How To Become a Special Education Teacher

Teacher helping student with special needs

If you think you have what it takes to become a teacher, you should consider exploring teaching specialization avenues, such as special education. What is a special education teacher? How long might it take to become a special education teacher? Here is where you can find those answers.

A career in special education can be a rewarding path for those who have a desire to help children with special needs reach their full potential. Special needs are also referred to in schools as “exceptionalities.” While a career in special education can have its challenges, those who choose this line of work often take pride in helping others learn in a way that works for them. Use this career guide to learn how to become a special education teacher.

In This Article:

What Is a Special Education Teacher?

Special education teachers work with students with exceptionalities. Exceptionalities might include learning disabilities. In this role, they prepare students with special needs for success using a range of teaching methods and assistive technologies. 

Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach to learning, special education teachers tailor their support to their students’ capabilities and unique ways of learning. They accomplish this by working with a team of educators and stakeholders to develop and implement an Individualized Education Program (IEP).

What Is an Individualized Education Program (IEP)?

An IEP is a comprehensive plan and process that is pivotal to the role of a special education teacher.1 In a public school classroom, most students with special needs receives an IEP. Special education teachers develop these plans to chart a personalized path for each child’s educational success.

In creating IEPs, the special education teacher considers students’ abilities, how they interact and what methods they are most receptive to. This background helps guide the teacher’s approach to reaching the student where they are academically, behaviorally and socially. The IEP outlines specific individualized goals, provides structure and offers ways to increase engagement and retention.

An IEP should be developed collaboratively. Each teacher who will have the student in their classroom should review and agree to it, as well as the student’s parents or guardians. For the greatest chance of a positive outcome for the student, everyone involved in the student’s education should be on board with the plan. IEPs are dynamic documents in that they are periodically updated to reflect the student’s progress and evolving goals.2

When developing a plan, a special education teacher should consider several factors:3

  • An assessment of the child’s current academic abilities
  • Measurable annual goals to track achievement
  • Methods for measuring and reporting progress
  • What special services are available to the student
  • When and how these services may be provided
  • The extent of the child’s participation or non-participation in class activities or assignments

If this role is right for you, be prepared to develop IEPs and determine avenues for student accomplishment.

Guide To Becoming a Special Education Teacher

Special education teachers must be licensed and hold at least a bachelor’s degree. A degree in special education is preferred.4

When researching this career path, you may be asking the question, How long does it take to become a special education teacher? There is no universally applicable answer, since aspiring teachers may follow different career pathways before landing their first teaching job. To better understand how long it might take you to earn a teaching degree, complete the form on this page and request a consultation with a university counselor.

Special Education Teacher Qualifications: Education

A variety of bachelor’s degrees are available and may have different qualifications for each program. However, a bachelor’s degree is typically a minimum educational requirement.4 The BS in Elementary Education and Special Education program is one option.

This degree program focuses on equipping future teachers for their role in assisting students with disabilities. You will be taught how to accommodate students with mild to moderate disabilities to meet their learning, behavioral and social needs. Throughout the program, future teachers study ways to advocate for their students and their education.

To become licensed, you will need to complete a student teaching experience as part of your degree program.4 Generally, this student teacher must be supervised by a certified special educator. This ensures that you have opportunities to grow in your knowledge of special education through observation and experience. 

Teacher Licensure

After earning a relevant bachelor’s degree that leads to teacher licensure, your next step toward meeting special education teacher qualifications is to obtain a state-issued teaching license, also called a teaching certification. All teachers who wish to work in public schools are legally required to hold a license.4 You should research the licensure requirements for the state in which you plan to work, as they vary by state.

Although it’s not required, some special education teachers may wish to further enhance their special education teacher qualifications by pursuing board certification from a professional organization. For example, the National Association of Special Education Teachers (NASET) offers a Board Certification in Special Education (BCSE) credential. To qualify to pursue the BCSE credential, you must have a relevant master’s degree or higher, and you must complete NASET’s BCSE course modules.5

Post-Graduate Education

After completing a bachelor’s degree and becoming licensed, you may decide to continue your education. A MEd in Early Childhood Education and Early Childhood Special Education (non-licensure versions) can allow you to study advanced topics for the special education classroom. This program explores models of child development, classroom management, assessment and monitoring techniques.

In a master’s degree program, you will have the opportunity to study and examine how to better support children with diverse abilities and needs. Graduate education may also allow you to position yourself for possible career advancement and leadership roles that can shape special education.

Doctoral Degrees

For highly motivated individuals, doctoral degrees in education are also available. After earning a relevant MEd, you may also wish to complete a PhD program, which can be a path to careers in leadership and academia. However, a Doctor of Education (EdD) or education specialist degree may provide a more direct path for those who prefer to stay in the classroom environment or administrative roles in school districts.

An Educational Specialist in K-12 Leadership degree can develop leadership skills that may allow you to position yourself for possible career advancement. This degree can prepare learners to look at K-12 education as a whole. Learners can look into training initiatives, how to build an effective community and how to enact strategic planning. 

For those committed to supporting the special education population, a Doctor of Education in Organizational Leadership with an Emphasis in Special Education is a viable option. This degree teaches learners the skills to become advocates for special needs children with a focus on theory, implementation and research. 

