Interested in becoming a special education teacher? Our detailed career guide below will tell you everything you need to know.
Table of Contents
- 1. Defining special education
- 2. What do special education teachers do?
- 3. Important traits in special education teachers
- 4. Laws governing special education
- 5. Work environment
- 6. Education requirements
- 7. What do special education teachers get paid?
- 8. Job outlook for special educators
- 9. Occupations related to special education
1. Defining special education
Special education involves tailoring the teaching of common academic subjects, such as math, science, reading and writing in a manner which accommodates the needs of students who experience delays. These delays manifest to cause an adverse effect upon the student’s performance at school.
The various delays experienced by students who require special education are widely varied. There are many different categorizations of academic delays, examples of which will be discussed later on. While all delays may have different symptoms and manifestations, what they all have in common is the fact that there is a marked negative impact upon the student’s ability to learn in the same manner as their peers. While special education students may look the same and act the same as children their own age, the delays they experience cause these students to fall behind their classmates in one or more areas of school.
The particular delay(s) experienced by special education students can be developmental, physical and/or emotional in nature. In many cases, students may experience multiple delays, meaning that their school performance is hindered by a multitude of delays rather than just a single diagnosis.
2. What do special education teachers do?
Special educators instruct their students in a variety of academic subjects. The primary difference between a special education teacher and a traditional teacher lies in the difference between the student populations who are being taught. While traditional teachers generally instruct a group of students who are able to effectively learn within a larger classroom setting, special education teachers work with those students who are afflicted by a disability which renders them unable to perform at the same academic rate as their peers.
Special education teachers work with students from preschool age up through the completion of high school. In cases of a severe delay, some students may be permitted to remain in school services until they have reached their twenty-first birthday rather than graduating after the traditional four-year period.
Students who require special education typically do better with one on one instruction rather than in a larger classroom. By definition, their diagnosis causes them to learn differently than their peers. Special education teachers help their students gain an understand of basic academic subjects by teaching those same subjects in a manner which accommodates the student’s disability.
In cases where the student is severely delayed, the instruction provided may instead focus upon the development of life skills, such as strengthening communication, improving one’s ability to interact socially with others or obtaining a simple grasp of literacy.
By law, each student who receives special education services must have an Individual Education Program, or IEP in place. An IEP is a legal document which is developed by the students “team.” This team typically consists of the students and their parents and/or guardian working alongside a special educator and the school system in general. In many cases, a social worker is involved in the student’s academic progress as well.
An IEP acts as a kind of map or lesson plan for the special education teacher, as it defines tangible goals and specific milestones while also providing the educator with agreed upon methods for achieving student success. This allows for the accurate documentation of student progress, making is possible to gauge whether or not effective learning is taking place. In cases where IEP goals are not being met, it becomes necessary to conduct a team meeting in order to try to figure out another avenue for meeting the student’s objective.
3. Important traits in special education teachers
Helen Calidcott once stated that she believed teachers were “the most responsible and important members of society, because their professional efforts affect the fate of the earth.” Those who make the decision to pursue a career in traditional teaching, whether in a public or private school setting must at minimum have a strong desire to help others learn. Instructing children who are “normal” requires an immense amount of patience, dedication and hard work.
It can be argued that these traits are perhaps even more vital for special education teachers. While all forms of teaching are certainly viewed as being a part of a noble, vital profession, those educators who work with special needs students tend to have an absolute passion for their job, a passion which gives them the necessary strength to make it through the challenging periods.
Some examples of other personality/character traits which are highly beneficial those wishing to become a special education teacher are as follows:
- Patience: Students with delays learn differently from their peers. What works for one student may prove to be ineffective for another. Likewise, the same student who made progress the week before may noticeably regress without an apparent reason for doing so. Some days, it may seem as though making progress is impossible, in spite of every effort being made.
- Compassion: Special education teachers work with students who experience difficulties which are different than the general student population. Students with delays may find themselves to be the target of bullying or ostracization, in some cases, to the extreme where these students begin to look to their special educators as a sole source of comfort and understanding while at school.
Special education teachers must be able to provide a safe, nurturing environment for their students to learn. They must provide encouragement and emotional support for their students in times of crisis, while still ensuring that proper student/teacher boundaries are maintained at all times.
- Strong communication skills: Special education teachers must be able to communicate verbally with students who may experience difficulty speaking or putting their words into a tangible sentence. Those students who are blind or otherwise visually impaired may require lessons in braille, while those who have hearing difficulties may need to be instructed in sign language.
