Special Education Teacher Career

Special education teachers teach students ages 3 to 21 who have a variety of disabilities. They design individualized education plans and work with students one-on-one to help them learn academic subjects and life skills. Approximately 441,000 special education teachers are employed in the United States, mostly in public schools.

Special Education Teacher Career History

Special Education Teacher CareerModern special education traces its origins to 16th century Spain, where Pedro Ponce de Leon and Juan Pablo Bonet taught deaf students to read and write. It was not until the late 18th century that education for the blind was initiated. An early example was an institute for blind children in Paris that was founded by Valentin Huay. The first U.S. schools for the blind were founded in 1832 in Boston and New York.

By the early 19th century, attempts were made to educate the mentally handicapped. Edouard Sequin, a French psychiatrist, established the first school for the mentally handicapped in 1939 in Orange, New Jersey.

In the first half of the 20th century, special education became increasingly popular in the United States. By the 1960s and early 1970s, parents began to lobby state and local officials for improved special education programs for their children with disabilities. To address continuing inequities in the public education of special needs students, Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (Public Law 94-142) in 1975. The act required public schools to provide disabled students with a “free appropriate education” in the “least restrictive environment” possible. The act was reauthorized in 1990 and 1997, and renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. This act allows approximately six million children (roughly 10 percent of all school-aged children) to receive special education services from highly trained special education teachers.

The Job of Special Education Teachers

Special education teachers instruct students who have a variety of disabilities. Their students may have physical disabilities, such as vision, hearing, or orthopedic impairment. They may also have learning disabilities or serious emotional disturbances. Although less common, special education teachers sometimes work with students who are gifted and talented, children who have limited proficiency in English, children who have communicable diseases, or children who are neglected and abused.

In order to teach special education students, these teachers design and modify instruction so that it is tailored to individual student needs. Teachers collaborate with school psychologists, social workers, parents, and occupational, physical, and speech-language therapists to develop a specially designed Individualized Education Program (IEP) for each of their students. The IEP sets personalized goals for a student based upon his or her learning style and ability, and it outlines specific steps to prepare him or her for employment or postsecondary schooling.

Special education teachers teach at a pace that is dictated by the individual needs and abilities of their students. Unlike most regular classes, special education classes do not have an established curriculum that is taught to all students at the same time. Because student abilities vary widely, instruction is individualized; it is part of the teacher’s responsibility to match specific techniques with a student’s learning style and abilities. They may spend much time working with students one-on-one or in small groups.

Working with different types of students requires a variety of teaching methods. Some students may need to use special equipment or skills in the classroom in order to overcome their disabilities. For example, a teacher working with a student with a physical disability might use a computer that is operated by touching a screen or by voice commands. To work with hearing-impaired students, the teacher may need to use sign language. With visually impaired students, he or she may use teaching materials that have Braille characters or large, easy-tosee type. Gifted and talented students may need extra challenging assignments, a faster learning pace, or special attention in one curriculum area, such as art or music.

In addition to teaching academic subjects, special education teachers help students develop both emotionally and socially. They work to make students as independent as possible by teaching them functional skills for daily living. They may help young children learn basic grooming, hygiene, and table manners. Older students might be taught how to balance a checkbook, follow a recipe, or use the public transportation system.

Special education teachers meet regularly with their students’ parents to inform them of their child’s progress and offer suggestions of how to promote learning at home. They may also meet with school administrators, social workers, psychologists, various types of therapists, and students’ general education teachers.

The current trend in education is to integrate students with disabilities into regular classrooms to the extent that it is possible and beneficial to them. This is often called “mainstreaming.” As mainstreaming becomes increasingly common, special education teachers frequently work with general education teachers in general education classrooms. They may help adapt curriculum materials and teaching techniques to meet the needs of students with disabilities and offer guidance on dealing with students’ emotional and behavioral problems.

In addition to working with students, special education teachers are responsible for a certain amount of paperwork. They document each student’s progress and may fill out any forms that are required by the school system or the government.

Special Education Teacher Career Requirements

High School

If you are considering a career as a special education teacher, you should focus on courses that will prepare you for college. These classes include natural and social sciences, mathematics, and English. Speech classes would also be a good choice for improving your communication skills. Finally, classes in psychology might be helpful both to help you understand the students you will eventually teach, and prepare you for college-level psychology course work.

Postsecondary Training

All states require that teachers have at least a bachelor’s degree and that they complete a prescribed number of subject and education credits. It is increasingly common for special education teachers to complete an additional fifth year of training after they receive their bachelor’s degree. Many states require special education teachers to get a master’s degree in special education.

There are approximately 800 colleges and universities in the United States that offer programs in special education, including undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral programs. These programs include general and specialized courses in special education, including educational psychology, legal issues of special education, child growth and development, and knowledge and skills needed for teaching students with disabilities. The student typically spends the last year of the program student teaching in an actual classroom, under the supervision of a licensed teacher.

Certification or Licensing

All states require that special education teachers be licensed, although the particulars of licensing vary by state. In some states, these teachers must first be certified as elementary or secondary school teachers and then meet specific requirements to teach special education. Some states offer general special education licensure; others license several different subspecialties within special education. Some states allow special education teachers to transfer their license from one state to another, but many still require these teachers to pass licensing requirements for that state.

