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How to Become a Special Education Teacher

Alyson Lewis

Reviewed by Alyson Lewis

If you’re creative, adaptable, organized, calm in stressful situations, and above all, passionate about inclusion in education, you likely have what it takes to be an excellent Special Education (SPED) teacher. There are numerous challenges to the job, but it’s a critical and worthwhile way to make an impact on education and students’ lives. Between technological advances like assistive technology and other emerging trends, it’s an exciting time to enter the field. And above it all, as a SPED teacher, you’ll meet some of the most amazing and resilient students who make this job a rewarding and essential career path.

What Are IEPs and 504s?

Before exploring special education careers, it is essential to understand what Individualized Education Programs, often called IEPs, and 504 plans are, as they will come up often in your career.

What You Need to Know About IEPs

Special education students are legally required to have IEPs nationwide. (While gifted and talented teachers are often put under the umbrella of special education by a district, there is no national mandate that such students have IEPs, so this varies by state.) Students are not automatically granted IEPs at anyone’s request; the school or parent can initiate the process, then the student undergoes testing and observations to see if they meet the requirements of one of the 13 special needs labels as set forth by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004 (often referred to as IDEA 2004). Individualized Education Programs are just that—individualized based on the needs of each specific child.

Section 300 of IDEA defines a K-12 IEP as a document created, reviewed, and revised as necessary to help the student grow academically, socially, and/or behaviorally as they continue through their education. IEPs include information about where they are at the time of the document’s writing—updated yearly after intensive assessment of progress and new needs—what reasonable goals are set for them, and how those goals are to be met and assisted by all members of the child’s educational team, among other things. Every three years, the document receives a full re-evaluation.

An Individualized Education Program is a legally binding document, and all school staff on the child’s educational team must follow its expectations.

What Are 504 Plans?

A 504 refers to Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. It disallows discrimination against any person with a disability when it comes to participation in federally funded programs, including K-12 schools. Students with 504 plans are capable of success in a standard classroom with little to no special education services. This can include students with chronic illnesses like diabetes, who have recently had a serious accident or hospital stay, or who live with mental health issues like anxiety. Accommodations can include allowing students to eat or drink in class if it is normally not allowed, taking breaks when they become overwhelmed, having additional time for passing periods, or mandating peanut-free areas for those with severe allergies. As with IEPs, 504s are legally binding. While a student can have both an IEP and a 504, it is rare—everything a 504 covers is in a correctly-structured IEP. A student may qualify for a 504 and not an IEP because their needs are not severe enough to require other intervention, or they may not have met one of the 13 exceptionalities listed in IDEA 2004.

A Note about Behavior Plans

While it is not uncommon for students in special education classrooms to have behavioral struggles, simple behavior plans set by schools or teachers are not legally binding if they aren’t part of an IEP or 504. However, it is strongly advised that all teachers follow them to help students who are struggling to behave appropriately to succeed. It is not uncommon for general education teachers to approach SPED teachers about creating these, under the assumption that these students have undiagnosed special needs. While there certainly are behavioral disorders that special education teachers deal with (which will be included in IEPs and are called Behavior Improvement Plans), not all behavioral challenges are the responsibilities of special education teachers.

Special Education Teaching Jobs and Job Descriptions

Special education teachers work with students with a wide-ranging set of differences that might make it difficult for them to learn in a traditional classroom. Some students have cognitive, social, or physical disabilities or behavioral disorders, while some need more challenging work than they’re getting in their classes. These are not mutually exclusive—many students have needs that could require a combination of traditional special education, behavioral intervention, and/or gifted and talented education services. SPED is not one-size-fits-all for the students with whom you’re working, and you can tailor your career path to the roles that match your passions and talents. The following jobs encompass both general special education and common specialized options.

K-12 Classroom Special Education Teacher

There are many categories of special education at the elementary, middle, and high school levels, with each state or region having their own preferred names for the positions. Some day-to-day responsibilities are similar to general education teachers’ work, such as curriculum development, subject matter instruction, and conducting assessment and evaluation of a student’s progress, albeit often with a smaller student to teacher ratio.