Additionally, some students receiving special education may be almost completely non-verbal, meaning that they are unable to effectively communicate using words or language. Instead, these students communicate via a range of non-verbal cues, such as body language, gestures, facial expressions, vocalizations, etc.
There are a multitude of tools available to assist non-verbal students in communicating their wants and needs to others. Key Education Photo Conversation Cards for Children with Asperger’s and Autism Key Education Photo Conversation Cards for Children with Asperger’s and Autism is a classic example of an effective non-verbal communication aid. Available on Amazon.com, the cards use simple visual pictures to help students socialize, as well as for the development of basic language/vocabulary comprehension.
- The ability to work as part of a team: Special education teachers are generally only one aspect of the group specified in IEP as being responsible for the student’s academic progress. They must work in conjunction with their student’s parents as well as other school officials and social workers in order to ensure that the student’s needs are met. Sometimes, the special educator may be expected to work with representatives from the Department of Children and Families or other social service representatives.
At times, it may be necessary to set aside personal pride and opinions in order to do what is best for the student as specified under their IEP. Special education teachers must therefore be willing to maintain an open mind when listening to the suggestions of other team members rather than insisting upon always catering to their own personal preferences.
- Resourcefulness: Special educators must be highly adaptable, willing to change methods rather than insisting upon clinging to a rigid lesson plan. Each and every student learns differently, and it is therefore important to utilize a creative mindset in cases where progress is seemingly not being made. Special education teachers must be willing to think outside the box and offer innovative solutions to problems, yet they must also ensure that they are following through with goals and guidelines set forth in the student’s IEP.
- Clean criminal record: Special educators work with children who are, by definition, highly vulnerable to exploitation, abuse and neglect. As is the case with most teachers, having a felony conviction on one’s record almost immediately results in disqualification from the job. The same is true with any sort of criminal activity involving sexual misconduct, child endangerment, violent crimes, drug possessions, driving under the influence and most other first or second degree criminal convictions.
Special education teachers must be in good standing with the law and their local community. During the course of one’s employment, any suspicion of criminal behavior or other misconduct can result in suspension until the matter is settled in court.
- An understanding of mandatory reporting: According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway, nearly all states have laws which require certain professions to report any suspected instances of child abuse and/or neglect to the proper authorities. Most mandated reporters are involved in occupations which put them in direct contact with a vulnerable population. Special educator teachers certainly fall underneath this category, as do all educators and social workers, as well as anyone involved in healthcare or law enforcement.
Anyone wishing to become involved in special education must be willing and able to recognize the warning signs which a student may exhibit as a result of abuse or neglect. Recognizing these warning signs can be particularly difficult for special educators, as they often work with students who are unable to communicate via traditional methods.
Having patience is of the utmost importance within the special education field. One must be able to try various methods without becoming discouraged, and they must maintain an encouraging tone with students rather than reacting to obstacles with frustration or giving up.
In cases where a student is severely delayed, it can be extremely difficult to establish an effective system of communication and instruction. Special education teachers must be willing to keep trying with a student even when it seems as though progress is not being made.
4. Laws governing special education
There are two primary laws which are vital to the profession of special education. These laws help to justify the need for local, state and government funding while simultaneously ensuring that the rights of students receiving special education are protected. They also place the burden of meeting student needs upon the state and school district rather than looking towards the immediate family.
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, commonly referred to simply as Section 504 provides basic civil rights for students requiring special education services, and protects them against discrimination as well. Passed in 1973, this was the first law specifically recognizing the rights of disabled children, making it possible for them to pursue an education tailored to their individual needs.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was originally passed in 1975 under the name of the Education of Handicapped Children Act. This law was put into place in order to ensure that all students who qualify for special education services are provided with access to a free education.
Children under the age of two years of age are provided with special education services under IDEA part C. These services fall underneath the umbrella category of early intervention, meaning that the child’s delay is diagnosed and addressed in infancy rather than later on in life. Children who range from three to twenty-one years of age receive special education services under IDEA part B.
In order to qualify for special education services under IDEA, a student must be diagnosed with one or more of the specified disabilities under the following categories:
- Autism spectrum disorder: (ASD) The term autism refers to a disorder which interferes with an individual’s ability to communicate, both on a verbal and non-verbal level. Students with autism may seem somewhat disconnected from the surroundings, as if they are in a world of their own. Their difficulty relating to those around them can cause extreme delays in socialization as well as learning processes.