Other Requirements

To be successful in this field, you need to have many of the same personal characteristics as regular classroom teachers: the ability to communicate, a broad knowledge of the arts, sciences, and history, and a love of children. In addition, you will need a great deal of patience and persistence. You need to be creative, flexible, cooperative, and accepting of differences in others. Finally, you need to be emotionally stable and consistent in your dealings with students.

Exploring Special Education Teacher Career

There are a number of ways to explore the field of special education. One of the first and easiest is to approach a special education teacher at his or her school and ask to talk about the job. Perhaps the teacher could provide a tour of the special education classroom or allow you to visit while a class is in session.

You might also want to become acquainted with special-needs students at your own school or become involved in a school or community mentoring program for these students. There may also be other opportunities for volunteer work or part-time jobs in schools, community agencies, camps, or residential facilities that will allow you to work with persons with disabilities.


The majority of special education teachers teach in public and private schools. Others work in state education agencies, home-bound or hospital environments, or residential facilities.

Starting Out

Because public school systems are by far the largest employers of special education teachers, this is where you should begin your job search.

You can also use your college’s career placement center to locate job leads. This may prove a very effective place to begin. You may also write to your state’s department of education for information on placement and regulations, or contact state employment offices to inquire about job openings. Applying directly to local school systems can sometimes be effective. Even if a school system does not have an immediate opening, it will usually keep your resume on file should a vacancy occur.


Advancement opportunities for special education teachers, as for regular classroom teachers, are fairly limited. They may take the form of higher wages, better facilities, or more prestige. In some cases, these teachers advance to become supervisors or administrators, although this may require continued education on the teacher’s part. Another option is for special education teachers to earn advanced degrees and become instructors at the college level.


In some school districts, salaries for special education teachers follow the same scale as general education teachers. In 2004 the median annual salary for special education teachers working in preschools, kindergartens, and elementary schools was $43,570, according to the Occupational Outlook Handbook. Special education teachers working in middle schools had median annual earnings of $44,160, and those in secondary schools earned $45,700. The lowest paid 10 percent of all special education teachers made less than $29,880 a year, and the highest paid 10 percent made more than $73,190. Private school teachers usually earn less than their public school counterparts. Teachers can supplement their annual salaries by becoming an activity sponsor, or by summer work. Some school districts pay their special education teachers on a separate scale, which is usually higher than that of general education teachers.

In 2004, almost 62 percent of all special education teachers belonged to unions, which help them secure fair working hours, salaries, and working conditions.

Regardless of the salary scale, special education teachers usually receive a complete benefits package, which includes health and life insurance, paid holidays and vacations, and a pension plan.

Work Environment

Special education teachers usually work from 7:30 or 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 or 3:30 p.m. Like most teachers, however, they typically spend several hours in the evening grading papers, completing paperwork, or preparing lessons for the next day. Altogether, most special education teachers work more than the standard 40 hours per week.

Although some schools offer year-round classes for students, the majority of special education teachers work the traditional 10-month school year, with a two-month vacation in the summer. Many teachers find this work schedule very appealing, as it gives them the opportunity to pursue personal interests or additional education during the summer break. Teachers typically also get a week off at Christmas and for spring break.

Special education teachers work in a variety of settings in schools, including both ordinary and specially equipped classrooms, resource rooms, and therapy rooms. Some schools have newer and better facilities for special education than others. Although it is less common, some teachers work in residential facilities or tutor students who are home-bound or hospitalized.

Working with special education students can be very demanding, due to their physical and emotional needs. Teachers may fight a constant battle to keep certain students, particularly those with behavior disorders, under control. Other students, such as those with mental impairments or learning disabilities, learn so slowly that it may seem as if they are making no progress. The special education teacher must deal daily with frustration, setbacks, and classroom disturbances.

These teachers must also contend with heavy workloads, including a great deal of paperwork to document each student’s progress. In addition, they may some times be faced with irate parents who feel that their child is not receiving proper treatment or an adequate education.

The positive side of this job is that special education teachers help students overcome their disabilities and learn to be as functional as possible. For a special education teacher, knowing that he or she is making a difference in a child’s life can be very rewarding and emotionally fulfilling.

Special Education Teacher Career Outlook

The field of special education is expected to grow faster than the average career through 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. This demand is caused partly by the growth in the number of special education students needing services. Medical advances resulting in more survivors of illness and accidents, a rise in birth defects, increased awareness and understanding of learning disabilities, and general population growth are also significant factors for strong demand. Because of the rise in the number of youths with disabilities under the age of 21, the government has given approval for more federally funded programs. Growth of jobs in this field has also been influenced positively by legislation emphasizing training and employment for individuals with disabilities and a growing public awareness and interest in those with disabilities.

Finally, there is a fairly high turnover rate in this field, as special education teachers find the work too stressful and switch to mainstream teaching or change jobs altogether. Many job openings will arise out of a need to replace teachers who leave their positions. There is a shortage of qualified teachers in rural areas and in the inner city. Jobs will also be plentiful for teachers who specialize in speech and language impairments, learning disabilities, and early childhood intervention. Bilingual teachers with multicultural experience will be in high demand.

For More Information:

Council of Administrators of Special Education