There are two primary types of special education teachers at the K-12 level, and they exist in all kinds of SPED: resource teachers and center-based teachers. Some states require different licenses or endorsements for these two types of teachers; be sure to check with your state’s board of education to determine what you will need to do to follow your chosen path. IEPs dictate the type of teacher with whom students work:

  • Resource teachers: These educators primarily work with students who spend most of their time integrated into general education, with a comparatively lower amount of time in the special education classroom for direct instruction. These teachers largely support students’ understanding of the curricula taught by their other instructors.
  • Center-based teachers: Center-based teachers, sometimes called center-based resource (CBR) teachers, spend more time providing direct instruction to students in a special education classroom. These students are generally still integrated into certain general education classes, but their IEPs direct the extent to which this happens. For instance, they may take some or all of their academic courses strictly from their special education teacher but attend elective classes with their typically-developing peers. In some locations, center-based teachers may work with medically fragile students as well, such as those requiring feeding tubes or frequent medications, or with students with significant delays or challenges that can involve potty training or diapering well past the typical age for these tasks. Like all other CBR students, some medically fragile learners will be integrated into some classes, while others will spend their whole day in their special education classroom.

Special education teachers’ responsibilities go beyond teaching: they are also resources for general education teachers who have students with individualized needs. While all teachers are legally bound to follow IEPs, many have limited training in working with special education students. General education teachers should not hesitate to ask special education teachers for assistance and advice, and special education teachers should initiate conversations with teachers who seem to be struggling to modify or accommodate based on student needs.

Autism Spectrum Disorder Specialist

Our understanding of autism is a relatively recent development. As late as 1980, autism was recognized as a psychiatric condition rather than a developmental disorder; it wasn’t until the late 1990s that it was finally understood to be a spectrum. With more knowledge about autism, there is more opportunity to meet students where they are in order to help them thrive. Autism spectrum disorder specialists receive additional certification, most commonly as a Nationally Board-Certified Behavior Analyst.
There are two categories within this area of specialty: service provider and center-based teachers. Service providers are a part of the students’ interdisciplinary teams, supporting special education teachers and working in a variety of special education settings. Autism center-based teachers work specifically with students who have autism, mainly in a special education classroom.

Early Childhood Special Education Teacher

Studies continue to show the importance of early childhood education for children under five years old, and this is as important, if not more so, for children with special needs. Goals for early childhood special educators are similar to those of traditional early childhood education in that you’re working with young children to prepare them for school. Early childhood SPED teachers, however, would also adapt the lessons specifically to the child’s needs.

There are two types of early childhood teachers—birth to three and three through around age eight. Children ages zero to three are served by their counties, and this is called early intervention services. When a child is three years old, their local school district takes over special education services.

Transition Program Special Education Vocational Teacher

Vocational education is essential for many students who intend to enter the workforce upon graduating from high school. School districts are required to offer special education services until a student reaches 21 years of age, with transitional services provided until a learner reaches that age (though students can be exited before that). These post-secondary goals are part of the students’ IEPs, developed when the student is 14, and then worked on throughout high school. These programs acknowledge that people with disabilities have the potential to contribute to society and add to the social fiber of the workforce. The goal is not to train students for low-paying tasks, but to develop skills that can allow them to gain competitive employment similar to their peers.

College/Postsecondary Disability Specialists

Working in special education at the post-secondary level is quite a bit different than typical post-secondary teaching positions. Jobs might include working within disability services at a college or university. In that position, you can expect to work with students and advocate on their behalf to instructors and administration to ensure they receive appropriate accommodations. This is especially important for students with hidden disabilities who may have trouble convincing professors and administration about their needs. For instance, some instructors don’t allow electronics like laptops or tablets in their classrooms, even though these devices can help students with disabilities by recording lessons, automatically transcribing lectures, or providing them with a verbal voice so they can contribute.

Special Education Administrator

Experienced special educators have the option of moving up to administrator positions that manage and facilitate special education programs at the school, district, or state level. Administrators typically take the birds-eye view of special education trends, serve as advocates for SPED teachers and students, help create and improve policy, or manage special education programs.