Autism can be mild to severe in its manifestation. Typically diagnosed in early childhood, students may engage in repetitive behavior, such as rocking, pacing or tapping. Most autistic children enjoy familiarity and structure, so it can be quite difficult for them to process if they are forced to deviate from their normal routine.
Some individuals with autism experience sensory issues, which means that their brains interpret physical sensations, such as touch and pressure differently than others. As a result, they may respond positively to feelings that would initially be viewed as uncomfortable, such as deep, enveloping pressure. The Transformer Sensory Sack, available on Amazon.com Transformer Sensory Sack is specifically designed to surround the student in a cocoon-like hug which provides them with a sense of comfort and security in times of overstimulation or distress.
- Asperger’s Syndrome: Students diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome fall within the autism spectrum, yet generally speaking, they are somewhat higher functioning in their cognitive and academic skills. Students with Asperger’s may function at an intellectual level which is consistent with or even higher than that of their peers, yet they still experience a hindrance with social skills and their ability to communicate with and relate to others.
- Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: Commonly referred to as ADHD, Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder affects more than six million children worldwide, according to the Masters in Special Education Program Guide
Common symptoms include a pervasively restless attitude coupled with an inability to focus. Students with ADHD have a difficult time focusing upon the task at hand, and they can become easily distracted by outside or internal stimuli.
While the actual IQ level of a student diagnosed with ADHD may be quite high, the overload of sensory input they experience can cause great difficulty in regards to education, as they may experience so much difficulty sitting still and concentrating upon their academic work that they are unable to process or retain the information given to them.
Students with ADHD may benefit from special tools which help to satisfy their need for constant physical stimulation. Available at Amazon.com, the Fidget Toy Twelve Pack
contains a small marble enveloped within a strong, sensory pleasing material, these toys allow for students to keep their hands busy while applying their minds to academic tasks.
- Traumatic Brain Injury: (TBI) Students who suffer from a traumatic brain injury were oftentimes born with “normal” brain functions. At some point in their lives, an accident or injury occurred which resulted in a serious injury to the brain, thereafter affecting their mental functions and ability to process and recall information.
Traumatic brain injuries can result from a number of cerebral trauma, including blunt force impact, oxygen deprivation, adverse reaction to medications, severe concussion, etc. The diagnosis can be one of the most difficult for an individual to learn to cope with, as they often retain at least some sort of memory of how they functioned before the accident occurred. This can make it very frustrating at times to have to relearn the same skills that one took for granted earlier.
Intellectual/Developmental Disabilities: Historically, students who were diagnosed with an intellectual/developmental disability were labeled as mentally retarded, though that term has not been commonly used in the last decade or so.
These individuals experience impairments in their mental/developmental functions which case them to fall drastically behind their academic peers. On the most severe end of the spectrum, these students may be almost completely non-functional, meaning that they are unable to survive without outside supervision and care. Their basic motor skills may hinder them from feeding themselves and/or maintaining basic personal hygiene, and because of these factors, most of these students receive one on one support in their academic surroundings.
According to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development website, the diagnosis of an intellectual/developmental disability, or IDD typically refers to a situation in which a student’s mental functions are impaired along with one or more areas of disability. Common examples include:
- Cerebral palsy: Also known as CP, students with cerebral palsy experience difficulty in their motor skills. They may experience uncontrollable shakings, problems maintaining balance or other issues related to movement. In severe cases, the student may be confined to a wheelchair or forced to utilize some other form of adaptive mobility in order to move independently.
- Down’s Syndrome: Down’s Syndrome refers to a genetic disorder which results in delayed growth both on a physical and mental level. Individuals who are afflicted with Down’s Syndrome suffer from a chromosomal abnormality which often results in characteristic physical features, such as flattened facial features and/or decreased muscle tone.
- Fetal Alcohol Syndrome: Fetal alcohol syndrome is a condition which directly results from the exposure of a developing fetus to alcohol while still within the womb. In other words, students with fetal alcohol syndrome suffer from intellectual and developmental delays due to the fact that their birth mothers consumed alcohol while pregnant with them.
- Speech/language impairment: Speech impairments affect those students who experience delays in verbalization. Common examples of a speech impediment include lisping, stuttering or refusal to speak.
It is interesting to note that many students who experience a delay in their speech are still able to read and write at a language consistent with their peers. Many are also able to follow verbal directions with little difficulty.
- Visual impairment: Refers to students who are blind or otherwise compromised in their vision. Many visually impaired students are able to learn effectively with adapted equipment, such as the Elucidate heavy desktop magnifier. Available on Amazon.com, this tool is essentially a large magnifying glass Elucidate heavy desktop magnifier complete with an LED light which can be attached to a desktop or other work service. For students with severely limited vision, magnifying equipment or low-vision readers can make it possible to read.
