How to Become a Special Education Teacher

special education teacher drawing with student

Becoming a special education teacher is an excellent career choice for people who want to work with students who need individualized support. Special education teachers may work one-on-one with students with intellectual or developmental disabilities. They may also work in small groups inside the general education classroom or hold classes specific for students with individualized education plans (IEPs).

If you are thinking about pursuing a special education degree, there is a lot you to learn about the field. Special education teachers have more targeted and specific training than general education teachers since they have to know about the many ways to manage and engage with the highly individualized needs of their students. This type of work takes patience and commitment on the part of the special education teacher, but it is incredibly rewarding.

What Special Education Teachers Do

Special education teachers use their understanding of intellectual and developmental disabilities to help support students. They work closely with students who have individualized needs when it comes to lessons, content, delivery methods and assessments in the classroom. Together with parents, administrators, general education teachers and the students themselves, special education teachers develop an individualized education plan (IEP). This document lists a student’s individual needs as well as any modifications or accommodations that the school will provide to help the child meet their goals.

Special education teachers may work one-on-one with some students to help them meet specific goals in their IEP. They may pull together small groups of students with special needs who have closely related IEP goals or work with the students one at a time. Special education teachers also work alongside the general education teacher in the classroom, supporting the grade-level content by helping to make accommodations to the student in real time so they can stay in their classrooms.

Special Education Degrees

To start working as a special educator, you will need to earn a bachelor’s degree that leads to licensure to teach students with special needs. In this four-year degree program, you will take many of the same classes as people who intend to become general education teachers. You will learn about child development, educational psychology, classroom assessment and how to teach in certain content areas. But you will specialize in special education classes, learning about best practices and theories. You may take specialized courses in speech therapy, nonverbal learning, students on the autism spectrum or special education assessment. You will also do your student teaching work in a special education classroom and/or in a general education classroom where the special education teacher co-teaches with a general education teacher.

Many special education teachers go on to earn their master’s in special education. This allows you to focus on a specialty within the field of special education. It also helps you become more specialized in the certain types of special needs of the students that you work with. A master’s in special education degree will allow you to deepen your understanding of working with students with intellectual and developmental disabilities, as does a doctorate in special education. Your dissertation or final project will be applicable to the work that you do in the classroom and help you discover new ways of supporting your students.

Certification for Special Education Teachers

All teachers who intend to work in public schools must become certified or licensed, a process that varies by state. Generally, after you graduate with your bachelor’s in special education, you will be prepared to sit for the teaching licensure test. In many states, you will need to pass both a general education licensing test as well as a special education certificate or license.

Special education teachers can also become board certified. This is a voluntary certification, but it helps you build your commitment and competency in the field. Many employers look to hire board certified special education teachers because it shows your knowledge and expertise in the area of special education

Jobs for Special Education Teachers

Just about every job for a special education teacher requires at least a bachelor's in special education as well as teaching certification, but once you have earned your degree and acquired your teaching license, you will find that there are many roles needed to be filled.

Some roles for people with special education degrees include:

1. Aide

Many special education departments require teachers’ aides, who assist special education teachers at all levels from kindergarten through high school. The teacher's assistant in special education provides an additional layer of support for students with special needs. They support the special education teacher by working with small groups and individual students on skills that they need that may not relate directly to the same goals as other students. The teacher's aide in special education also gives one-on-one attention to students who may have health or development needs.

2. Early Childhood Education Center Teacher

In some states, there are preschools, daycares and special education centers specifically for children with special needs. These programs 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 are non-communicative or in need of special medical care and cannot attend traditional day care centers. A special education teacher who chooses to work in early childhood education and loves working with young children can thrive at a special education center.

3. K-12 Special Education Teacher

Special education degree holders who want to work in K-12 education can find 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. They 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.

Earning your special education degree can lead you to an extremely rewarding career as a special education teacher. At Grand Canyon University, you will have the full support of our College of Education as you begin your degree program in teaching or school administration. Learn more about getting started in our Bachelor’s in Special Education degree by visiting our website or clicking the Request Info button on this page.

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