Special Education Teachers

Summary

special education teachers image
Special education teachers work with students who have a wide range of learning disabilities.
Quick Facts: Special Education Teachers
2012 Median Pay $55,060 per year
Entry-Level Education Bachelor’s degree
Work Experience in a Related Occupation None
On-the-job Training Internship/residency
Number of Jobs, 2012 442,800
Job Outlook, 2012-22 6% (Slower than average)
Employment Change, 2012-22 26,600

What Special Education Teachers Do

Special education teachers work with students who have a wide range of learning, mental, emotional, and physical disabilities. They adapt general education lessons and teach various subjects, such as reading, writing, and math, to students with mild and moderate disabilities. They also teach basic skills, such as literacy and communication techniques, to students with severe disabilities.

Work Environment

Most special education teachers work in public schools, teaching students at the preschool, elementary, middle, and high school level. Others work in private schools, childcare services, and other institutions. Many work the traditional 10-month school year, but some work year round.

How to Become a Special Education Teacher

Special education teachers in public schools are required to have a bachelor’s degree and a state-issued certification or license. Teachers in private schools also need a bachelor’s degree, but may not be required to have a state license or certification.

Pay

The median annual wage for special education teachers was $55,060 in May 2012.

Job Outlook

Employment of special education teachers is projected to grow 6 percent from 2012 to 2022, slower than the average for all occupations. Employment growth will be driven by continued demand for special education services. Many job opportunities will stem from the need to replace teachers who leave the occupation.

Similar Occupations

Compare the job duties, education, job growth, and pay of special education teachers with similar occupations.

More Information, Including Links to O*NET

Learn more about special education teachers by visiting additional resources, including O*NET, a source on key characteristics of workers and occupations.

What Special Education Teachers Do

Special education teachers
Special education teachers may teach students in small groups or on a one-on-one basis.

Special education teachers work with students who have a wide range of learning, mental, emotional, and physical disabilities. They adapt general education lessons and teach various subjects, such as reading, writing, and math, to students with mild and moderate disabilities. They also teach basic skills, such as literacy and communication techniques, to students with severe disabilities.

Duties

Special education teachers typically do the following:

  • Assess students’ skills to determine their needs and to develop teaching plans
  • Adapt lessons to meet the needs of students
  • Develop Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) for each student
  • Plan, organize, and assign activities that are specific to each student’s abilities
  • Teach and mentor students as a class, in small groups, and one-on-one
  • Implement IEPs, assess students’ performance, and track their progress
  • Update IEPs throughout the school year to reflect students’ progress and goals
  • Discuss student’s progress with parents, teachers, counselors, and administrators
  • Supervise and mentor teacher assistants who work with students with disabilities
  • Prepare and help students transition from grade to grade and after graduation

Special education teachers work as part of a team that typically includes general education teachers, counselors, school superintendents, and parents. As a team, they develop individualized educational programs (IEPs) specific to each student’s needs. IEPs outline goals and services for each student, such as sessions with the school psychologists, counselors, and special education teachers. Teachers also meet with parents, school administrators, and counselors to discuss updates and changes to the IEPs.

Special education teachers’ duties vary by the type of setting they work in, student disabilities, and teacher specialty.

Some special education teachers work in classrooms or resource centers that only include students with disabilities. In these settings, teachers plan, adapt, and present lessons to meet each student’s needs. They teach students in small groups or on a one-on-one basis.

Students with disabilities may attend classes with general education students, also known as inclusive classrooms. In these settings, special education teachers may spend a portion of the day teaching classes together with general education teachers. They help present the information in a manner that students with disabilities can more easily understand. They also assist general education teachers to adapt lessons that will meet the needs of the students with disabilities in their classes.

Special education teachers also collaborate with teacher assistants, psychologists, and social workers, to accommodate requirements of students with disabilities. For example, they may show a teacher assistant how to work with a student who needs particular attention.

Special education teachers work with students who have a wide variety of mental, emotional, physical, and learning disabilities. For example, some work with students who need assistance in subject areas, such as reading and math. Others help students develop study skills, such as using flashcards and text highlighting.