Students who are completely blind are typically able to comprehend written language via the use of Braille, a system of raised dots upon a surface which are felt with the fingertips and converted into words in the brain.
- Hearing impairment: These students experience difficulty hearing, at times to the point of complete deafness. Some may learn by reading lips or via sign language, while others experience academic success via the use of a Telecommunication Device for the Deaf (TDD), a term referring to any kind of adaptive tool which assists with hearing related disabilities. Examples include hearing aids, captioned television and/or visual signals, such as lights or certain colors to signify a specific meaning.
- Anxiety disorder: Students who have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder may seem to be in a consistent state of vague unease. They may worry excessively about situations they have no control over, or may create imaginary stressful situations about the future which can cause real emotional distress. Additionally, the occurrence of anxiety can culminate in panic attacks, a period in which the afflicted student can literally feel paralyzed with fear.
Students with anxiety disorders can have difficulty remaining calm around groups of people, and they may therefore benefit from a calmer setting in which they can learn one on one, or in a small group setting.
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: (PTSD) Students who are diagnosed with PTSD have by definition experienced some form of extreme psychological trauma in their past. This trauma results in a deeply rooted sense of shock which continues to affect the victim for many years afterward. Catalysts for PTSD can include physical/verbal/sexual abuse, neglect and/ or the survival of an accident or other violent experience.
Common PTSD symptoms include sudden flashbacks of the initial trauma, insomnia, sleepwalking and/or sudden emotional outbursts. Students with PTSD require their educators to seek to establish a safe environment In which learning is possible These students are usually more reluctant to trust others than others, and they may therefore demand an extra measure of patience and resilience on their educator’s behalf.
- Dyslexia: According to the Learning Disabilities Association of America website students who are diagnosed with dyslexia experience difficulty comprehending language, particularly in regards to reading and writing. They may find that the order of letters becomes reversed or otherwise interchanged within a word, and can therefore have problems with spelling or other academic skills related to words.
Oftentimes, a dyslexic student may be able to accurately recall the details of a story when it is verbally told to them yet are unable to do the same when reading the story themselves, as their brain may be working so hard to interpret the words that they are unable to put them into a storyline.
Dyslexia does not only affect a student’s ability to comprehend letters and words. Some are able to read and spell with ease, yet find that their ability to accurately comprehend numbers is adversely affected. These students too many find that numbers “flip” or rearrange themselves when viewed visually, leading to difficulty both with basic math skills but also with basic activities which include numbers, such as recalling a phone number.
The Dyslexia Tool Kit for Tutors and Parents: What to do with Phonics Isn’t Enough by Yvonne Graham M.Ed. and Alta Graham is an excellent resource for anyone looking to learn more information on methods of effectively instructing dyslexic students. Dyslexia Tool Kit
- Dysgraphia: Students with dysgraphia experience extreme difficulty with their handwriting. This is different than those who may simply require extra attention to their penmanship in order to write legibly. These students write in a manner that is beyond messy or sloppy, it is consistently next to impossible to decipher, such as using a mixture of capital and lower case letters, or an irregular formation of letters and words.
Students with dysgraphia experience difficulty with their handwriting. Their writing may be consistently illegible, or may contain various inconsistencies, such as a mixture of capital and lower case letters, or irregular formation of letters and words.
Specific Learning Disabilities
5. Work environment
By definition, special education teachers work in a classroom setting, as to most educators. Many work with students on a one on one basis, though some may instruct small to medium sized groups of individuals who experience similar delays. In some cases, a special educator teacher may work with their students in an environment which works to integrate those with higher functioning disabilities into a mainstream academic population.
The majority of special educators work within the public-school system, though there is certainly a need for their services within private schools as well. They are typically expected to work normal school hours, meaning that they have holidays, weekends and summers off. While this may seem to be a fairly easy schedule, it is important to keep in mind that many special educators put in a vast number of extra hours in order to ensure that their students’ needs are met. This can include grading and constructing lesson plans after hours, or simply putting forth the effort to meet with a student outside of school hours in order to help them comprehend classroom material.
Working with students who require special education is a job which comes with extremely high rewards, yet it is important to keep in mind that there are some definite potential downsides to the profession as well. For anyone who may be considering a career in special education, being aware of some of the common pros and cons can help to determine whether or not the occupation will be suitable.