Special Education Jobs To Consider

For those interested in a special education career, various roles are available. Below are some common options to consider beyond that of a special education teacher. Career requirements can vary by job description.

Teacher’s Aide

This role involves supporting a traditional teacher in a K–12 setting by helping students with special needs interact in general education and special needs classrooms.6 Aides help special education teachers by working with students who may need additional guidance while the teacher is otherwise engaged.

Special Education Administrator

If you have a strong desire to help students with special needs, but prefer to work in an office setting, a role as a special education administrator may be right for you. Special education administrators work in special education departments, helping to mold the curriculum and the policies that affect the students. They play an important role in supporting teachers by encouraging them and listening to their suggestions and requests.7

Early Intervention Specialist

An early intervention specialist assesses and supports children with developmental issues during the preschool and kindergarten years.8 Children in this age range can experience rapid development of cognitive and physical functions. An early intervention specialist may use games and forms of physical activity to support the children’s development.

Early Childhood Education Center Teacher

In some states, there are preschools, daycares and special education centers specifically for children with special needs. These programs can help the children become school-ready before the age of five. They work on intellectual development, as well as social skills and hygiene. 

Some students who enroll in an early childhood special education center may be non-communicative or in need of special medical care and cannot attend traditional daycare centers. A special education teacher who chooses to work in early childhood education and loves working with young children may be able to thrive at special education centers.

K-12 Special Education Teacher

Special education degree holders who want to work in K-12 education have the opportunity to pursue jobs either as general educators or special educators. When they work in the role of special education teachers, graduates work with parents, general education teachers and school administrators to support children. 

K-12 special education teachers may write IEPs and assess student progress toward their goals. They help create student schedules in order to allow the child to have one-on-one time, small group time and time with their general education peers.

Skills for Success

Teaching young students often requires patience, and this quality can be even more vital in special education. Working in special education also gives you the opportunity to demonstrate love and acceptance as you seek to understand what your students need and help them succeed. Here are some traits that can ease your path as a special education teacher:4

  • Patience: It may take time for results to become evident. Patience is essential for persevering in the face of roadblocks until the students find a way to flourish.
  • Communication skills: Students with exceptionalities may have varying levels of spoken and written language comprehension. Special education teachers must be able to adapt their communication to fit individual needs.
  • Interpersonal skills: It’s important for teachers to be able to develop a strong rapport, not only with their students, but also with their fellow educators and their students’ parents or guardians. Collaboration is essential for the development of an IEP.
  • Flexibility: Special education teachers must be able to adapt their teaching strategies, lesson plans and learning materials to meet their students’ individual needs.

FAQs About Special Education

You may have some lingering questions about working as a special education teacher. Explore the following frequently asked questions and answers.

Should I Become a Special Education Teacher?

If you exhibit compassion, patience and the ability to constantly reassess how well an approach is working, a career as a special education teacher may be a strong career path. Ultimately, whether you would be a good special education teacher largely comes down to your personal desire to serve this population. If you can combine your compassion for others with strong organizational and execution skills, this role may be a good fit for you.

Why Are Special Ed Teachers Needed?

Special education teachers are a necessary part of the educational system. Without them, students with special needs may not receive the attention and support to learn and grow. The diversity of needs both physical and mental means that special education teachers play a vital role in ensuring that each student is adequately taken care of.

Where Can a Special Education Teacher Work?

Special education teachers may find careers in a variety of settings. Teachers and aides are typically employed by public schools as well as some private and charter schools.9 Some private educational organizations also hire special education teachers. Beyond these options, there are administrative roles in district offices for those with a special education background.

If you feel called to pursue a career as a special education teacher, you can get started on your career pathway at Grand Canyon University. The Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education and Special Education examines core competencies for aspiring K-12 teachers who wish to work with students with mild to moderate disabilities. Complete the form at the top of your screen to learn how you can join GCU’s Christian learning community.

1 Logsdon, A. (2022, April 11). 8 Basic Components of an Individualized Education Program. Retrieved Nov. 3, 2023.

2 AbleSpace. (2023, Oct. 9). IEP Software Helps Avoid Major Violations. Retrieved Oct. 27, 2023.

3 National Association of Special Education Teachers. (n.d.). IEP components. Retrieved Sept. 18, 2023. 

4 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2023, Sept. 6). How to become a special education teacher. Occupational Outlook Handbook. Retrieved Sept. 18, 2023. 

5 National Association of Special Education Teachers. (n.d.). Board Certification in Special Education (BCSE). Retrieved Sept. 18, 2023. 

6 We Are Teachers. (2023, Jan. 6). What is Inclusion in Education? Retrieved Nov. 3, 2023.  

7  IRIS Center. (n.d.). What is Included in the IEP document? Pg. 8 Individualized Services & Supports. Retrieved Nov. 3, 2023.  

8 About Play. (2021, June 9). What Is an Early Intervention Specialist? Retrieved on Nov. 3, 2023.

9 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2023, February). Comparing Occupational Employment and Wages in Public and Private Elementary and Secondary Schools. Retrieved Nov. 3, 2023.

If seeking licensure or certification, applicants to the program are responsible for contacting their state department of education for licensure requirements and program approval. In addition, fingerprint and background clearance is required.

Approved by the dean of the College of Education on Nov. 13, 2023. 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.