Special education teachers work with students who have a wide range of learning, mental, emotional and physical disabilities. They adapt general education lessons and teach subjects (such as reading, writing and math) to students with mild and moderate disabilities. They also teach basic skills (such as literacy and communication techniques) to students with severe disabilities.
A special ed teacher may work with students from preschool to high school. Some work with students who have severe disabilities until the students are age 21. Helping students with disabilities can be very rewarding. A special ed teaching career can also be emotionally demanding and physically draining.
Day in the Life of a Special Education Teacher
The duties of special ed teachers vary depending on where they work, their students' disabilities, and their specialty. However, one responsibility common to all is working with an IEP team (the students' parents, other teachers and specialists, and school administrators) to develop an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for each special education student.
The IEP contains personalized goals tailored to the student's individual learning ability and style. For teenage special education students, the IEP team develops transition plans to prepare students for high school and beyond. The team reviews and updates the IEP on a regular basis.
It is up to the teacher to implement a student's IEP. The teacher is responsible for:
- Modifying the general education curriculum for the student, using instructional techniques and technology
- Discussing students' progress with parents and guardians
- Establishing goals for lessons and projects and communicating these goals to students
- Maintaining student records
Other responsibilities include:
- Teaching socially acceptable behavior using techniques such as behavior modification and positive reinforcement
- Teaching students with moderate disabilities to live independently, find a job, and be able to manage their time and money
- Helping students with severe disabilities develop basic life skills like how to respond to questions and how to follow directions
- Supervising and mentoring teacher assistants who work with students with disabilities
Most special education teachers work in public schools, such as:
- Classrooms or resource centers that only include students with disabilities, working with students in small groups or on a one-on-one basis
- Inclusive classrooms (that include both general and special education students), working with general education teachers to ensure all students, including those with disabilities, receive what they need
Outside of public schools, special education teachers can work in private schools, child day care services, residential facilities and hospitals. Other special ed teachers work with infants and toddlers (and their parents) at the family's home.
Important Characteristics for Special Education Teachers
Successful special ed teachers enjoy helping people and have great patience and compassion. They display excellent communication skills (e.g, listening, speaking, writing) with students, parents, other teachers and administrators. Special ed teachers also tend to be socially sensitive, flexible and good at motivating students. They need to have good organizational skills, critical thinking skills and be resourceful.
Typical Steps to Become a Special Education Teacher
Career training for special ed teachers starts with knowing what is required. Special education teacher training, with some variations, generally follows this path:
- Earn a bachelor's degree. Special ed teacher education requirements in all states include this degree for anyone who plans to teach in public schools. You may earn a degree specifically in special education or major in elementary education or a content area (such as math or science) with a minor in special education. These programs typically blend classroom learning with fieldwork or student teaching.
- Complete a teacher preparation program and supervised experience in teaching. In addition to a bachelor's degree, states require teachers to have this hands-on training. Teacher preparation programs vary by state, and last from 1 to 2 years. (Note: Teachers in private schools are not required to be certified.)
- Become certified as a special education teacher. All states require teachers in public schools to be certified (i.e., licensed). Licensure requirements vary by state. Many states offer general licenses in special education that allow teachers to work with students with a variety of disabilities. Others offer licenses or endorsements based on a disability-specific category, such as autism.
States may offer an alternative route to certification for people who already have a bachelor's degree with a different major. Some alternative programs allow candidates to begin teaching immediately under the supervision of an experienced teacher. Other programs require candidates to take classes in education before they start to teach. Candidates are certified after they complete the program. They may also earn a master's degree after completing either type of program.
- Earn a master's degree in special education, if your state requires it for full certification.
- Complete continuing education programs. Teachers are typically required to take professional development courses in order to maintain their credential.
Job titles for this career include:
- Early Interventionist
- Early Childhood (EC) Special Education Teacher
- Severe Emotional Disorders (SED) Teacher
- Exceptional Student Education (ESE) Teacher
- Learning Disabilities (LD) Special Education Teacher
- Learning Support Teacher
- Special Education Resource Teacher
- Summary Report for How to Become a Special Education Teacher, O*NET OnLine, Accessed November 2017. https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/25-2052.00
- Special Education Teachers, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2016-17 Occupational Outlook Handbook, Accessed November 2017, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/special-education-teachers.htm