Special education teachers leave their jobs at an alarming rate. According to PBS, their ranks have decreased by nearly 20 percent over the past decade.
Burnout—resulting from a combination of overwork and inadequate training—is the primary cause of this dropoff. The pressure of managing a classroom full of challenging students, each requiring an individualized learning plan (ILP), can lead even the most adept special ed teachers to retire early.
Special educators looking to change roles may feel pressure to continue their current teaching job because of the teacher shortage, but it doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing scenario. Educators with special education backgrounds can transition to difference-making careers like education consulting, advocacy, and school psychology.
Not every educator spends 35 years in the classroom. If you feel overwhelmed or need a change of scenery, one of these eight great jobs for former special education teachers may be right for you. This article discusses the following questions:
Burnout is the biggest reason special education teachers leave—often within just a few years of starting.
Some reasons teachers are overwhelmed include:
If one or more of these issues (they are frequently related) makes your job as a special education teacher impossible, it might be time to move on.
Tutoring is an easy transition for someone with teaching experience. Tutors are needed at every grade level. The field is not as regulated as teaching, though if you work for a large company, you probably need a bachelor's degree and may need to pass a subject test.
Becoming a private tutor allows you to set your hours and pay—often earning even more than classroom teachers. Experience teaching special education can be a massive bonus to getting learning-disabled clients who need help outside of school.
It may sound counterintuitive, but you can teach homeschooling in individual or group settings. This is a great career for retired teachers looking to supplement their income. Additionally, many parents decide to homeschool because the school system isn't meeting their child's needs. If you feel the same way, this can be a great way to try something outside the box.
Special education consultants help evaluate students and develop Individualized Education Programs (IEPs). These professionals usually work in a private setting, meaning they are not considered school psychologists.
Typically, educational consultants are contractors. They are hired by public schools, private schools, education companies, non-profits, or even individual families. They usually have a master's degree, excellent communication skills, and an understanding of education laws.
These professionals help students through issues related to emotional development, behavior, and mental health. Special education teachers can become school psychologists—if they're willing to complete a graduate degree program. Given the nature of what special education teachers do, this job seems like a natural transition for those wanting to help students on a one-on-one basis.
Reading specialists supplement and extend classroom instruction by working with students individually or in small groups. They may specialize in early childhood education or even work with high school students. Reading specialists can also work directly with educators to improve their teaching skills or to develop literacy plans. Becoming a reading specialist requires a master's degree in educational literacy.
Reading specialists can also work with adult literacy programs, especially those catering to ESL or GED students. While some adult learning specialists may have a master's degree, a bachelor's and teaching experience usually fulfills the education requirements.
School counselors fill different roles depending on the grade levels they serve. Elementary school counselors often work with students on character education, socialization, and academic achievement. In middle school, they often help with disciplinary issues. High school students often need assistance with college and career readiness—though these professionals are not strictly career counselors. Transitioning to this position requires a master's in school counseling and a state license.
Capable school counselors can also be powerful advocates for special needs students. They may conduct group counseling sessions, assess needs, and help implement IEPs.
Special education advocates have a direct impact on the classroom even though they don't teach. They work with parents, schools, and students to access and implement individualized programs. Some are lawyers, but that's not required; they just need an understanding of education laws and any policies specific to the school district.
Advocates often help parents with the testing and classification process. For instance, it can be challenging for a parent without assistance to manage the bureaucracy of finding a program for a child with autism. While training programs and certifications exist for advocates, there isn't a single officially recognized pathway to this profession.
Many education publishers (both in print and online) seek former teachers to produce their content, including material designed for special needs students. Writers may work on textbooks, individual lesson plans, or articles. Educational writing is frequently done on a freelance basis, meaning you can do it part-time and from home.
Writers do not work with students. However, if you have a flexible sufficiently schedule, it's possible to become a substitute teacher or work with students at a learning center or museum.
For some of these suggested careers, a transition isn't tricky. Classroom experience and your existing degree may be more than enough to become a special education advocate, tutor, or education writer. For others, you'll likely need to further your education with a master's or even doctoral degree. Returning to college can be a huge time commitment—especially if you attend full-time, which many teachers cannot do. Master's programs generally take two years of full-time study, or more than three on a part-time basis.
The good news is special education teachers likely have a leg up in the admissions process, given that they likely already have a bachelor's degree in special education and relevant experience. Some programs may require applicants to complete degree-specific undergraduate coursework, which could involve taking some extra credits. This is a common requirement for master's in school psychology programs.
Education is not a high-paying field. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national median pay for special education teachers is around $61,000. That's roughly the same as what high school teachers earn, and slightly more than kindergarten and elementary school teachers. Special ed teachers can earn a little more than their peers by writing IEPs, but the pay bump is not substantial.
Graduate education can impact your earnings if you want to switch careers. According to US News & World Report, the average salary for a school psychologist is nearly $77,000, with those in the top 25 percent earning slightly over $100,000. Of course, you also need to pay for this extra education, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars.
A master's doesn't always translate to a higher salary; interestingly, having a master's degree in special education doesn't usually mean you'll make more. School counselors earn a median income of around $57,000—less than special ed teachers who may only have a bachelor's degree.
It is harder to determine the exact salary for tutors, special education advocates, education writers, and any other job that can be part-time or freelance. Earnings for those careers depend on available opportunities and whether you pursue the job full-time. Still, developing expertise in a field can allow you to deliver better services and charge more.
If you are a special education teacher who loves their job but feels burned out by the stress that comes with it, don't feel bad. There is ample opportunity to transition into a position that is just as essential but less draining.
This article was originally published in 2015. It has been updated to reflect the most recent data on the subject.
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