Special education teachers don’t earn nearly enough. That may sound hyperbolic, but it’s not. In addition to teaching and handling the same day-to-day administrative tasks that all teachers handle, special education teachers face additional challenges unique to their situations. They must find ways to enrich students’ educational experiences outside of the curriculum, deal with mountains of red tape beyond what general education teachers face, and prove that what they are doing matters.
Allison Kappmeyer-Sofia, a special education teacher in northern California, puts it this way: “I felt I had to validate everything: Why was the student on the computer while no other students were (earned reinforcement); why did the students get to eat throughout the day (very limited diets and especially grumpy when hungry); why a student needed to be taken to the restroom, not just sent there (student safety and respect for their dignity). This all shows a lack of understanding by teachers, administration, parents, and even district-level special education staff.”
That lack of understanding suggests that special education is undervalued, which would explain why special education teachers aren’t paid more than they currently earn. So, how much do special education teachers earn, and do they make more than other teachers? This article answers these questions and others, including:
Special education teachers work with students who have a wide range of disabilities and learning differences. Some specialize and work primarily with students with a single condition, such as autism. However, most are generalists teaching special education students with a variety of intellectual, emotional, behavioral, or physical conditions that make learning in a mainstream classroom difficult.
Special education teachers typically spend most of their time with students who have mild to moderate disabilities and can be taught using a modified version of the general curriculum or taught the general curriculum using adjusted teaching strategies. Others work with students with severe disabilities. These teachers may also teach basic life skills, communication techniques, and appropriate behavior.
All special education teachers want to help their students reach their full potential. If they could, they would spend the majority of their time teaching. Unfortunately, special ed teachers only spend about a third of their time working with students. The rest of their time is spent:
One reason special education teachers in preschools, elementary schools, middle schools, and secondary schools don’t earn more may be that administrators and even other teachers just don’t understand how much they do. It is extraordinarily challenging to develop lessons for a class of students with very different physical, emotional, mental, and cognitive disabilities, but most people don’t realize just how challenging. They don’t see the time that special education teachers devote to training or advocating for their students outside the classroom. It may not be immediately apparent just how much time and effort it takes to maintain order in a special ed classroom where students with very different support needs are learning together.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, most special education teachers earn about $62,000 per year. That’s plenty to live on in most parts of the US, but it’s not stellar given all these teachers do. The highest-paid special education teachers work in New York—where they can earn close to $87,000 per year on average—and in California, Oregon, Connecticut, and Washington, but even when they’re making more than the average pay, special education teachers aren’t making big bucks.
Sometimes special education teachers earn more money than general education teachers, but not often. In most states, special ed instructors are paid under the same contract rules as mainstream classroom teachers, so there’s no difference in base pay. Special education teachers sometimes do earn slightly more than kindergarten, elementary school, and middle school teachers, but only about $1,000 to $2,000 more per year. In many cases, the reason teachers in special ed classrooms earn slightly more is that their districts pay a small stipend to instructors who write a certain number of IEPs and/or attend a certain number of multidisciplinary team meetings.
It’s not surprising that many special ed teachers find it unfair that they are expected to do everything general educators have to do—and more—for the same pay. Teaching is more complex in the special needs classroom, Meliz Benassi explains in a Quora thread. “[Teachers] must make sure the child’s individual education plan meets the child’s social, emotional, and academic needs. This requires them to hold IEP meetings with parents, principles, psychologist, and a program specialist. Sometimes the IEP’s can take 45 minutes, and other times they can take a couple hours. Additionally, when a special education teacher makes lesson plans, they have to keep each child’s IEP goals in mind and make sure that the lessons comply with the IEP goals set forth for each child.”
States set their own rules when it comes to education, certification, and licensing requirements for special education instructors. In many states, it’s possible to become a special education teacher with just a bachelor’s degree. The entry-level degree in those states is typically a BS in Special Education or a BA in Special Education, though some schools offer other degrees that can fulfill state licensing requirements. Texas A & M University – College Station, for instance, offers a BS in Interdisciplinary Studies with a concentration in Special Education.
Once an aspiring special education teacher has completed an undergraduate degree program and amassed one or two years of student teaching experience, they can take the Praxis II exam specifically for special education and get a state teaching license.
Some special educators go on to earn advanced degrees. The most common master’s in special education degrees are the Master of Education in Special Education (better for teachers who think they might want to transition out of the classroom) and the Master of Arts in Teaching in Special Education (better for committed lifelong educators). Some programs award generalist degrees in special ed, while others give students the opportunity to specialize with concentrations like deaf or hard of hearing education, autism education, high incidence/mild to moderate disability, low incidence/severe disability, and visual impairment education.
In most states, no. There are some compelling reasons to get a master’s degree in special education even when it’s not required by the state, but it’s worth noting that an increase in salary isn’t one of them. Special education teachers with master’s degrees earn just one to two percent more, according to Salary.com. They may, however, have an easier time finding full-time placements, be able to teach a wider variety of subjects, be more effective at reaching students, and have opportunities to transition into administrative or developmental roles that aren’t open to special educators with bachelor’s degrees. They may also be eligible for student loan forgiveness programs and district sign-on bonuses.
The highest paying jobs open to special education teachers can all be found outside the classroom. Teachers currently working in special education who want to move into more lucrative positions without leaving the field should consider earning a MEd in Special Education. After earning this special education master’s degree, teachers are qualified to pursue alternative careers in special education—most of which pay more than the typical teacher salary or the average special education teacher salary. These include:
Educators who want to keep teaching can look into becoming education subcontractors in districts that offer tutoring or in-home instruction to students with special needs. Subcontractors aren’t necessarily paid more than their salaried counterparts, but they may have to do less administrative work and be less stressed as a result.
The frustrating answer is sometimes, and this may also be a reason why special education teachers aren’t paid more. During teacher shortages, the demand for special ed instructors may be such that districts allow unlicensed teachers with associate’s degrees to fill open spots as teacher assistants.
But while 49 out of 50 states report shortages in the field, that doesn’t mean all regions are impacted by shortages equally. In districts where the goal of special education programs is to mainstream as many students as possible, schools may not need as many special education instructors. Some districts are also redefining what is and isn’t a disability. This can reduce the number of students with special needs in those districts, which, in turn, reduces the demand for special education teachers.
To increase your chances of finding a higher-paying job, consider earning a master’s degree from a program that offers an autism education concentration. The number of students with autism taught in public schools has increased by 177 percent in recent years, and the need for special education teachers with an understanding of autism spectrum disorders will likely keep growing.
Probably not, but then again, teaching jobs seldom are. Teacher salaries can look pretty good until you realize that most teachers put in more than the traditional 40 hours per week and that summer vacation usually involves professional development and lesson planning. But nobody decides to become a special education teacher to get rich.
“We don’t do it for the money,” writes special education teacher Tim Villegas in an article debunking special education myths, “just the fame, and the glory. Just kidding. We do it because we were born to do it. We do it because we love to see students succeed. We do it because we are teachers.”
In other words, if the answer to the question ‘How much do special education teachers earn?’ is more important to you than the answer to the question ‘How much can I accomplish as a special education teacher?’, this probably isn’t the right job for you. There are a lot of positions in education that pay big bucks. The rewards of working in special education can’t be measured in dollars.
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