Special Education

How to Become a Special Education Teacher

How to Become a Special Education Teacher
Special education teachers are needed now more than ever, as diagnoses of autism spectrum disorders and severe disabilities increase. Image from Unsplash
Suzanne Wentley profile
Suzanne Wentley October 17, 2019

Special education teachers are in demand from the preschool through high school levels. It's a specialization that allows for a lot of one-on-one work with students.

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Tim Villegas, a special education teacher who writes regularly for Noodle.com, explains the secret to success in his profession this way: “We need to aim high. For the vast majority of students, approaching instruction by planning for the students who are hardest to reach sets the stage for the most growth for all students.”

It takes a special person—like Tim—to become a special education teacher, working directly with students who face learning disorders or developmental disabilities. Special education students have to overcome emotional, physical, or learning issues, a process that requires educated and trained professionals who are dynamic, skilled, and patient. “We try our hardest to keep a positive (but not unrealistic) outlook and seize the day,” Villegas explains.

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), special education commences with an in-school intervention program for each student in need. The goal of this individualized plan is to offer a supportive environment for a student’s learning under “least restrictive” conditions.

Special education teachers are needed now more than ever, as diagnoses of autism spectrum disorders and severe disabilities increase. As demand grows, there are still not enough qualified special education teachers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics
expects a moderately low three percent increase in jobs over the next ten years (although in 2016 it projected a ten-year job-growth rate of eight percent, so these figures can change quickly). The current slow growth rate may be attributable to a shortfall in federal funding for IDEA programs. Still, states are required to pay for much-needed special education, making the demand for qualified teachers steady for years to come.

In this guide, we’ll discuss:

  • The pros and cons of becoming a special education teacher
  • The kinds of special education teacher careers
  • The educational commitment to become a special education teacher
  • Licensure and accreditation for becoming a special education teacher
  • Resources for becoming a special education teacher
  • Typical advancement path for special education teachers
  • Further accreditation or education for special education teachers

Pros and cons of becoming special education teacher

As a special education teacher, your role includes:

  • Assessing skills and needs of children
  • Creating individualized education programs for each student
  • Planning activities specifically to address these needs
  • Leading small group or one-on-one activities
  • Tracking progress
  • Communicating with parents, other teachers

Still on the fence? Here are some pros and cons.

Pros of becoming a special education teacher:

  • Good earning potential: The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports median annual income for special education teachers at $59,780, a figure that varies by state and district. Glassdoor.com pegs average base pay at $52,727. You won’t get rich as a special education teacher, but you won’t starve either.
  • Wide variety in the work day: No matter what you teach, every student is different. The same holds true for special education students. No two days in a special education classroom are the same. Your workday will often be filled with plenty of hands-on learning tools and surprises.
  • Helping young people see success: Every special education teacher has a story of a challenging student who, at some unanticipated moment, experiences a breakthrough. If you don’t find the job at least occasionally inspiring, you’re in the wrong profession.

Cons of becoming a special education teacher:

  • Constant physical demands: Some of your students may need regular physical assistance, so physical strength is a prerequisite of the job. This is not the kind of job where you’ll be behind a desk or at the front of an orderly classroom all day.
  • Challenges maintaining discipline: Strong communication skills, a natural ability to relate to children, and an in-depth understanding of behaviors are crucial to maintaining discipline in the classroom. Some days may feel out of control.
  • Funding issues: Although there are an estimated six million children in America in need of special education, funding for this work on the federal level remains a challenge, according to the National Coalition on Personnel Shortages in Special Education and Related Services.
  • Stress: As a special education teacher, you’ll have to manage piles of paperwork. You may have too many students in your classroom. Your students, like all students, will challenge you daily. This is a tough job psychologically, which explains the 25 percent turnover rate for special education teachers.
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Kinds of special education teacher careers

Special education teachers are needed in every school. You will have the ability to work in early childhood education or help students transition from the classroom to adult life. Depending on the school district and the population of students with severe disabilities, you may be working in a self-contained classroom or roaming to assist other teachers with special education services.

Different placements and focuses for this kind of career include:

Educational commitment to become special education teacher

All states require that special education teachers hold a bachelor’s degree. Some states require an undergraduate special education major. Others allow special education teachers to hold degrees in elementary education or in a specific subject, such as math or English language arts.

The cost of a bachelor’s degree varies by institution. The University of Central Florida, for example, charges in-state students an annual tuition of $6,379 for a Bachelor of Science in elementary education; out-of-state students pay $22,466 annually. Tuition at the University of Delaware is $14,280 for Delaware residents and $35,710 for nonresidents.Take a close look at financial aid options and tips for repaying student loan debt as you prepare to choose an undergraduate institution.

Many special education teachers continue their studies to achieve a master’s degree. Accelerated bachelor’s degree programs reduce the time it takes to earn both degrees.

Along with accredited university work, many states require student teachers to complete an additional year of training immediately after graduation. Some schools offer this training as an integrated part of the bachelor’s program, accelerating the journey from lecture hall to special education classroom.

Professionals considering a career change can pursue an alternate certification course through The American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence in lieu of a master’s degree.

Due to a shortage of qualified teachers, some schools will provisionally hire teachers who lack the proper training or accreditation. Typically these teachers—whose highest degree may be an associate’s degree—take on the role of a teaching assistant, at a much lower salary than a lead teacher earns.

Licensure and accreditation for becoming special education teacher

All public school teachers must earn a license before teaching. The requirements for licensure vary by state. You can research your local requirements through the U.S. Department of Education website. Most states have an Office of Special Education to address teaching license needs for this specific career. Private schools are typically less stringent in their licensing requirements.

Many states work directly with the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence to provide a teaching certificate for a temporary license. To qualify for this special education credential, you must:

  • Have a bachelor’s degree
  • Pass a background check
  • Pass a series of exams

If you have earned a master’s degree, you can also become accredited through the National Association of Special Education Teachers. For this process, you must also take a course for professional board certification and pass a 50-question test.

Resources for becoming special education teacher

The National Association for Special Education Teachers provides a broad array of online tools for special educators. On their website, teachers can learn more about different disabilities and disorders that may be impacting their student populations. There is also a page detailing special education laws dating back to the 1970s. Special ed teachers can also join online groups or search social media for ideas to implement in their classrooms.

Typical advancement path for a special education teacher

Many special education teachers remain in the classroom throughout their careers. Because students change every year, the joys and challenges of this field are always shifting.

A master’s degree will open other opportunities for you. You’ll be able to mentor and supervise student teachers and other new educators. You’ll also develop skills and earn credentials that will allow you to shift to school counseling or administration. In most states, a master’s degree also triggers an automatic pay raise.

Further accreditation or education for a special education teacher

Seasoned teachers are life-long learners looking to refine their skills to offer a better academic experience for their students. Special education teachers are no different. Online learning can help teachers continue their education, either informally through YouTube and social media brainstorming groups, or formally through accredited online instruction.

As a special education teacher, you’ll remain on the lookout for new interventions and strategies. As Tim Villegas explains elsewhere on the Noodle website: ” I spend my free time researching educational best practices and reading anything I can find to enrich my proverbial ‘tool kit.’ To me, this is what good teachers do. They never stop learning.”


(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

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Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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Categorized as: Special EducationEducation & Teaching