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. While a career in special ed has its challenges, those who choose this line of work take pride in helping others learn in a way that works for them.
What Do Special Education Teachers Do?
Special education teachers work in a classroom setting helping students with physical or learning disabilities. In this role, they prepare special-needs students for success using a range of teaching methods and assistive technology. Often, this work occurs in K–12 classrooms.
Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach to learning, special ed teachers tailor their support to their students’ capabilities and unique ways of learning. They accomplish this by creating and implementing an Individualized Education Plan (IEP).
What Is an Individualized Education Plan (IEP)?
In a public school classroom, every student 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 informs the teacher’s approach to reaching the student academically. The IEP outlines goals, provides structure and offers ways to increase involvement and retention.
An IEP should be developed collaboratively. Every teacher who will have the student in class must review and agree to it, as must the student’s parents or guardians. For the greatest chance of success, everyone involved in the student’s education should be on board with the plan.
When developing a plan, a special education teacher must consider several factors:1
- An assessment of the child’s current academic abilities
- Measurable annual goals to track achievement
- Methods for measuring and reporting progress
- What special services the student will be provided with
- When and how these services will be provided
- The extent of the child’s non-participation in class activities or assignments
An IEP is a comprehensive plan and process that is pivotal to the role of a special education teacher. If this role is right for you, be prepared to develop IEPs and determine avenues for student accomplishment.
How to Become 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. Here are some educational paths toward this career.
A bachelor’s degree is a minimum educational requirement. Many universities offer a variety of teaching bachelor’s degrees. For the most direct and relevant degree, find a BS in Elementary Education and Special Education program.
This degree program focuses on equipping future teachers for their role assisting students with disabilities. Students learn how to accommodate students with mild to moderate disabilities to meet their learning, behavioral and social needs. Throughout the program, future teachers learn how to advocate for their students and their education.
To become licensed, you will need to complete 16 weeks of student teaching. Generally, this student teaching must be supervised by a certified special educator. This ensures that you have opportunities to grow in your mastery of special education through observation and experience.
After completion of an undergraduate degree in special education, students may pursue a teaching certificate that leads to licensure. Licensure requirements vary according to the desired educational level. Licenses are valid for a set amount of time, typically three to six years, before they must be renewed.2
Licensure requirements may vary by state. Additional experience, coursework or practicum hours may be required. To ensure that you are qualified to apply for licensure, confirm the local requirements with your state’s Department of Education.
After completing a bachelor’s degree and becoming licensed, you may decide to continue your education. An MEd in Early Childhood Education and Early Childhood Special Education can expand your knowledge and skills in the special education classroom. This program explores models of child development, classroom management, assessment and monitoring techniques.
Graduates emerge more fully equipped to support children with diverse abilities and needs. Graduate education also provides a platform for career advancement and leadership roles that can shape special education.
For highly motivated individuals, doctoral degrees are also available. After earning a relevant MEd, you can complete a PhD program, which is a good 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 lead to career advancement. This degree prepares learners to look at K–12 education as a whole. Learners 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 provides learners with 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 special education teacher. Career requirements vary by job description.
This role involves supporting a traditional teacher in a K–12 setting by helping special needs students interact in general education and special needs classrooms. 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 special needs students but prefer to work in an office setting, a role as a special education administrator may fit you perfectly. 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.
Early Intervention Specialist
An early intervention specialist assesses and supports children with developmental issues during the preschool and kindergarten years. Children in this age range experience rapid development of cognitive and physical functions. An early intervention specialist uses games and forms of physical activity to support the children’s development.
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 ed teacher:
- 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.
- Acceptance: Students need to feel accepted for who they are, not what they can accomplish. By extending acceptance to your students, you may be able to guide them toward personal growth.
- Problem-Solving: Some students may need additional support if they are not showing signs of academic or social improvement. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. Problem-solving and quick thinking can help you explore new ways to achieve success.
- Organization: A highly organized environment offers those with special needs a greater chance of learning. Children with developmental delays and learning disabilities thrive on structure. Lesson plans must be tailored to each student’s abilities.
FAQs About Special Education H3: Should I Become a Special Education Teacher?
A special education teacher must exhibit compassion, patience and constant reassessment of how well an approach is working with any given student. 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 heart 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 would not receive the attention and support it takes for them 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 can find careers in a variety of settings. Teachers and aides are employed by public schools as well as some private and charter schools. 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.
GCU offers several special education degree programs at the bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral levels from the College of Education. Discover how our degrees can advance your career in special education. Click the Request More Information button on this page to learn more about these programs.
1National Association of Special Education Teachers, IEP Components in March 2021.
2Teacher Certification Degrees, Your Comprehensive Guide to Teaching Certification in March 2021.
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.