As is the case with most jobs which aim to help and instruct others, special education teachers usually become involved in the profession due to an honest passion for working with students who require individual attention. When these students succeed in mastering a skill or learning something new, the rewards of a job well done can be overwhelming. One never has to question whether or not their efforts have a tangible effect upon others, as the evidence is displayed each and every day.
As mentioned above, special education teachers have a relatively predictable work schedule, which makes is easier for them to make plans and otherwise have an adequate amount of time to devote to their personal lives. While most educators do not ever have to worry about not spending holidays or weekends with their families, many do a great deal of paperwork on their time off. Teaching in general is a profession that comes with a lot of paperwork, and the amount is almost certainly increased for special educators, as they must document their student’s IEP progress as well.
A career in special education can be extremely stressful. There can be a shortage of resources or a lack of funding which causes difficulty in following through with student IEP goals. Special education teachers may also find themselves placed in a difficult situation in which they are expected to act as a mediator between the school system and the students and their families.
Many special education students work with their students on a one on one basis, or in small groups. This can lead to feelings of being excluded or otherwise out of the loop with their fellow teaching community.
6. Education requirements
In order to work as a special education teacher within the public-school system, one must first obtain a bachelor’s degree in education, though some may major in social work, human services or another related field. All public-school teachers, regardless of the student population they are teaching, must acquire a teaching license and/or certification which is given out by the state they are seeking employment in.
In addition to a teaching license, some states require potential educators to undergo a period of student teaching. This refers to the practice of working directly underneath a licensed teacher in order to gain field experience with the student population before a certification is given.
Some private schools do not require the same certifications for their instructors. Due to the fact that regulations can vary tremendously from state to state, it can be useful to visit a website such as Teach.org for specific information regarding state licensure requirements.
7. What do special education teachers get paid?
According to the BLS website, the average wage for a special education teacher in 2015 was approximately $57,000 a year. Those special educators who work with younger children tend to be on the lower end of the earning spectrum, while those who work with older students generally receive a comparatively larger salary.
The majority of special educators are members of a union which helps to ensure fair wages as well as protecting their rights.
8. Job outlook for special educators
According to the BLS website, special education is a field which is expected to grow at an average rate of six percent a year. Special education teachers have a certain amount of job security, as federal law currently states that all disabled students must be provided with a free education in accordance with their individual needs. The screening processes for diagnosing learning and other cognitive disabilities are dramatically improving with modern technological advances. It is therefore possible to diagnose learning disabilities much earlier in life than previous decades, meaning that the need for special education services is identified as quickly as possible.
9. Occupations related to special education
- Social work: Social workers help their clients overcome challenges by ensuring that they are provided with access to all necessary services and appropriate state and federal programs. The required amount of education varies depending upon the specific area of social work being performed. For instance, a clinical social worker must have a master’s degree in social work, while non-clinical social workers are required to have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in some sort of social science field. The average salary for a social worker is approximately $46,000 a year.
- Elementary school teacher: An elementary school teacher instructs children from the first to fifth grade in basic academic skills, such as math, reading, science and social studies. Elementary school teachers earn an average salary of $54,000 a year, and are required to have at least a bachelor’s degree in education, early childhood development or the equivalent. Those working in a public-school setting must obtain a state license to teach as well. Elementary school teachers are usually required to have a clean criminal record.
- Occupational therapist: An occupational therapist help clients who are injured or otherwise disabled master or re-learn the basic day to day motor skills which are necessary for obtaining employment as well as living independently. Oftentimes, occupational therapists work with individuals who were not born with a disability, but rather those individuals who have experienced an accident or medical crisis which has resulted in a loss of previously mastered motor skills. Common examples can include a head injury or stroke.
Occupational therapists have an approximate annual salary of $80,000. The minimum of a master’s degree is required for most positions.
- Teacher’s assistant: A teacher’s assistant usually refers to an unlicensed potential educator who works directly underneath the supervision of a licensed teacher in order to obtain the direct field work necessary for their own certification. Teacher’s assistants are able to obtain hands on experience in a classroom setting before they are completely on their own. Oftentimes, those individuals who are working as a teacher’s assistant are in the process of obtaining a bachelor’s degree through college or a university. They average around $25,000 a year for salary.
- Preschool teacher: A preschool teacher works with children under the age of five in order to prepare them academically and socially for kindergarten. They may learn basic building blocks of education, such as the alphabet, numbers, colors, etc. and also are able to gain exposure to other children, thus learning how to share, how to communicate with others and other valuable social skills. Preschool teachers typically have a bachelor’s degree or an associate’s degree, and they average an annual salary of $28,000.