How to Become a
Special Education Teacher

A male teacher in front of a class helping a boy in an oral presentation

Are you interested in finding out what it takes to become a Special Education Teacher? This article will give you all the information you need to decide if this challenging and rewarding job is the right one for you.

What Does a Special Education Teacher Do?

Special Education Teachers teach students with learning, mental, emotional and physical disabilities. They work with students of all ages on a variety of general education topics, helping them to develop necessary problem-solving, motor and social skills. Most Special Education Teachers work in public and private schools, while some work with young children in childcare centers and others work at residential facilities or in private homes.

Special Education Teachers work with a wide range of disabilities – intellectual and physical – and their duties vary based on the type of setting they work in and the disabilities of the students they work with and specialize in. In general, Special Education Teachers work with other teachers, counselors and parents to develop Individual Education Programs (IEPS) specific to each student. The IEP outlines the educational goals for each student, and Special Education Teachers are often refining the IEP and updating parents on the status of their child’s education. Some common Special Education Teacher duties and responsibilities include:

  • Special Education Teachers use their training to determine the specific needs and abilities of the students under their care, in order to develop appropriate learning plans.

  • Develop Individualized Education Programs (IEPs). Based on their assessment of needs and abilities, Special Education Teachers collaboratively develop IEPs for each student.

  • To implement the IEP, Special Education Teachers adapt lesson plans or develop new ones to suit their children’s learning needs. Sometimes these are taught one-on-one, other times to small groups or a whole class.

  • Assess students’ performance and discuss with parents. A critical part of the Special Education Teacher’s job is to keep the parents informed and updated on their student’s progress.

Special Education Teacher Skills

Teaching students with disabilities is a highly rewarding job, but it can also be emotionally and physically demanding. This job demands a hug amount of patience and compassion, and a willingness to work with each student on their level. It also requires excellent interpersonal and communication skills, both in teaching concepts to the students and in dealing with their parent’s and school administrators. As with any teaching job, Special Education Teachers should also have good creative thinking and resourcefulness, to be able to come up with effective and engaging ways to get their lessons across to students with disabilities.

Other key Special Education Teacher skills include:

  • Demonstrated knowledge of and the ability to support learning in reading, writing, and mathematics

  • Ability to thrive in a highly collaborative work environment

  • Current CPR and First Aid certification

How Do You Become a Special Education Teacher

Education and Training

Based on our research of Special Education Teacher job postings, we found that the majority of Special Education Teacher positions required at least a bachelor’s degree.  Some Special Education Teachers earn a degree specifically in special education, while others major in elementary education or a content area, such as math or science, or even psychology, and then may minor in special education. Special educations programs, at both the undergraduate and master’s levels, will teach prospective teachers about different types of disabilities and how to best teach disabled students.

In public schools, Special Education Teachers are also required to have a state-issued certification or license. Requirements for certification vary by state, and some states require special education teachers to complete a master’s degree in special education to become fully qualified. Many states also require teachers to complete a teacher preparation program and have supervised teaching experience, known as fieldwork, which can last up to two years. As they progress through their careers, Special Education Teachers may be required to complete annual professional development classes to maintain their license.

Finding a job

Demand for Special Education Teachers is always high, and continues to grow. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects a 6 percent increase in jobs for Special Education Teachers over the next decade.

Begin you Special Education Teacher job search by crafting a high-quality resume that highlights your skills and experience. For guidance on creating a great resume, take a look at our library of Special Education Teacher resume samples.

After you’ve perfected your resume, search online for Special Education Teacher job opportunities. As you look for openings, be sure to leverage your professional network, including people you met through certification training or fieldwork.

Once you’ve found a Special Education Teacher job to apply for, write a cover letter that expresses your interest in the position and highlights your qualifications and what you will bring to the role. Need some cover letter inspiration? Check out our collection of cover letter samples.

