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Special Education Teacher Career Guide

How to Become a Special Education Teacher

It takes a special individual to be a special education teacher. Special education is more than a job—it’s an opportunity to make a difference in a child’s life. It requires an enormous amount of mental and physical energy because your students will have a variety of unique needs. Special education teachers invest a lot of time and attention on paperwork and individual progress monitoring, but the reward is tenfold. The challenges of being a special education teacher pale in comparison to the ultimate reward of this invaluable teaching role—having a lifelong impact on students who have mental or physical disabilities. 

Happy Down Syndrome boy is sitting at a table with his female Hispanic teacher and playing with building blocks.

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.

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.

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 Education and Elementary Education (Dual Licensure) – B.A.

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

An online teaching degree and teacher...

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.

(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. 

  • Time: 62% of grads earned this degree within 3½ years.
  • Tuition and fees: $3,770 per 6-month term.

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 prepares you to teach students with mild-to-moderate disabilities, with courses in the foundations of teaching, instructional planning and presentation, assessment, and classroom management. Core elementary and special education courses focus on diversity, disciplinary literacy, elementary education methods, and special education topics such as law, assessment, and behavioral management. This program requires in-classroom observation and a term of full-time demonstration teaching. Compare B.A. Special Education (Mild to Moderate)

 

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

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

An online master's degree for current or aspiring...

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

  • Time: 67% of grads finish similar programs in 18 months.
  • Tuition and fees: $3,935 per 6-month term.

Coursework in this program covers the following areas of study:

  • Educational psychology and human development
  • Schools as communities of care
  • Essential practices for supporting diverse learners
  • Creating and managing engaging learning environments
  • Special education practices
  • Management strategies for academic and social behavior
  • Assessment and evaluation procedures for special education
  • Disciplinary literacy
  • Special education methods
  • Using educational technology for teaching and learning

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...

An online teaching degree and teacher...

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.

This special education bachelor's degree program will help you prepare for an exciting future helping exceptional students. 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.

  • Time: 62% of grads finish similar online teaching degree programs within 3½ years.
  • Tuition and fees: $3,770 per 6-month term.

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 coursework and assessments tailor-made for future teachers who are committed to working with students who have mild to moderate learning exceptionalities. It offers deep engagement in serving special education students and leads to your K–12 special education license in states that do not require dual elementary-ed and special-ed licensure. It also includes a preclinical experience with face-to-face observation hours and a Demonstration Teaching component hosted by an experienced teacher and directed by a clinical supervisor.

Compare B.A. Special Education (K–12)

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A language therapist works in a special education classroom with a young student.

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.

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.

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. 

How Much Does a Special Education Teacher make?

$61,500

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 $61,500 as reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

What Is the Projected Job Growth?

8%

The BLS projects 8% growth for special education teachers over the next 10 years, a rate that is faster than the average growth rate for other occupations. At 9%, the growth projection for preschool special education teachers is even greater, signaling an increase in demand for this demographic. 

Do I Need a Certification to Be a Special Education Teacher?

Yes

To be a special education teacher, you’ll need at least a bachelor’s degree in special education and a teaching license in your state. Be sure to know the specific licenses, certifications, and degrees required by your state, district, and school for teaching special education.

Interested in Becoming a Special Education Teacher?

Learn more about degree programs that can prepare you for this meaningful career.

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