Teacher for the Visually or Hearing Impaired

These are two separate careers requiring different certifications. Educators for students with visual or hearing impairments follow the same educational paths as other special education teachers: earning a general education license, then adding their respective specialty endorsements. As students are entitled to a free and equal education regardless of need, though there are schools specifically for the blind or deaf, many students with these challenges are in traditional public schools. Because these students have needs that require specialized instruction and assistance, such as reading brail or using sign language, their teachers must be fluent in those skills in addition to competent in subject matter and grade-level education standards. It is not uncommon for these students to be fully integrated into typical classrooms, spending limited to no time in a special education classroom, with their SPED teacher, specifically-trained paraprofessional, or interpreter on hand. As with other areas of special education, their IEPs dictate this balance.

Teachers for Those with Behavior Disorders

In K-12 classrooms, behavior disorder rates are on the rise. While negative or disruptive behaviors are not always related to a disability, they can be diagnosable challenges. Teachers in this area must have thick skin. Behavior disorders can exist alongside other learning challenges—and giftedness—so schools will need to make judgment calls on how to best meet the needs of students who are at risk of mentally or physically harming someone, but also need other supports.

Applied Behavioral Analyst

Applied behavior analysts specialize in understanding behaviors as they relate to specific disorders and are often resources for educators who need assistance in developing curriculum around particular skills development.

Gifted and Talented Teacher

Gifted and talented students are typically functioning beyond their peers’ academic standards, which may lead to boredom and behavior issues in the classroom. Gifted and talented programming provides those students with the academic challenges that help them grow as students. The structure of gifted and talented education programs depends on district and state requirements, with some states not requiring IEPs for the learners.

Working with Twice-Exceptional Students

Twice-exceptional, or dual-exceptional, students are those who require both gifted and talented and other special education services. There are several myths about these learners, including that their giftedness will negate their additional needs or that meeting all of their needs is impossible. While there are not teachers who work solely with twice-exceptional learners in our public schools, these students may end up in both special education and gifted classes, or a call may be made for a student to be in one or the other with additional supports. Both traditional special education and gifted educators need to be prepared to work with this kind of learner; some places will combine the students’ IEPs into one, while others will have two IEPs. Locations where gifted education does not require IEPs may require more work on the special education teacher’s part, but if they have a gifted teacher on hand, they can use their expertise.

Like other learners in special education, these students may receive services from teachers who provide direct services—that is, work in a classroom specifically for students with needs—or as part of an interdisciplinary team providing support to the teachers who work with them.

The Interdisciplinary Team

Special education students don’t solely work with a special education teacher—they have an entire interdisciplinary team. This includes everyone who works with students in their IEP goals, from general education teachers to parents. The team may also include specialists who may not have teaching degrees, including (but not limited to):

  • Paraprofessionals: Certified and employed directly by the school, paraprofessionals work alongside special education teachers to ensure the needs of the students are met.
  • Speech and language pathologists: An essential member of many students’ IEP teams, schools often have a full-time speech and language pathologist (SLP) on their staff. They work with students who have a variety of communication issues, not just speech challenges, including auditory processing disorder, dyslexia, and nonverbal disabilities. Students who work with them have the SLP’s assistance dictated by their respective IEPs, and common interventions include improving vocabulary and reading comprehension, use of different letters’ and words’ sounds in natural language, and the expression of complicated ideas.
  • Arts, music, and drama therapists: Also called creative and expressive arts therapists, they focus on using one or more of these fields to enhance help students express themselves in new ways, increase social skills, and achieve other therapeutic goals.
  • Occupational therapists: These professionals assist learners in overcoming challenges with tasks that affect everyday life, including everything from social skills to sensory issues to basic self-care.
  • Physical therapists: In schools, physical therapists work with students to improve motor skills, help other team members understand the unique physical needs and challenges of the learners, and strive to ensure that the learning environments allow the students to move freely and safely.
  • Interpreters: For students who are deaf or hard of hearing, interpreters attend classes and other school activities with the learners to ensure they can understand what is being communicated and share their ideas. Their role is not limited to the use of sign language; the students’ IEPs dictate methods implemented.

If working with special needs young people interests you, but you are not sure you want to be a special education teacher, it would be worth looking at these careers before making your decision.

