How to become a special education teacher

Written by Kate Lopaze

Anyone who takes on the role of teacher is already pretty special—educating students of all ages is not for everyone, and it can be one of the most challenging and rewarding careers out there. And if you’re thinking of becoming a special education teacher, working with students with an even greater range of learning styles, academic needs, and levels of ability, the ups and downs of teaching can be even more intense. If you think this might be the teaching career for you, we have the info you need to get started on that path.

What do special education teachers do?

Special education teachers are educators who work specifically with students who have physical, academic, or emotional differences. Many special ed teachers focus on a particular age group (like elementary school or high school), but the range of student ages can vary, depending on how the school’s special education programs are set up. Special education teachers may work with students who have a variety of special needs conditions, including:

  • Learning disabilities
  • Behavior disorders
  • Autism spectrum disorders
  • Physical disabilities (blindness, deafness, etc.)

Students may range from having mild learning disabilities to severe mental and physical challenges. Special education teachers may choose to specialize in one of these areas and focus their master’s degree studies accordingly. As school employees, special education teachers typically have the same full-time work day and school year as other kinds of teachers, with summers off (unless a particular school or district offers summer courses as part of its special education curriculum). Although the school week typically involves a standard number of working hours, there may be additional time spent in the mornings, evenings, and off-hours to prepare for school and help students in extracurricular programs or other activities.

These teachers have many of the same job responsibilities as other types of teachers, including:

  • Lesson and curriculum planning
  • Managing classroom lessons and activities
  • Tracking student progress
  • Meeting with parents
  • Assisting students with everyday living tasks
  • Teaching a variety of subjects (like reading, math, or science)
  • Teaching communication skills

Special education teachers can be found in most types of schools: public, private, elementary, secondary, or magnet.

What skills do special education teachers have?

Special education teachers often need to have an extra dose of people skills, given that they’re dealing with students who may have a variety of physical, emotional, and educational needs.

Teaching Skills: This is the most important skill for any teacher, really, but special education teachers have to be especially good at teaching basic concepts to students who have different abilities to learn and understand the material.

Flexibility: Classrooms are unpredictable, and this can be even more true when a class has students with a variety of needs and abilities. The teacher should bring a certain amount of flexibility to lessons and classroom activities to help account for different students who learn in different ways. The special education classroom is rarely a one-size-fits-all educational experience, so a little flexibility in teaching can be very helpful.

Patience: This is a very important skill for a special education teacher to have. Many special needs students may require extra time or resources to learn the skills and concepts that other students may “get” faster. For the teacher, it’s crucial to understand that extra help or patience may be the best way to reach those students and help them learn.

Creativity: Again, because of the learning differences that special education students may have, standard lessons may not be the way to go. Finding ways to teach material in ways that students can relate to and understand, even if it’s a little unorthodox, can really help special education teachers in their day-to-day classrooms.

Organizational Skills: Like in any classroom, organization can mean all the difference between chaos and success. Organization is extra important for a special needs classroom, where students have additional challenges and may need even more structure throughout the school day. There may be students with wildly different needs as well, so keeping the classroom and the students organized is essential to making sure everyone’s staying on track.

What do you need to become a special education teacher?

Becoming a special education teacher requires a four-year degree in education, ideally with a focus on special education. Many teachers also go on to complete a master’s degree in special education as well. Certification is typically required for special education teachers, particularly ones in public schools. Each state has its own certification requirements, so be sure to check with your state to see what’s expected.

How much do special education teachers get paid?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary for kindergarten teachers is $57,910. This can vary depending on the teacher’s experience and the type of school, as well as the types of students the teacher is working with.

 What is the outlook for special education teachers?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects that this field will grow about 8% by 2026, which is about as fast as average for all careers. Education is a rather perennial field (especially as the population continues to grow), and the demand for teachers who have the skills to work with special needs students will likely be one of the education specialties that sees the most growth within the industry.

If you have the patience and skills to work with special students who have needs that go beyond many other students’, this can be an incredibly rewarding and satisfying career path. You’ll be helping students overcome their issues and learn and grow their potential. Good luck!

About the author

Kate Lopaze

Kate Lopaze is a writer, editor, and digital publishing professional based in New York City. A graduate of the University of Connecticut and Emerson College with degrees in English and publishing, she is passionate about books, baseball, and pop culture (though not necessarily in that order), and lives in Brooklyn with her dog.