of these emotional ties is tough enough when a child moves to another school, but it can be excruciating at times (like when a student has a terminal illness).

Special education teacher job description

Special education teachers work with students who have mild to moderate disabilities, such as speech and vision problems, limited motor skills, sensory-processing difficulties or some combination of these. A special education teacher, also known as a special needs teacher, evaluates individual students and then revises the standard curriculum to match each child’s functionality or skill level.

Special education teachers collaborate with other teachers, therapists, supervisors and parents to ensure the curriculum is appropriate and that the student is improving. The job requires filling out many forms, including results of testing and notes on student improvements and special challenges.

The special education teacher uses several standard techniques, including one-on-one instruction, imitation, repetition and problem solving.

Teaching at various levels

Elementary special education teachers

Elementary special education teachers teach, coach and often mentor disabled children. They also evaluate children’s skills and functionality, and modify existing standard courseware to meet individual needs. Because elementary school is often the child’s first experience with group learning, special education teachers may work more on social skills with those who are more severely disabled.
Continue reading to learn more about elementary school special education teachers

What elementary special education teachers do

Elementary special education teachers teach either in a regular classroom or a specially designed classroom, depending on the severity of their students’ disabilities. The special education teacher may be required to teach life skills or social skills, as well as academic coursework. The day-to-day duties include:

  • Testing students with disabilities using standard techniques
  • Evaluating disabled students to determine their skill level and functionality
  • Modifying curriculum to match each disabled student’s abilities
  • Co-teaching with regular teachers when required
  • Meeting parents and others to review goals and assess progress
  • Creating materials to assist in teaching

Educational and certification requirements

Elementary school special education teachers who work in public schools are required to have a bachelor’s degree and a teaching certificate issued from the state where they teach.

Part of the bachelor’s degree work for special education teachers includes:

  • Identifying disabilities
  • Learning techniques for teaching those who have a certain disability
  • Testing current skills and disabilities
  • Evaluating improvements

At the elementary school level, a master’s degree is a bonus.

Salary and employment projections

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for elementary special education teachers is $55,810. More estimates:

  • PayScale.com: $43,554 (median)
  • Glassdoor.com: $53,939 (average)
  • Salary.com: $51,692 (median)

The BLS job-growth projection is 6 percent.

Pros and cons of being an elementary school special education teacher

As with any jobs, there are pluses and minuses to being an elementary school special education teacher.

Pros

  • You can help improve the life of someone who is disabled.
  • It is highly rewarding.
  • You may develop a close working relationship with the student.
  • You will work with a group of professionals who are dedicated to helping one person thrive.

Cons

  • It is easy to become emotionally attached to a student.
  • Your mission as a teacher may conflict with parents’ goals for the student.
  • There is a tremendous amount of paperwork associated with each disabled student.

Middle school special education teachers

Middle school special education teachers sometimes teach at a higher level than elementary special education teachers do. If the students are severely challenged, however, the training may not change.
Continue reading to learn more about middle school special education teachers

What middle school special education teachers do

Middle school special education teachers work with students who have disabilities, but may have already had some remedial training in elementary school. Depending on the severity of the disability, students may be further along in their life skills and may have improved functionality. Therefore, special education teachers are often working to increase social or developmental skills, as well as academic knowledge.

During middle school, a student may be emotionally or physically prepared to integrate into a normal classroom. The special education teacher helps with the transition and supports the special needs student after the transition.

Teachers also may be called on to evaluate sports options appropriate for their charges.

Educational and certification requirements

As with other teaching positions, a special education teacher requires at least a bachelor’s degree and a state-issued teaching credential. Some states require a master’s degree to obtain a teaching credential. Student teaching is often also required.

A master’s degree in special education may include courses such as:

  • Learning how to identify disabilities
  • Managing different types of behavioral problems
  • Collaborating with administration, parents, agencies, and other professionals
  • Creating an atmosphere conducive to learning
  • Principles of psychology and teaching for exceptional students
  • Current trends in special education

Salary and employment projections

According to the BLS, the median salary of a middle school special education teacher is $57,280. Other estimates:

  • PayScale.com $44,832 (median)
  • Salary.com: $51,692 (median)
  • Glassdoor.com: $54,329 (average)

BLS job-growth projection is 6 percent.