Career Outlook and Salary for Special Education Teachers

Job growth for special education teachers varies by state; for instance, at the kindergarten and elementary school levels, Maine is expecting a drop of 3%, while Texas is anticipating a growth of 20%. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the median special education teacher salary was $59,790 in 2018, but wages vary by grade level. Refer to the table below for more specific salary and job growth information.

Grade Level Taught Average Salary Projected Growth (2018 – 28)
Preschool $55,840 8%
Elementary school $63,110 3%
Middle school $64,390 3%
High school $65,320 3%

Salary data from Bureau of Labor Statistics. Growth data from CareerOneStop.

There are a variety of student loan forgiveness options, including the possibility of special education teachers qualifying for up to $17,500 in forgiveness—a higher amount than what many other teachers receive. Make sure to understand the benefits for each program as they are quite strict, and if you don’t take the right steps or if you’re not in a position that qualifies, you could miss out on the opportunity.

Steps to Becoming a Special Education Teacher

Becoming a special education teacher looks very similar to becoming a general education teacher. However, there are a few additional requirements to work with students of special needs.

Step One: Earn a Degree or Complete a Certification Program

To become a special education teacher, you must have a bachelor’s degree and a license in special education. For current special education teachers, you should research whether your school district will help pay for an advanced degree or certification. Higher degrees often result in higher pay and may help you to better understand and teach your students.

Bachelor’s Degree in Education

Through your bachelor’s in education program, you can opt to take coursework needed for special education teaching licensure/endorsement and develop a foundation in teaching students with special needs. Because each state has its own licensure requirements, such as student teaching hours or other practicum conditions, make sure that the program you’re in will meet your state’s standards. While all schools will provide foundational coursework on curriculum development, concentrations and coursework can vary by program. Courses you’ll commonly find in a SPED bachelor’s program include Understanding Disability and the Exceptional Child, Curriculum Development in Special Education, and Classroom Management. Beyond core coursework, some programs might have concentration offerings that help you learn more about working with a specific age group or gain a deeper understanding of a particular topic or educational technique (e.g., autism spectrum disorders or assistive technology).

Master’s Degree in Special Education

Achieving a master’s degree in special education is an excellent option if you want to expand your depth and breadth of knowledge in the field, concentrate on a specific area, and advance your career. Additionally, if you already received your bachelor’s degree in a subject other than from education or special education, a master’s that leads to licensure may help in making a career change. While the majority of states don’t require a master’s degree to teach special education, an advanced degree will usually result in a raise. Additionally, some school districts might offer programs that help pay for graduate education in your field. You can dive into specialties such as applied behavioral analysis, autism spectrum disorders, gifted and talented, and special education leadership. While coursework will vary widely depending on the program and the concentration, some common courses you might find include Special Education Policy and Practice, Applied Behavioral Analysis, Educational Statistics, and Research Methods in Special Education.

Doctorate in Special Education

If you see yourself in a leadership or administrative position or conducting research in special education, you may want to consider a doctoral degree. While this may not be especially beneficial if you want to continue K-12 teaching, it is almost essential if you want to teach in a post-secondary institution or advance up the administrative chain within a district or state. Because doctorates can take an average of three to four years (longer if you’re going part-time), you will want to be sure the step will help you meet your goals. Additionally, you’ll want to look into programs both for Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) and Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in education degrees. Ed.D. programs are geared more towards administrators and practitioners and often take less time to complete than a Ph.D., which is much more research- and academia-oriented. Typical courses in a doctoral program include Qualitative Research Methods in Education, Statistics and Quantitative Research in Education, and Policy and Practice in Special Education.

Alternative Certification in Special Education

If you’re ready for a career shift and already have a bachelor’s (or higher) degree in another field, alternative certification programs in special education can get you into teaching much more quickly than completing a full bachelor’s program. Because each state has different requirements for alternative certification, you’ll want to start there and make sure that your desired program will lead you in the right direction. Courses will likely be similar to those you’ll find in a bachelor’s program, but some standard courses include Special Education Curriculum Development, Assessment, and Individualized Education Foundations.