Some special education teachers work with students who have physical and sensory disabilities, such as blindness and deafness, and with students who are wheelchair-bound. They may also work with those who have autism spectrum disorders and emotional disorders, such as anxiety and depression.

Special education teachers work with students from preschool to high school. Some teachers work with students who have severe disabilities until the students are 21 years old.

Special education teachers help students with severe disabilities develop basic life skills, such as how to respond to questions and how to follow directions. Some teach students with moderate disabilities the skills necessary to live independently to find a job, such as managing money and time. For more information about other workers who help individuals with disabilities develop skills necessary to live independently, see the profiles on occupational therapists and occupational therapy assistants and aides.

Most special education teachers use computers to keep records of their students’ performance, prepare lesson plans, and update IEPs. Some teachers also use various assistive technology aids, such as Braille writers and computer software that helps them communicate with students.

Work Environment

Special education teachers
Special education teachers can work with young children in child care centers.

Special education teachers held about 442,800 jobs in 2012.

Most special education teachers work in public schools. Some teach in magnet, charter, and private schools. Some also work with young children in childcare centers.

A few work with students in residential facilities, hospitals, and students’ homes. They may travel to these locations. Some teachers work with infants and toddlers at the child’s home. They also teach the child’s parents methods and ways to help the child develop skills.

Helping students with disabilities can be highly rewarding. It also can be quite stressful—emotionally demanding and physically draining.

Work Schedules

Special education teachers typically work during school hours. They also use that time to grade papers, update students’ records, and prepare lessons. They may meet with parents, students, and other teachers before and after classes.

Many work the traditional 10-month school year, with a 2-month break during the summer. Teachers in districts with a year-round schedule typically work 8 weeks in a row, are on break for 1 week, and have a 5-week midwinter break.

How to Become a Special Education Teacher

Special education teachers
Special education teachers need to be able to explain concepts in terms students with learning disabilities can understand.

Special education teachers in public schools are required to have at least a bachelor’s degree and a state-issued certification or license. Private schools typically require teachers to have a bachelor’s degree, but teachers are not required to be licensed or certified. For information about teacher preparation programs and certification requirements, visit Teach.org—previously known as Teacher Education and Compensation Help, or contact your state’s board of education.

Education

All states require special education teachers in public schools to have at least a bachelor’s degree. Some of these teachers major in elementary education or a content area, such as math or chemistry, and minor in special education. Others complete a degree specifically in special education.

In a program leading to a bachelor’s degree in special education, prospective teachers learn about the different types of disabilities and how to present information so that students will understand. These programs typically include fieldwork, such as student teaching. Some states require special education teachers to complete a master’s degree in special education, to become fully certified.

Teachers in private schools do not need to meet state requirements. However, private schools may prefer to hire teachers who have at least a bachelor’s degree in special education.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

All states require teachers in public schools to be licensed. A license is frequently referred to as a certification. Those who teach in private schools are not required to be licensed.

Requirements for certification vary by state. However, all states require at least a bachelor’s degree. They also require completing a teacher preparation program and supervised experience in teaching. Some states require a minimum grade point average. Most states require teachers to pass a background check. Teachers may be required to complete annual professional development classes or a master’s degree to maintain their license.

Many states offer general licenses in special education that allow teachers to work with students with a variety of disabilities. Others offer licenses or endorsements based on a disability specific category, such as autism or behavior disorders.

Some states allow special education teachers to transfer their licenses from another state. Other states require even an experienced teacher to pass their state’s licensing requirements.

All states offer an alternative route to certification for people who already have a bachelor’s degree. Some alternative certification programs allow candidates to begin teaching immediately, under the close supervision of an experienced teacher.

These alternative programs cover teaching methods and child development. Candidates are awarded full certification after they complete the program. Other programs require prospective teachers to take classes in education before they can start to teach. They may be awarded a master’s degree after completing either type of program. For more information about alternative certification programs, contact the Teach-Now.

