Children of all ages who have learning, emotional, mental and physical disabilities often require more time and attention from educators. Special education teachers work with these students to instruct them in various subjects such as reading, writing and math. They also are trained to instruct students with severe disabilities in skills such as literacy and communication techniques.
Special education teachers work with students who might possess a range of disabilities. Some students may need help in specific subjects such as reading or math, while others might need help developing certain skills. Teachers may work with students who have physical or sensory disabilities, autism spectrum disorders, or emotional disorders such as anxiety or depression. They may work with students from preschool to high school.
To cater to individual students’ needs, special education teachers collaborate with a team that also includes general education instructors, school superintendents, counselors and parents. Together, they develop an individualized education program for the student. An IEP outlines the goals and activities for each student and may include meetings with psychologists and counselors.
In addition to developing, implementing and tracking IEP progress, special education teachers also are required to assess students’ skills to determine their needs, create and adjust lessons to meet those needs, plan activities that cater to each student’s abilities, and teach students as a class, in small groups or one-on-one. They also update IEPs throughout the year to reflect student progress; discuss progress with parents, counselors and other teachers; and help students transition between grade levels.
These are all typical responsibilities of special education teachers, but their duties may change according to their specialty, school setting or their students’ needs. Some instructors may work in classrooms that cater solely to students with disabilities, where they teach on an individual basis or in small groups. Others might teach in “inclusive classrooms” where disabled students are placed side-by-side with general education students. In these environments, special education teachers help disabled students understand topics and assist general education teachers in creating lessons that will meet disabled students’ needs.
The job outlook for special education teachers is expected to grow 6% between 2012 and 2022, which is slower than the average for all occupations. Employment growth will vary according to type. For example, the demand for preschool special education teachers is expected to hit 16% while the demand for special education teachers in middle school is expected to be 5%.
The demand for special education instructors will be fueled by enrollment increases and steady demand for special education services. As more children are screened and disabilities are identified at an early age, special education teachers will be needed for preschool and kindergarten students. Further, as more schools embrace inclusive classrooms, they will need special education instructors to assist general education teachers in working with disabled students.
Overall employment of special education teachers will depend largely on government funding. School districts may be forced to close or consolidate schools, or lay off employees, if they are faced with budget cuts.
The median annual wage for special education teachers was $55,060 in May 2012, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Salaries varied according to grade level. Special education teachers in secondary school earned the most, $56,830, followed by middle school, $55,780; kindergarten and elementary school, $53,820; and preschool, $52,480.
Salaries can vary from region to region in the U.S., and also are dependent on other factors such as educational level. Job seekers are encouraged to do their own research to determine their prospective salaries.
Special education teachers usually work normal school hours and meet with parents, students and colleagues before and after classes. Most work a regular 10-month school year with a two-month break. Those who work a year-round schedule will usually work for eight weeks straight, break for one week, and receive a five-week midwinter recess.
Special education teachers in public schools are required to hold a bachelor’s degree and state-issued license or certification. Some may choose to major in elementary education, special education, or a specific subject area, such as math, with a minor in special education.
To prepare for a career in special education, future teachers take courses to learn about different types of disabilities and how to best explain concepts to students who have them. Such programs typically include hands-on experience such as student teaching. Some states require a master’s degree in special education in order for these teachers to receive full certification.
The requirements for certifications vary by state, but location-specific information is available on teach.org. All states require at least a bachelor’s degree and supervised teaching experience. Some require a minimum GPA or the completion of annual professional development classes for teachers to maintain their certification. Many states offer general special education licenses that enable teachers to work with students who have a variety of disabilities. Others offer certifications based on specific disorders such as autism.
Private school teachers are not required to be licensed or certified by the state. Most private schools require a bachelor’s degree and may prefer teachers with a degree in special education.