As a greater number of children are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and other disabilities, more comprehensive special education programs are developed to provide instruction at the earliest ages, and with a growing focus on providing special education instruction in inclusive classrooms, the demand for special education teachers throughout the nation has increased persistently in recent years. According to the National Coalition on Personnel Shortages in Special Education and Related Services, 49 states reported a shortage of special education teachers during the 2013-14 school year.
Whether you are new to education, a primary general education teacher looking to refocus your career on special education, or a secondary teacher interested in being able to more effectively offer instruction in your content area to middle and high school students with disabilities, one thing’s certain: there has never been more opportunity or better incentives for those interested in becoming special education teachers.
Steps for Becoming a Special Education Teacher
Though your specific path to become a special education teacher will vary according to your state’s licensing/certification and endorsement requirements, the following steps will serve as a guide as you consider your educational options:
Step 1. Complete a Bachelor’s Degree and an Approved Teacher Preparation Program
Your state board of education likely maintains a list of approved teacher preparation programs – colleges and universities in your state that offer degree programs leading to initial licensure/certification. For most students, an approved teacher preparation program consists of a bachelor’s degree in special education with a focus on either teaching at the primary (elementary) level or in a specific subject at the secondary level.
A bachelor’s degree in special education leading to initial state licensure prepares students to become special education teachers in public and private schools and in residential and vocational settings.
The national accrediting agency for teacher preparation programs is the Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Preparation (CAEP). As of July 2013, the former accrediting agencies, the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) and the Education Accreditation Council (TEAC), consolidated to form the CAEP. You can search for a list of CAEP-accredited programs here.
Whether offered as a Bachelor of Science (BS) or a Bachelor of Arts (BA), undergraduate degrees in special education provide a comprehensive course of study in special education with a foundation in the liberal arts.
A teacher preparation program in special education will be focused on pedagogy for either primary grades (K-6) or secondary grades (middle and high school):
- Teaching special education students at the primary (K-6) level would involve studying pedagogy for general, multi-subject education.
- Teach at the secondary level means preparing to teach a specific content area – usually language arts/English, math, or science. A bachelor’s degree with a teacher preparation program for secondary teachers in special education would qualify graduates to teach their primary content area subject – whether math, science, or English, etc – to general population students and students with disabilities. They may teach in general population classrooms that include students with disabilities, but they could also teach subject-specific special education classes that don’t include students from the general population.
Fieldwork in the form of a practicum that involves working with both general education and special education students complements coursework throughout the bachelor’s program.
Special education majors learn the skills required to develop and implement individualized education programs (IEPs) and teach students with disabilities in a variety of settings, including one-on-one, in general education classrooms, as resource room teachers, in self-contained special education classrooms, and outside the classroom in a variety of settings.
A bachelor’s degree in special education consists of about 120 credits, which includes a combination of core education theory and pedagogy courses and courses with a concentration in special education. Most programs take at least four years of full-time study to complete. Programs for secondary teachers would also include studying the content area and related pedagogy, which may push the program closer to the five-year mark when factoring in the teacher preparation program component.
A sampling of core courses in special education includes:
- Disability, Education, and Public Policy
- Language Acquisition
- Foundation Literacy Skills and Phonics
- Special Education Cognition and Learning
- Teaching Students with Special Needs
- Assessment in Special Education
- The Inclusive Classroom
- Differentiating Instruction
- Implications of Special Education
- Children with Exceptionalities
Some programs require a specialization while other programs provide specialization as an option. Depending on the institution, specializations may include:
- Birth to Age 5
- Students with Mild/Moderate Disabilities
- Students with Severe Disabilities
Student Teaching Experience
A student teaching experience is an important component of a bachelor’s degree in special education. A student teaching experience consists of working in a real student classroom, under the guidance and supervision of a mentor teacher. The student teaching experience involves collaborating with the mentor teacher to plan, deliver, and assess lessons.
Step 2. Pass the Required State Examinations
Each state has its own specific testing requirements, though most require passing a fundamental skills test in the content area and a subject area competency exam in special education to earn state licensure as a special education teacher.
Many states use the Praxis Special Education: Core Knowledge and Applications exam, which is designed to assess a candidate’s knowledge of the basic principles of special education and the application of those principles in real world settings. This examination focuses on five, major content areas:
- Development and Characteristics of Learners
- Planning and Learning Environment
- Foundations and Professional Responsibilities
The examination’s questions cover disabilities ranging from mild to profound.
Step 3. Apply for an Initial Educator License/Certification
Because each state oversees educator credentialing for the teachers working within their borders, the licensing requirements to become a special education teacher can vary significantly from one state to the next. Always review your state board’s requirements for becoming licensed/certified (TeachingProject.org).
If you plan to teach in a public school, you must earn a state license (also commonly called a certification).
While some states issue general special education certifications that allow special education teachers to work with students of varying disabilities (K-12), other states require special education teachers to earn a specialty license or endorsement based on a specific disability category, such as autism. Special education teachers must also hold an endorsement for each content area they are qualified to teach (K-5, secondary math, English, etc.).
Step 4. Pursue Graduate Studies in Special Education
A master’s degree in special education accomplishes a number of goals, depending on your current level of education, your state’s requirements, and your future goals in special education.
You may choose to pursue a master’s degree in special education if:
- You hold a bachelor’s degree in another field of study and are seeking initial teacher certification as a special education teacher.
- You currently hold a valid teacher certification and you want to make the switch to special education.
- You currently hold a valid special education teacher certification and you want to specialize in a specific field of special education.
- Your state requires a master’s degree to attain a professional license in special education.
- You currently hold a valid special education teacher certification and you want to pursue a career in special education administration.
Master of Education (MEd)
The Master of Education (MEd) is designed for experienced, certified special education teachers interested in furthering their skills and/or gaining experience in a specific area of special education. For example:
- High Incidence MEd program: Focuses on working with children and young adults with behavior disorders, learning disabilities, and mild intellectual disabilities.
- Severe Disabilities MEd program: Focuses on working with students with severe intellectual disabilities, multiple disabilities, and autism spectrum disorders.
- Visual Disabilities MEd program: Focuses on teaching an expanded core curriculum for students with visual impairment.
Master of Arts in Education (MAed)/ Master of Science in Education (MSed)
The MAed/MSed in special education is a flexible graduate degree that allows students to choose from a variety of concentrations and specializations. These programs are generally designed for practicing educators, para-educators, and other professionals interested in pursuing advanced study and research specific to individuals with disabilities in diverse settings. These programs may or may not lead to initial teacher certification.
Master of Arts in Teaching (M.A.T.)
The Master of Arts in Teaching (M.A.T.) is structured to accommodate students who hold a bachelor’s degree in an academic area outside of teaching and are interested in pursuing a career as a special education teacher. They are also often chosen by general education teachers looking to move into special education.