Training

Some special education teachers need to complete a period of fieldwork, commonly referred to as student teaching, before they can work as a teacher. In some states, this program is a prerequisite for a license to teach in public schools. During student teaching, they gain experience in preparing lessons and teaching students in a classroom setting, under the supervision and guidance of a mentor teacher. The amount of time required for these programs varies by state, but may last from 1 to 2 years. Many universities offer student teaching programs as part of a degree in special education.

Advancement

Experienced teachers can advance to become mentor or lead teachers who help less experienced teachers improve their teaching skills.

Teachers may become school counselors, instructional coordinators, assistant principals, or principals. These positions generally require additional education, advanced degree, or certification. An advanced degree in education administration or leadership may be helpful.

Important Qualities

Communication skills. Special education teachers discuss student’s needs and performances with general education teachers, parents, and administrators. They also explain difficult concepts in terms that students with learning disabilities can understand.

Critical-thinking skills. Special education teachers assess students’ progress and use that information to adapt lessons to help them learn.

Interpersonal skills. Special education teachers regularly work with general education teachers, school counselors, administrators, and parents to develop Individualized Education Programs. As a result, they need to be able to build positive working relationships.

Patience. Working with students with special needs and different abilities can be difficult. Special education teachers should be patient with each student, as some may need the instruction given aloud, at a slower pace, or in writing.                                  

Resourcefulness. Special education teachers must develop different ways to present information in a manner that meets the needs of their students. They also help general education teachers adapt their lessons to the needs of students with disabilities.

Pay

Special Education Teachers

Median annual wages, May 2012

Special education teachers

$55,060

Education, training, and library occupations

$46,020

Total, all occupations

$34,750

 

The median annual wage for special education teachers was $55,060 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $36,740, and the top 10 percent earned more than $87,390.

The median annual wages for special education teachers by grade level in May 2012 were as follows:

  • $56,830 for special education teachers, secondary school
  • $55,780 for special education teachers, middle school
  • $53,820 for special education teachers, kindergarten and elementary school
  • $52,480 for special education teachers, preschool

Special education teachers typically work school hours. They may meet with parents, students, and other teachers before and after classes. They also use this time to grade papers, complete paperwork, and prepare lessons.

Many work the traditional 10-month school year, with a 2-month break during the summer. Some teachers may work for summer programs. Teachers in districts with a year-round schedule typically work 8 weeks in a row, are on break for 1 week, and have a 5-week midwinter break.                                  

Union Membership

Most special education teachers belonged to a union in 2012.

Job Outlook

Special Education Teachers

Percent change in employment, projected 2012-22

Total, all occupations

11%

Education, training, and library occupations

11%

Special education teachers

6%

 

Employment of special education teachers is projected to grow 6 percent from 2012 to 2022, slower than the average for all occupations. The employment growth of special education teachers will vary by type. (See table below.) However, overall demand will be driven by increasing enrollment and continued need for special education services.

Better screening and identification of various disabilities in children are expected to increase the demand for special education services. In addition, children with disabilities are being identified earlier and enrolled into special education programs, increasing the need for special education teachers in preschool and kindergarten grades.

Compliance with laws requiring free public education for students with disabilities should result in some jobs. As school districts continue to use inclusive classrooms, special education teachers will be needed to assist general education teachers to work with students who have disabilities.

However, overall employment growth of special education teachers will depend on government funding. When state and local governments experience budget deficits, school districts may close or consolidate some schools and lay off employees, including special education teachers. As a result, employment growth will likely be limited by tight government budgets.

Job Prospects

Many job opportunities will stem from the need to replace teachers who leave the occupation each year.

Because helping students with disabilities can be quite stressful—emotionally demanding and physically draining—many schools have difficulties recruiting and retaining special education teachers. As a result, special education teachers should have good job opportunities. Job opportunities may be even better in parts of the country with higher enrollment rates, such as in the South, West, and rural areas.

Job opportunities also may be better in certain specialties, such experience with early childhood intervention and skills in working with students who have multiple disabilities, severe disabilities, or autism spectrum disorders.