Insights from a Special Education Teacher

To help give you inside look at how to become a Special Education Teacher, we talked to former Special Education Teacher Dr. Lydia Carlis. Here’s what she had to tell us.

What is the common career path for Special Education Teachers?

Special Education Teachers require at least a bachelor's degree and Highly Qualified Teacher status in special education. States and districts may also require certification and a minimum pass rate on a content exam such as the Praxis. After teaching several years, Special Education Teachers may seek more leadership opportunities, such as becoming a special education manager or director who oversees school-wide implementation of special education services, the principalship, or leadership, consultant or coaching roles at the district or state level.

What should someone consider before becoming a Special Education Teacher?

Special Education Teachers, even more than general education teachers, need to work closely with their students' other teachers, related service providers, parents and legal guardians, and school administration. Special education work requires strict adherence to legal timelines, and meticulous and complete documentation. It can feel much more administrative in nature than a traditional classroom teaching position.

A Special Education Teacher's role is to support students who have demonstrated learning challenges for a variety of different reasons. Too often, especially in under-resourced schools, these challenges have persisted for years, leading to or exacerbating maladaptive student behavior. So, special education teachers need to be ready to support students with challenging behaviors and targeted learning needs. On a positive note, special education teachers, by the very nature of individualized education, get to work closely with a smaller number of students than a traditional classroom teacher, so there are daily opportunities to see individual students' progress, which can be quite rewarding and motivating!.

What type of person excels in this job?

A resourceful person who loves children and values data will excel in the instructional aspects of the role. In financially strapped schools, all teachers need to be resourceful, but this is especially critical for Special Education Teachers who need to address individualized education plans and goals for multiple students simultaneously. A person who is detail-oriented, a self-starter, and creative will excel in the administrative responsibilities.

What are some of the most important skills – hard and soft – for Special Education Teacher to have?

Important hard skills are knowledge of current special education law, ability to analyze and communicate data to inform instruction, and knowledge and facility in best practices for teaching diverse learners. Important soft skills are patience, mental flexibility, and a spirit of cooperation and collaboration.

How Much Do Special Education Teachers Get Paid?

Special Education Teachersare typically paid an annual salary, with the median annual salary in the United States being $56,800. The lowest-paid Special Education Teachers make about $37,410 per year, and the highest 10 percent earn more than $90,260 annually.

Top 10 States for Special Education Teacher Salary

Special Education Teachers in the following states make the highest median annual wage in the U.S.

    Connecticut

    $78,960

    Alaska

    $72,920

    Rhode Island

    $70,970

    California

    $68,940

    Massachusetts

    $67,070

    New York

    $66,700

    New Jersey

    $62,710

    Delaware

    $61,930

    Pennsylvania

    $61,200

    Oregon

    $61,060

    Special Education Teacher Resources

    Looking for more information about a career as a Special Education Teacher? We put together this list of additional resources to guide your search.

    On the Web

    Teach.org
    This is the #1 resource for learning about what licenses and certificates you’ll need to be a Special Education Teacher, as well as lots of other information on how to get there.

    Personnel Center
    This website has great tools to help you explore a career in special education and develop your workforce skills.

    The Life that Chose Me
    This blog is an insightful look at the career and life of a high school Special Education Teacher.

    Industry Groups

    National Association of Special Education Teachers (NASET)
    This organization is focused on meeting the needs of Special Education Teachers, providing lots of resources and information.

    Council for Exceptional Children
    This organization focuses on policy and advocacy for special education, and has great professional development resources.

    Special Education Teacher Books

    A Survival Guide for New Special Educators
    An essential resource packed with relevant, practical information to guide new special education teachers through their daily work.

    The Complete Guide to Special Education: Expert Advice on Evaluations, IEPs, and Helping Kids Succeed (Second Edition)
    Explore the whole process of special education teaching, from building IEPs to setting up your classroom to dealing with parents.

    The information in this article comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, job postings and other online sources.