Graduate Certificate in Special Education

If you’re already a teacher but would like to switch to special education or would like to concentrate in a specialized area of the field, a graduate certificate is a great option. The programs for certification are shorter than full master’s degree programs but provide you with the foundation in specialized areas where you can obtain licensure or practice in different areas of the field. Because these don’t lead to an advanced degree, they likely won’t affect your pay. Typical certificate program courses include Adaptive Curriculum, Visual Impairments Licensure, or Applied Behavioral Analysis. Typical coursework in the general special education programming that leads to SPED licensure includes Introduction to Special Education, Language Development and Reading, and Curriculum Development Strategies. Many online colleges offer graduate certificates, making it easier to complete coursework while working full-time as a teacher.

Online Programs in Special Education

Online programs are an excellent way for full-time teachers to expand their knowledge and advance their careers. There are a variety of formats, including fully online programs, hybrid courses (a combination of in-person and online coursework), and low-residency programs where the majority of coursework is online except for occasional short-term immersion or weekend courses that require you to travel to campus.

Of course, online programs will be quite different from face-to-face coursework, as it will require self-discipline and motivation to ensure you’re meeting the course’s standards and deadlines from week to week. While you may not meet your classmates or instructors in-person, advances in online education technology provide spaces where you connect and create a community with your classmates.

There’s a common misconception that online coursework will hurt your career, but on the contrary, it could help it. Because you have access to such a variety of programs and aren’t limited to geographic areas, you can more easily find programs that work for your interests.

Step Two: Practice in the Special Education Field

To achieve licensure in any state, you need to fulfill student teaching, internship, or practicum requirements. These experiential programs let you practice teaching with the guidance of an experienced teacher as your supervisor. You will gain experience in developing curricula, working with students individually, managing a class, assessing student progress and navigating IEPs, and working with parents. Most degree programs require these experiential components to complete the degree or certificate, but each state has different standards (e.g., the minimum number of hours differ from state to state), so you’ll want to ensure you’re fulfilling those.

Master’s degree programs that don’t lead to licensure don’t often require student teaching, but they may require an internship or practicum. These components, like student teaching, help put your knowledge into action in the real world.

Step Three: Obtain Special Education Licensure or Certification

Licensure requirements include the following:

  • Earning a degree. Bachelor’s degrees are the minimum requirement, but there are other options for those with life experience or a bachelor’s in another subject. See the degree program overviews above for details.
  • Student teaching. As noted above, this is where you’ll put your knowledge to work and develop real-world skills for teaching.
  • Passing state-required exams. All states require passing a knowledge and skills exam to teach.
  • Passing the state-required background check.
  • Submiting paperwork and pay fees.

Because so many of the licensing requirements are state-specific, check out our state pages that provide detailed information about requirements by state. While some states offer reciprocity—honoring licenses from other states—it’s not always simple to move from one state to another as a teacher. In some cases, you may need to apply for a new certification, which might require redoing some of the steps included above.

Resources for Current and Future Special Education Teachers

Whether you are currently a special education teacher or looking into the profession, these resources and organizations are a great way to learn more about the field or get more involved.

  • The Association for Positive Behavior Support: This multi-disciplinary organization promotes Positive Behavior Support methodologies with a strong focus on creating and providing research and creating networking opportunities.
  • Council for Exceptional Children: As a professional organization, the CEC helps to advance the field by providing professional development opportunities and advocating for special education. As a convener of conversations in the area, the CEC also offers opportunities to dive deeper into professional specializations through their various sub-divisions and councils.
  • Council for Learning Disabilities: The CLD provides professional development opportunities, advocates for progressive special education policies, and works to develop leaders in the area of learning disabilities.
  • Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA): IDEA’s website provides resources for teachers and parents and information on the responsibilities and legal rights of anyone involved with special education.
  • International Association of Special Education: The IASE brings a global perspective to the field and provides an opportunity for special educators from around the world to connect and learn from one another through research and practice.
  • National Association of Special Education Teachers (NASET): This national professional organization for special educators serves as a development hub and center for innovation in research and practice in the field.

Meet the Expert

AlysonLewis

Alyson Lewis

Alyson has a bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education, and her master’s degree is in Functional Special Education. Alyson taught in the classroom for eight years as Special Education teacher for students with significant and severe disabilities. Alyson is currently a high school vocational teacher who helps students with disabilities transition from school services to life after high school.