Employment projections data for Special Education Teachers, 2012-22
Occupational Title SOC Code Employment, 2012 Projected Employment, 2022 Change, 2012-22 Employment by Industry
Percent Numeric

SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Projections program

Special education teachers

442,800 469,400 6 26,600

Special education teachers, preschool

25-2051 22,300 25,900 16 3,600 [XLS]

Special education teachers, kindergarten and elementary school

25-2052 194,600 206,600 6 12,000 [XLS]

Special education teachers, middle school

25-2053 94,600 99,500 5 4,900 [XLS]

Special education teachers, secondary school

25-2054 131,300 137,400 5 6,100 [XLS]

Similar Occupations

This table shows a list of occupations with job duties that are similar to those of special education teachers.

Occupation Job Duties ENTRY-LEVEL EDUCATION 2012 MEDIAN PAY
Career and technical education teachers

Career and Technical Education Teachers

Career and technical education teachers instruct students in various technical and vocational subjects, such as auto repair, healthcare, and culinary arts. They teach academic and technical content to provide students with the skills and knowledge necessary to enter an occupation.

Bachelor’s degree $51,910
Child care workers

Childcare Workers

Childcare workers care for children when parents and other family members are unavailable. They care for children’s basic needs, such as bathing and feeding. In addition, some help children prepare for kindergarten or help older children with homework.

High school diploma or equivalent $19,510
Elementary, middle, and high school principals

Elementary, Middle, and High School Principals

Elementary, middle, and high school principals are responsible for managing all school operations. They manage daily school activities, coordinate curricula, and oversee teachers and other school staff to provide a safe and productive learning environment for students.

Master’s degree $87,760
High school teachers

High School Teachers

High school teachers help prepare students for life after graduation. They teach academic lessons and various skills that students will need to attend college and to enter the job market.

Bachelor’s degree $55,050
Instructional coordinators

Instructional Coordinators

Instructional coordinators oversee school curriculums and teaching standards. They develop instructional material, coordinate its implementation with teachers and principals, and assess its effectiveness.

Master’s degree $60,050
Kindergarten and elementary school teachers

Kindergarten and Elementary School Teachers

Kindergarten and elementary school teachers prepare younger students for future schooling by teaching them basic subjects such as math and reading.

Bachelor’s degree $53,090
Middle school teachers

Middle School Teachers

Middle school teachers educate students, typically in sixth through eighth grades. Middle school teachers help students build on the fundamentals they learned in elementary school and prepare them for the more difficult curriculum they will face in high school.

Bachelor’s degree $53,430
Occupational therapists

Occupational Therapists

Occupational therapists treat injured, ill, or disabled patients through the therapeutic use of everyday activities. They help these patients develop, recover, and improve the skills needed for daily living and working.

Master’s degree $75,400
Preschool teachers

Preschool Teachers

Preschool teachers educate and care for children, usually ages 3 to 5, who have not yet entered kindergarten. They teach reading, writing, science, and other subjects in a way that young children can understand.

Associate’s degree $27,130
Recreational therapists

Recreational Therapists

Recreational therapists plan, direct, and coordinate recreation-based treatment programs for people with disabilities, injuries, or illnesses. Recreational therapists use a variety of modalities, including arts and crafts, drama, music, dance, sports, games, and community reintegration field trips to help maintain or improve a patient’s physical, social, and emotional well-being.

Bachelor’s degree $42,280
Social workers

Social Workers

Social workers help people solve and cope with problems in their everyday lives. One group of social workers, clinical social workers, also diagnose and treat mental, behavioral, and emotional issues.

See How to Become One $44,200
Teacher assistants

Teacher Assistants

Teacher assistants work under a teacher’s supervision to give students additional attention and instruction.

Some college, no degree $23,640

Contacts for More Information

For more information about special education teachers, visit

Council for Exceptional Children

Personnel Improvement Center

For more information about teaching and becoming a teacher, visit

Teach.org

American Federation of Teachers

National Education Association

For more information about alternative certification programs, visit

Teach-Now

O*NET

Special Education Teachers, Middle School

Special Education Teachers, Secondary School

Special Education Teachers, Kindergarten and Elementary School

Special Education Teachers, Preschool

Suggested citation:

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition, Special Education Teachers,
on the Internet at http://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/special-education-teachers.htm (visited April 17, 2014).

Publish Date: Wednesday, January 8, 2014