Secondary School Special Education Teachers picture    Secondary School Special Education Teachers image

Secondary School Special Education Teachers, also known as High School Special Education Teachers, are responsible for teaching subjects at the secondary school level to students who are educationally and/or physically handicapped. "Secondary school level" usually refers to grades 7 through 12 (sometimes grades 9 through 12) and signifies the level of education beyond elementary school and middle school. The majority of secondary school special ed teachers work with students having mild to moderate disabilities. They modify the curriculum for the secondary school subject(s) as needed to meet the students' individual needs. In some cases, however, teachers are responsible for working with students having more serious disabilities such as mental retardation or autism.

There are a variety of secondary school settings in which special ed teachers can work. Some teachers have their own classrooms consisting only of special education students. Others work as special ed resource teachers, offering specialized help on an individual basis to students in general education classrooms. Still others team with general education teachers and work alongside them in classes composed of both general and special education students. As schools become increasingly inclusive, this last option is becoming more prevalent. Special ed teachers are to an increasing extent assisting secondary school general educators in adapting curriculum materials and teaching techniques to meet the needs of students with disabilities.


Secondary school special ed teachers are responsible for developing individualized education programs (IEPs) for each of their special education students. The IEPs are based on personalized goals tailored to each student's individual learning ability and style. Teachers also formulate transition plans to prepare the students for postsecondary study or for jobs. There is a wide variety of disabilities that require students to be in special education programs. These include autism, mental retardation, emotional deficiencies, language and speech impairments, visual problems, hearing impairments, mobility limitations, and many other disabilities.

Many of the daily job tasks of secondary school special ed teachers mirror those of their general education counterparts. Special ed teachers are responsible for things like taking attendance, developing lesson plans, assigning and correcting homework, enforcing school rules, keeping inventory of supplies, and administering standardized tests. There is also an additional layer of duties unique to special ed teachers that, among other duties, includes the following:

  • Meeting with parents to review the IEP and note progress and problems
  • Making referrals to sources within the community that may be able to assist the student
  • Helping students learn to use various tools such as computers, wheelchairs, hearing aids or other devices
  • Developing new strategies to meet the needs of students with a variety of handicaps
  • Making modifications in the general education curriculum for special-needs students
  • Coordinating placement of students with special needs into mainstream classes
  • Monitoring teachers and teacher assistants to ensure adherence to special education program requirements

Secondary School Special Education Teacher Job Characteristics

The field of special education can be both highly rewarding and also physically and emotionally draining. The challenge of working with students having disabilities and the sense of accomplishment associated with watching them learn and grow can be greatly satisfying. On the other hand, there can be considerable stress as a result of the heavy workloads and the burdensome administrative requirements. Special ed teachers must generate a substantial amount of documentation for each student, charting the student's progress and work. The threat of litigation against the school for correct procedures not being followed or by parents who feel that their child is not receiving an adequate education always looms as a possibility.

Although there are some schools that offer year-round education for special education students, most special ed teachers work a traditional school year for teachers, meaning summers off and long holiday breaks. Special ed teachers at the secondary school level typically work more than 40 hours a week, considering school duties performed outside the classroom.

To succeed in this field, an individual needs plenty of patience and understanding. Special ed teachers need to be especially creative and adaptable to the needs of students who are having difficulty learning. They need strong communication skills as well as an ability to cooperate with others and work well with them. These traits are critical in a profession that involves constant interaction with not only students, but also parents and school faculty and administrators.

Employment Outlook

The job outlook for special ed teachers at all levels, including the secondary school level, is generally excellent. According to the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics (USDL BLS), employment of special education teachers is expected to increase at a faster rate than the average for all occupations. Many school districts even now are reporting problems finding adequate numbers of certified special ed teachers. The number of students requiring special education services is continually growing due to medical advances that allow earlier diagnoses of disabilities and a greater rate of survivability of accidents or illnesses that result in impairments requiring special accommodations. At the secondary school level in particular, the demand for special education teachers will be fueled by educational reforms which are requiring higher standards for graduation, leading to more parents seeking special services for their children who have difficulty meeting these standards.

The employment outlook is expected to vary by geographic area and by specialty. In general, job prospects in inner cities and rural areas will be higher than those in suburban or wealthy urban areas. There will also be higher demand in those parts of the country where student populations are expected to increase the most, such as in the South and the West. Additionally, jobs will be most plentiful in certain high-demand specializations. For example, teachers who work with children with severe disabilities like autism will be in high demand due to large increases in the enrollment of special education students classified in this category. Bilingual special education teachers will also be in high demand to accommodate an increasingly diverse student population.

Education, Certification, and Licensing

Every state requires special education teachers to be licensed. Criteria for traditional licensure vary by state, but at minimum all states require at least a bachelor's degree and completion of an approved training program in special education teaching. Many states additionally require a master's degree in special education which includes training in a specialization such as learning disabilities or behavioral disorders. In some states a special ed license covers a variety of disability categories, while in others separate licenses are required for teaching each specialty. Most states require prospective teachers to also pass a professional assessment test.

In order to attract special ed teaching candidates who do not qualify under traditional licensing standards, most states offer alternative licensure options. Most of these alternative licensure programs require candidates with a bachelor's degree to successfully complete a period of supervised preparation and instruction and then pass an assessment test. Once this is done, a candidate is issued a provisional license which allows him/her to teach under the supervision of licensed teachers for a period of 1 to 2 years while completing required education courses through a local educational institution. After all this is done, the candidate is eligible to obtain a regular license.

Many colleges and universities offer programs in special education. Such programs typically last longer than corresponding programs for general education teachers and include a combination of general and specialized courses in special education. Coursework includes topics such as educational psychology, child growth and development, legal issues of special education, and strategies for teaching students with disabilities. These programs normally include a student teaching component lasting up to a year, where the student works in a classroom under the supervision of a certified teacher.


Major Employers

Principal employers of secondary school special ed teachers are public secondary schools and private secondary schools. Public school jobs in this field exceed private school jobs by an approximate 15:1 ratio.

Schools for Secondary School Special Education Teachers are listed in the column to the left.

Career Stories (Job Profiles) for Secondary School Special Education Teachers

To find out more about building a career as Secondary School Special Ed Teachers, we spoke with professionals in the field across a variety of specialties. Learn about their experiences on the job, the steps they took to complete their education, and what it takes to excel in this industry. Click the link to see a story.

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Most Popular Industries for :
Secondary School Special Education Teachers

Industries representing at least 1% of total jobs for the occupation.

2016 Occupational Employment Statistics and 2014-24 Employment Projections, Bureau of Labor Statistics, BLS.gov; 2014-24 State Occupational Projections, Projections Central, projectionscentral.com

Industry Jobs Percent Annual Median Salary
Education 142,910 97% $51,480
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We have some additional detailed pages at the state level for Secondary School Special Education Teachers.

Numbers in parentheses are counts of relevant campus-based schools in the state; online schools may also be available.

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