If you’re like most teachers working with students who have learning challenges, you qualified for a preliminary license and were able to begin your career in special education with nothing more than a bachelor's degree. That license required you to complete some specific coursework, but you did that as part of your undergraduate studies.
As an undergrad, you probably completed a core education curriculum along with courses covering child assessment, educational psychology, social-emotional learning, disability instruction, communication techniques, assistive technology, and behavioral support. Chances are good that you also completed a one- or a two-year stint as a student teacher in a special education classroom before you actually received your teaching license.
With a bachelor's degree and one-to-two years of experience as a student teacher, you're off to a great start... But now you have a choice:
Some special educators do both, working in the classroom while pursuing a master's degree part-time. Some take a sabbatical to go back to school full-time. Still others decide that an education bachelor's degree is enough.
So, is a master's degree in special education worth it? While the answer to that question will be different for every teacher, there are some compelling reasons to look into master's programs for special education teachers. Before we dive into them, however, let's take a look at what master's programs for special education teachers are like.
It’s not always clear what kind of degree you need to teach special education, especially when you reach the graduate level. There are various master’s degrees available to teachers specializing in special education, all of which may be described as a master's in special education. Prospective special education teachers should take a particularly close look at two degrees: the Master of Education (MEd) and the Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT).
The difference between the MEd and the MAT lies in how a university assigns disciplines to its different schools. In general:
Keep in mind that there are no absolutes in higher education, and as such the above definitions are the most frequent definitions. For example, some universities label teaching a liberal art while others consider it a science, so one school's MAT may be another school's Master's of Science in Teaching. There are even schools that confer a Master of Science in Education. Make sure you look carefully at what any prospective master’s program looks like before settling on one.
That said, your long-term goals will likely determine whether you choose to pursue an MEd or an MAT.
Most graduate-level programs require about 36 graduate credit hours to complete; a full-time student can graduate in about two years.
There are also online programs, part-time programs, and accelerated on-campus programs that can help you meet your goals on a timeline that works for you.
No matter which graduate degree you choose, chances are good that you’ll be required to pick a specialty within the field. Many master’s degree programs (especially MAT programs) also require the completion of a thesis. In any case, both the MAT and the MEd will give you new ways to assess your students, expose you to new teaching methods, and help you create and implement effective curricula for your classroom.
So, why enroll in a special education master's program?
Each state has its own certification and licensing requirements for teachers. While many do not require special education teachers to have completed a master’s program, quite a few now either require candidates to hold a master’s degree or to earn one within their first five years of teaching. Make sure you understand your state’s requirements when it comes to teaching in special education classrooms, and keep in mind that those requirements may change in the future.
Let’s look more closely at the benefits of a master's degree for special education teachers.
A report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the largest nationally recognized assessment of student performance, indicates that teachers with master’s degrees consistently outperform students of teachers with undergraduate degrees in both math and reading assessments. While standardized testing is not the final arbiter of success, it is one quantifiable measure of academic improvement, one in which a master's degree appears to impact student results positively.
Special education teachers are already in high demand (especially during teacher shortages, when special education classrooms are often hit the hardest), but it’s always a good idea to differentiate yourself from the pack. Even if your state doesn’t mandate a master's degree to teach special education, more and more employers are limiting their searches to candidates who hold advanced degrees. When you’re job hunting, a MAT or an MEd will give you an edge over other teachers vying for the same positions.
Great master’s programs teach you new strategies for meeting the needs of students with learning, neurological, and physical disabilities, but that’s not all you’ll take away from your program. You’ll also meet experts in your field and have the opportunity to connect and share ideas with other teachers in the special education space. Earning your master’s degree is an opportunity to build a valuable network that you can tap into in the future when you’re looking for a new placement or facing a tough challenge.
No one enters the special education field to get rich, but it’s definitely easier to focus on your work when you’re financially comfortable. Special education teachers with an MEd or MAT in special education have a higher earning potential — 5 to 10 percent higher — than their colleagues who have a bachelor’s degree.
You’ll be able to choose from a broader range of special education careers with a master's degree. That’s because the more you know about teaching methods, pedagogical trends, the legal issues surrounding special education, and classroom strategies for helping students with learning difficulties thrive, the more qualified you’ll be to take on jobs outside of the classroom.
For instance, teachers who go on to earn their master’s degrees sometimes pursue alternative careers in special education, like becoming:
Bonus: Most of these jobs pay more than teaching and can be just as rewarding.
There are so many reasons that people enter the special education field, from the desire to help an often-underserved population to a fascination with the different ways people learn to an interest in a specific challenge, like autism spectrum disorders. The one constant is that teachers who pursue special education as a career have a hugely positive impact on the students they work with.
If you’ve decided to dedicate your life to students with learning differences, earning a master’s degree in special education is absolutely worth it.
If you’re worried about the time commitment, there are online graduate-level special education programs can be completed on a part-time basis, like:
Both Saint Joseph's and University of Washington offer flexibility for teachers who need to balance continuing education with their classroom responsibilities. It will be challenging, but in the end, you’ll make an even bigger impact on the lives of your students and be able to help more people grow beyond their potential.
As special education teacher Meghan Mathis put it, “When you help a student who thinks they can’t learn to achieve things far beyond what they ever dreamed possible, you feel like you can fly."
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