Special education teachers typically work with children and youths who have mild to moderate disabilities, modifying the general education curriculum to meet the children’s needs. Most teach students in elementary, middle, and secondary schools, while some work with infants and toddlers. A small number teach basic literacy and life skills to students with mental retardation or autism. Disabilities that qualify students for special education include specific learning disabilities, speech or language impairments, mental retardation, emotional disturbance, multiple disabilities, hearing impairments, orthopedic impairments, visual impairments, autism, combined deafness and blindness, traumatic brain injury, and other health impairments.
Special education teachers work to develop an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for each of their students. IEPs include goals, a transition plan to higher levels of education, and, in some cases, a job or postsecondary study. Teachers work closely with the student’s parents, school administrators, and the student’s general education teacher. They inform parents of the student’s progress and help parents with methods that can reinforce learning at home. Special education teachers work to help prepare students for life after graduation, providing career counseling and helping them learn routine skills, such as balancing a checkbook. They work in various settings, including their own classrooms, the classrooms of other teachers, or school resource rooms.
Special education teachers must be particularly creative when it comes to adapting their teaching methods to the educational needs of their unique students. They must be accepting of the differences in others. They spend a great deal of their time interacting with others, such as students, parents, and school administrators, making communication and cooperation essential skills. They need to by patient and have the ability to motivate their students. And they should be dependable and organized.
In 2002, special education teachers earned a median annual salary of between $41,350 and $44,130. About 62% of all special education teachers belong to unions that bargain with school systems on their behalf regarding wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment.
Training and Education
All special education teachers in the United States must be licensed. Licenses vary by State, but in many States, special education teachers receive a general education credential to teach kindergarten through grade 12. Teachers then specialize in an area such as learning disabilities or behavioral disorders. All States require special education teachers to hold a bachelor’s degree and to complete an approved teacher preparation program. Many States require a Master’s degree in special education, including at least 1 year of additional coursework, including a specialization. Many programs are offered at colleges and universities across the country, including undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral level degrees. Special education teachers are usually required to undergo a longer period of training and education than their general education counterparts.
In 2002, special education teachers held about 433,000 jobs. 90% worked in public schools, while 7% worked in private schools. About half of all special education teachers worked in elementary schools, and a small number worked for individual and social assistance agencies or residential facilities.
Between 2002 and 2012, employment of special education teachers is expected to grow faster than the average. Legislation emphasizing training and employment for individuals with disabilities, as well as educational reforms requiring higher standards for graduation will create additional positions for teachers. However, a decrease in the rate of student enrollments may temper this growth somewhat. Additional job openings will be created by the need to replace special education teachers who switch to general education, as well as those who change careers or retire.
For more information on how to pursue this profession, please see our Education Degree directory.