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EDUCATION CAREER GUIDES

Special Education Teacher Career

OVERVIEW

What Is a Special Education Teacher?


 

A special education teacher (or SPED teacher) instructs students who have special needs. Created for students of all ages with emotional, physical, and learning disabilities, special education programs were signed into law in 1975 after Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. In order to promote and manage the growth of their students (from infants to adults), special education teachers modify the general education curriculum to make sure each student’s individual needs are met. They help students develop the problem-solving, motor, and social skills they’ll need to complete their education and live independently. Beyond academic advancement, special ed teachers may also work with students on personal and life skills.

RESPONSIBILITIES

What Does a Special Education Teacher Do?

Similar to other teachers, special ed teachers create lesson plans, assign activities, and grade assignments and tests. They also keep track of student progress and meet with parents to discuss their child’s abilities and challenges. The individualized instruction and curriculum distinguish special education from standard education. Special education teachers have the following responsibilities: 

  • Enriching student learning and providing a stable, individualized education program catered to unique student needs and limitations.
  • Helping students navigate unique mental and physical challenges from a young age so that they can live a fulfilling, self-sufficient life. 
  • Teaching students with physical or mental disabilities how to learn, progress, and interact with others in wholesome and constructive ways. 

Special education teachers are responsible for instructing a broad range of students (infants to adults) with a broad range of disabilities and work at the elementary, middle, or secondary school level at public or private schools. Some special ed instructors have their own classrooms to teach groups of students with special needs, while others work with individuals or small groups of students with disabilities in a general classroom alongside other students.

Special ed instructors often work with general education teachers in identifying and assessing students who may have disabilities or special needs. The job of a special ed teacher in a general education classroom is to adjust the general lessons to fit the needs of each child. These adaptations are included in a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP). IEPs are crucial because what may be an effective teaching approach for one student may not work for another. IEPs involve working with parents and other instructors to know what a special education student needs to learn, how to teach them, and the best process forward to meet their educational needs. Accommodations can range from using flashcards to teach math skills to guiding a student in life skills such as how to answer questions or follow instructions.

EDUCATION & BEST DEGREES

How Do I Become a Special Education Teacher?

The traditional path to a career in teaching special education includes the following steps: 

  • Earn a state-approved bachelor’s degree or master’s degree in special education.
  • Complete a student teaching internship in a special education classroom. Teachers with prior experience in teaching children with disabilities will stand out from others.
  • Take your state’s required tests for special education teachers.
  • Apply for your teaching license.
  • Start applying for special ed teaching positions.
  • Consider earning an additional license in special education if you’re already a teacher. 

Most special education teachers earn a degree in education or special education. Many universities and colleges offer special education teaching degrees at the bachelor’s and master’s levels. WGU offers a dual elementary education and special education bachelor's degree program, a special education—mild to moderate bachelor's degree program, and a master’s degree program—terrific news if you already hold a bachelor’s degree and are looking to make a career shift or gain additional teaching credentials.

Credential requirements for special ed teachers vary between public and private schools. Most jobs among both types of institutions require a focused special education degree whether at the bachelor’s or master’s level. Private schools require a bachelor’s degree but don’t always require certification. To qualify for licensure to teach in public schools, the bachelor’s or master’s degree usually needs to include a teacher training program approved by the state in which it is located.

Best Degrees for Special Education Teachers

Special Ed and Elementary Ed (Dual Licensure) – B.A.

An online teaching degree and teacher certification program for aspiring...

An online teaching degree and teacher certification program for aspiring K–12 special education teachers. Leads to dual licensure—elementary education teaching license and special education teaching license.

  • Time: 61% of grads earned this degree within 27 months.
  • Tuition: $3,825 per 6-month term.
  • Courses: 46 total courses in this program.

(Specific grade levels will vary depending on licensure in your state.) If your state offers a single K–12 special education teaching license and you are interested in focusing on teaching students with mild to moderate exceptionalities, consider the B.A. Special Education (Mild to Moderate) online teaching degree. 

