Most special education teachers work in the classroom, like any other teacher of record. What special education teachers do is educate children with a wide range of disabilities. These disabilities include physical, learning, and emotional/mental health issues. Depending on where they work, special education teachers may be asked to adapt lessons taught in the general education classroom to fit the needs of their mildly to moderately disabled students, or they may teach more basic skills such as literacy and community-based skills to more severely disabled students. At the middle to secondary school level special educators may also be asked to specialize in a particular subject, such as math or social studies, in addition to generalized special education.
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Salaries for special education teachers vary widely according to experience, grade level taught, and geographic location. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national median income for a special educator starts at $52,480 for a pre-school level educator and tops out at $56,830 for the high-school level.
According to the National Education Association, average starting salary for a new teacher in the US last year was $36,141.
Aside from teaching in the classroom, the major responsibility of a special education teacher is to work with a team of educators and other clinical professionals to develop and monitor progress on individualized education plans, or IEPs, for their students. This process is known as case management. The IEP for a student outlines educational goals and specifies services, modifications, and accommodations that help students meet those goals. Special educators often administer formal and informal assessments in order to determine a student’s progress towards a specific goal.
A special educator needs to be sensitive to the needs of a child who may have significant issues. Along with that sensitivity, special educators require a good amount of patience and creativity. A special educator needs to be able to work collaboratively and communicate effectively with other clinical professionals such as social workers and clinical psychologists. Because most special educators have many children on their caseloads, they also need to have good time-management and organizational skills. Basic computer skills are also important, especially since much of the IEP process is transitioning to being computer-based.
Degree and Education Requirements
All teachers need to complete at least a Bachelors Degree. What that degree is in depends on where and what you want to teach. You may want to major in a specific content area such as chemistry or physics and minor in special education. Or your school may offer a program leading to a degree in special education. Alternatively, you may be able to obtain a Masters degree in special education.
In addition to a college degree, if you want to teach in a public school, you will need to become a certified or licensed teacher. The requirements for certification vary from state to state but all require at least a Bachelors Degree and some sort of teacher preparation program with supervised teaching experience. Some states also require you to take a certification exam such as the PRAXIS. If you are not currently a teacher, but have a Bachelors Degree, all states offer alternative certification procedures, which may allow you to teach while you fulfill additional requirements.
Pros and Cons of This Position
The pros of becoming a special education teacher are many. You are in a position to make a real difference in a child’s life. It may take more time and effort to prepare lessons than the average teacher, but having a lesson work with a student who would not be successful without receiving special education services is incredibly rewarding. That said, some of the students you work with might be quite challenging behaviorally. That challenge makes the eventual success even sweeter.
Depending on where you end up working, you may find yourself with a workload that is heavier than your average teacher. The sheer volume of paperwork can be a tremendous challenge. There are also specific times of year you may find yourself working very long hours writing up progress reports and entering grades. On the balance, however, being a special educator is incredibly rewarding.
Working with disabled children is challenging. Having time set aside for yourself and making sure you keep a good work-life balance is key. When you start looking for positions, make sure you are comfortable with and knowledgeable about the curriculum and professional requirements of the school system to which you are applying. Do they require you to have additional certifications, such as in a specific content area? Make sure you’ve taken those exams before applying to those positions.
Once you have a job, ask if your school has a mentoring program. Pairing up with an experienced teacher is an invaluable tool which will enable you to grow quickly in your new position. If there is not a formal mentoring program where you’re headed, ask around and see if anyone will take you under your wing informally. It takes a few years to get the hang of teaching in general, let alone teaching a particularly challenging group of children. When things finally click, the feeling is amazing.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in special education fields is set to grow by six percent over the next ten years. This growth is, in part, due to better screening and identification of those children in need of services. Because teaching children with disabilities can be quite stressful, the turnover rate for special educators can be quite high. As such, many schools have a difficult time recruiting and retaining special educators. In fact, according to the US Department of Education, special education is a national area of need for the 2014-2015 school year. Declaring special education a national area of need means that there is a shortage of qualified special educators in public schools nationwide.
Websites such as that from the National Association of Special Education Teachers give good examples of the types of positions which are currently available.
In summary, becoming a special educator is a relatively simple process from an educational standpoint. The job outlook is good, as the US Department of Education has declared special education a national area of need. Overall, being a special educator is a career that is both challenging and rewarding.