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Special Education Teacher Career

Career Description

Special education teachers work with children with mild to moderate disabilities, using or modifying the general education curriculum to meet the child’s individual needs. Most special education teachers instruct students at the elementary, middle, and secondary school level, although some work with infants and toddlers.

Common Work Tasks

  • Develop an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for each student
  • Review the IEP with the student’s parents, school administrators, and the student’s general education teachers
  • Work closely with parents to inform them of their child’s progress and suggest techniques to promote learning at home
  • Design and teach appropriate curricula
  • Assign work geared toward each student’s needs and abilities
  • Grade papers and homework assignments
  • Help students develop emotionally, feel comfortable in social situations, and be aware of socially acceptable behavior
  • Provide students with career counseling or help them learn routine skills
  • Coordinate the work of teachers, teacher assistants, and related personnel, such as therapists and social workers, to meet the individualized needs of the student

Other Job Titles

Special education teachers are also known by other titles, including:

  • School Psychologist
  • School Counselor
  • Instructional Coordinator
  • Speech-Language Pathologist
  • Occupational Therapist
  • Teacher

Education, Training, and Experience

Education and Training
Special education teachers usually undergo longer periods of training than do general education teachers. Most bachelor’s degree programs last years and include general and specialized courses in special education. However, an increasing number of institutions require a 5th year or other graduate-level preparation. Among the courses offered are educational psychology, legal issues of special education, child growth and development, and strategies for teaching students with disabilities. Some programs require specialization, while others offer generalized special education degrees or a course of study in several specialized areas. The last year of the program usually is spent student teaching in a classroom supervised by a certified teacher.

Licensure and Certification
All states require special education teachers to be licensed. The State Board of Education or a licensure advisory committee usually grants licenses, and licensure varies by state. In some states, special education teachers receive a general education credential to teach kindergarten through grade 12. These teachers then train in a specialty, such as learning disabilities or behavioral disorders. Many States offer general special education licenses across a variety of disability categories, while others license several different specialties within special education.

For traditional licensing, all States require a bachelor’s degree and the completion of an approved teacher preparation program with a prescribed number of subject and education credits and supervised practice teaching. However, many States also require a master’s degree in special education, involving at least 1 year of additional course work, including a specialization, beyond the bachelor’s degree. Often a prospective teacher must pass a professional assessment test as well.

Special education teachers must be patient, able to motivate students, understanding of their students’ special needs, and accepting of differences in others. Teachers must be creative and apply different types of teaching methods to reach students who are having difficulty learning. Communication and cooperation are essential skills because special education teachers spend a great deal of time interacting with others, including students, parents, and school faculty and administrators.


The median annual salary for special education teachers is $47,000. The top 10 percent earn more than $77,000, and the lowest 10 percent earn less than $32,000. Median earnings in the industries employing the largest number of special education teachers are:

  • Elementary and Secondary Schools - $52,200
  • Child Day Care Services - $36,140
  • Government - $50,000
  • Educational Support Services - $49,880
  • Residential Mental Retardation, Mental Health and Substance Abuse Facilities - $40,000

Job Outlook

  • 2006-2016 Employment growth:  15%
  • Number of new jobs created 2006-2016: 71,000
  • Employment 2006 : 459,000
  • Employment 2016:  530,000
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