Pros and cons of being a middle school special education teacher

The rewards of being a middle school special education teacher are substantial. But there are also some downsides.

Here are some of each:

Pros

  • Helping disabled children do something special that most children take for granted
  • Working on your own
  • Getting to know students well and building a bond of trust

Cons

  • Conducting a lot of testing to evaluate improvement
  • Doing a lot of paperwork required by administration
  • Difficulty in letting go emotionally, especially if you are seeing real improvement while working with a student

High school special education teachers

High school special education teachers work with disabled students in grades 9-12, including testing and evaluating each student. Based on their recommendations, class work is modified to suit each student.
Continue reading to learn more about high school special education teachers

What do high school special education teachers do?

High school special education teachers teach both life skills and academic course work. Depending on the severity of the handicap, special education teachers may either teach in a separate classroom or co-teach with a regular teacher in a standard classroom.

High school special education teachers often recommend activities that parents can do with the child to help improve skills and functionality.

Educational and certification requirements

To become a special education teacher at the high school level, you must have at least a bachelor’s degree and a state-issued teaching license. Many schools require a master’s degree in special education.

Depending on the specialization within special education, the teacher may take additional courses to work with students who have autism or who are deaf or blind.

Many states also require student teaching to obtain a teaching certificate.

Salary and employment projections

High school special education teachers earn an average salary of $58,500, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Other estimates:

  • Glassdoor.com: $60,715 (average)
  • RileyGuide.com: $56,630 (average)

Pros and cons of being a high school special education teacher

High school special education teachers face many challenges and difficulties.

Pros

  • It can be very gratifying to break through a barrier that has been holding a student back.
  • Because you work so closely with a child for so long, you really get to know and understand them.
  • You get to work with many professionals who are dedicated to helping a child improve.

Cons

  • It can be very stressful trying to work with a student, especially if the student is combative and uncooperative.
  • If the student is physically handicapped, trying to move them or help them can require a great deal of physical strength.
  • If the student is socially challenged, trying to help them transition into society can be difficult.

Professional development for special education teachers

Continuing education

Once you have your degree and teaching credentials, you can expand your teaching horizons through continuing education options such as:

  • Board Certification in Special Education: This certification from the American Academy of Special Education Professionals (AASEP) teaches a national standard for professionals who work with children who have learning disabilities.
  • Additional certifications: Special education teachers can receive certification in additional areas such as learning challenges or behavioral disabilities.
  • Master’s degree: Occupational therapists, speech therapists and physical therapists must earn a master’s degree to be certified.
  • PhD in education: Teachers aiming to become leaders and top-level administrators in special education will find this degree invaluable.

Professional associations

These professional associations serve special education teachers:

Related careers

A special education teacher can find many jobs outside the traditional classroom, such as:

  • Applied Behavior Analysis Therapist: Works one-on-one with people to assess behavior and skill levels, collaborating with care managers and family to drive improvements.
  • Board Certified Behavior Analyst: Works with more severely handicapped patients to test their behavioral levels and creates plans to help patients reach specific goals. Provides recommendations to staff and family.
  • Director of Student Support: Hires and develops special education instructors. Evaluates instructors. Creates strategic plans to meet ambitious goals for the school or facility.
  • Vocational Counselors: Helps students find jobs that are suitable for their disabilities.

Best of the Web

Favorite special education teacher websites

  • TeacherVision: Lesson plans, printables and professional advice on managing special needs children.
  • Special Education Network: Hundreds of resources for special needs teachers, parents of special needs children, and access to advocacy organizations and disability referral sites.
  • The National Association of Special Education Teachers: NASET is a professional organization designed to provide support and up-to-date information to special education teachers working in the U.S.
  • Special Education Resources for General Educators: SERGE uses standards implemented by the Model Standards for Licensing General and Special Education Teachers of Students with Disabilities to continue providing activities and information to teachers who must address special student needs in the classroom.

Blogs to follow

Who to follow on Twitter

Websites for students with disabilities

  • Learning Ally: Over 100 audiobooks for dyslexic learners.
  • LD Online: The students section, under “Kids’ Voices,” connects students with others who learn differently, too.
  • WhizKid Games: Follow the friendly dinosaur to discover new fun games that focus on skills required especially of students with learning disabilities.
  • Do2Learn: Another great site that encourages students with social skills and behavior regulation activities.
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