Candidates for this online teaching degree often include:

  • Aspiring special ed teachers who currently lack a teaching license
  • Substitute teachers
  • Career-changers
  • School paraprofessionals
  • Others who feel the call to teach

This special education teaching online degree program requires in-classroom observation and a term of full-time student teaching. 

Teaching, Special Education (K–12) – M.A.

An online master's degree for current or aspiring teachers looking to...

An online master's degree for current or aspiring teachers looking to further their careers with a focus on K–12 special education.

  • Time: 73% of grads finish similar programs in 21 months.
  • Tuition: $3,975 per 6-month term.
  • Courses: 26 total courses in this program.

This program is ideal for students who already have a bachelor's degree in a non-teaching field and are looking to earn their initial teaching license.

Graduates of this program are prepared to teach in a variety of schools including: 

  • Inclusionary K–12 classrooms
  • Middle/junior high schools
  • High schools
  • Private and charter schools

Find a rewarding career teaching students with diverse challenges and special learning abilities with this teaching master's degree.

Special Education (Mild to Moderate) – B.A.

An online teaching degree and teacher certification program for aspiring...

An online teaching degree and teacher certification program for aspiring K–12 special education teacher. Leads to your teaching license in states that offer a single teaching license in K–12 special education.

  • Time: 62% of grads finish similar online teaching degree programs within 29 months.
  • Tuition: $3,825 per 6-month term.
  • Courses: 41 total courses in this program.

 If your state requires—or if you're interested in—dual licensure in both elementary education and K–12 special education, consider the B.A. Special Education (K–12) program.

Candidates for this special education degree program often include:

  • Aspiring special ed teachers who currently lack a teaching license.
  • Substitute teachers.
  • Career-changers.
  • School paraprofessionals.
  • Others who feel the call to teach.

This online degree program includes a preclinical experience with face-to-face observation hours and a Student Teaching component hosted by an experienced teacher and directed by a clinical supervisor.

How Much Does a Special Education Teacher Make?

$62,950

Like other teaching jobs, the salary for special ed teachers depends mostly on education and experience. The median annual salary for an experienced special education teacher with at least a bachelor’s degree is $62,950 as reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

What Is the Projected Job Growth?

  

3%

The BLS projects 3% growth for special education teachers over the next 10 years, a rate that is faster than the average growth rate for other occupations. 

SKILLS

What Skills Does a Special Education Teacher Need?

Special education teachers typically work in elementary or high schools. The skill set needed for each is slightly different. Let’s take a look at some of the differences in responsibilities and expectations for each role. Note that middle and junior high teacher skills and responsibilities tend to span both categories.

Elementary school special education teacher skills

  • Work with students who have physical disabilities, cognitive impairments, developmental delays, or documented behavioral issues that affect learning in the mainstream classroom.
  • Lead the formation or revision of an Individual Education Plan (IEP) each year as a collaborative working document for parents, educators, administrators, and support staff. 
  • Advocate for people with disabilities through education legislation and other measures. 
  • Understand theories of child and adolescent development. 
  • Serve as subject matter expert for classroom teachers and support staff for teaching and learning strategies as well as for relevant medical conditions and information.
  • Advocate on behalf of students needs to teachers and administration.
  • Provide students without disabilities with strategies for perspective-taking and inclusion in classroom and extracurricular activities.

High school special education teacher skills

  • Help students learn self-advocacy as they approach the end of high school.
  • Function as a resource for school-to-work transitioning.
  • Advocate for and recommend students for extensive cooperative education placements both in and outside of the school.
  • Suggest beneficial reductions in support for the student to foster self-reliance, reduce vulnerability, and increase independence.
  • Model and role-play self-advocacy skills for students in the classroom and in life-skills situations.
  • Understand the medical, physical, behavioral, emotional, and social implications of a particular diagnosis and how this may impact learning and life situations.
  • Create a transition plan from year to year, and from high school to post-secondary education or job training. 

Our Online University Degree Programs Start on the First of Every Month, All Year Long

No need to wait for spring or fall semester. It's back-to-school time at WGU year-round. Get started by talking to an Enrollment Counselor today, and you'll be on your way to realizing your dream of a bachelor's or master's degree—sooner than you might think!

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Interested in Becoming a Special Education Teacher?

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