Do You Have What It Takes to Be a Special Education Teacher?
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In a career teaching special education, you may work one-on-one with learning disabled students or teach a classroom of intellectually disabled or developmentally delayed students.
You’ll assess students’ needs in order to determine your lessons plans. You’ll be responsible for developing Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) for students, tracking student progress, supervising teacher assistants, working with students in groups and one-on-one and keeping parents and other teachers abreast of a student’s progress.
You’ll work alongside general education teachers as well as counselors, superintendents and administrators. As a student moves through the school year, it’ll be your job to update the IEP in order to reflect their progress and goals.
As an aspiring special education teacher, you’ll also need to decide which grade level you’re interested in teaching. Special education teachers work with students from preschool through high school.
First, Get Your Special Education Degree
A bachelor’s degree in special education is the first toward entering the classroom. In a four-year degree program, you’ll learn about child development, educational psychology and special education policies. In some cases, you’ll be required to complete a fifth year of school where you’ll specialize in an area such as speech therapy or nonverbal learning disabilities.
There are two types of master’s degrees available in special education—MA and MEd. If you choose to pursue a graduate degree, you’ll typically be required to choose a specialty, or the type of special needs student you’ll work with.
Education Specialist (EdS) and doctoral degrees are also available in special education. The former degree is designed for students who already hold a master’s degree and are interested in becoming a school counselor or psychologist.
In many school systems, special education teachers need to complete hands-on training before they can work. Often referred to as student teaching, this experience provides an opportunity to work directly with children and experience the classroom setting. You’ll also gain experience in preparing lessons while under the supervision of a teacher. State requirements vary but student teaching often lasts between one and two years.
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If you’re considering a career as a special education teacher, you may want to tap into valuable resources like the National Association of Special Education Teachers (NASET). The organization has several missions, one of which is to provide support and assistance to those preparing to become a special education teacher. Visit their site to access useful publications such as their Classroom Management Series, view video lectures and find information on special education and law.
Board Certification in Special Education (B.C.S.E.) is completely voluntary but displays your competency in special education. This can be a valuable credential to have when you begin your job search; many employers and administrators recognize this as a commitment to the field. Once you begin working, board certification demonstrates your knowledge and skill to parents.
In order to obtain board certification through the American Academy of Special Education Professionals (AASEP), you’ll need to have:
- A master’s degree from an accredited college or university in a field related to students with special needs, such as special education, art therapy, nursing or social work.
- Completion of five certificates of Advanced Professional Development
- A passing score on a 50-question multiple choice exam
Characteristics of Special Ed Teachers
More than most other professions, the task of teaching special education requires people who possess a particular set of qualities. If you are considering the teaching profession, rest assured that if you get excited about situations where others might give up, you just may be perfect for this rewarding and life-changing career.
Compare your own personality traits with the ones listed below to see if teaching special education is the right career for you.
- Special Education Teachers Are Good-Humored
Having your own well-tuned sense of humor will lighten your days and invigorate your teaching of special education students. Regardless of their disabilities, your students can sense when you are enjoying them and their personalities
- Good Teachers Are Organized
All students need structure to succeed, but special education students need it more. Whether you are teaching mildly dyslexic, severely handicapped or intellectually disabled students, you need to provide the class with a physical and academic structure conducive to learning.
- They’re Accepting of Their Students
Special education teaching provides you with the opportunity to love and appreciate others regardless of their capabilities or behavior. Seeking to truly understand and encourage your students will help them—and you—go far.
- They’re Creative in Teaching Methods
The ability to find new ways to explain and demonstrate subject matter is often the single most effective characteristic a special ed teacher can possess. Bringing creativity into the classroom will have the benefit of enriching your classroom environment as well.
- And Even-Tempered
Students with intellectual disabilities, emotional disturbance or autism can lose it when teachers are not direct, firm, kind and helpful, even in difficult situations. Watch yourself closely next time a crisis or emergency comes up and see how you respond. Do you keep your wits about you and deal calmly with the situation? If so, you have a great temperament to become a special education teacher.
- Special Education Teachers Are Confident
In a special ed classroom, you need to be self-assured in your decisions and leave no room for self-doubt, or it can be too easy to lose control.
- Special Education Teachers are Intuitive
Some auditory learning disabilities, injuries and other handicaps make special education students awkward communicators. When teaching special education, you will need to be watchful and involved so you can foresee students’ needs and address their concerns when they lack the ability to tell you about them.
- …And Thick-Skinned
Teaching special education can be frustrating at times and, to make matters worse, your students may not have the maturity to suffer quietly along. Having a thick skin will protect you from burning out over thoughtless comments. If you struggle in this area, try to focus on noticing the positive feedback you get.
- Special Education Teachers Are Optimistic
Sometimes comparatively simple tasks can become long, arduous battles for students with learning disabilities. Teachers need to offer hope and encouragement in difficult situations. Teaching special education means celebrating any and all victories, whether for long-awaited successes or simple attempts.
- They’re Dedicated to Their Students
Taking the opportunity to work with special education students for an extended period can be a huge confidence builder for them. Plus, once you know a student’s strengths and struggles, no one is better equipped than you to help them. Think about your dedication and whether it can go the distance in meeting the needs of these exceptional students.
Top Special Education Careers
There are many special education careers to choose from, including teaching, teacher’s aide and administration in special education departments across various age groups.
Although almost all teaching positions require a bachelor’s degree and teaching certificate, your specific career goals will dictate what kind of degree you’ll need to earn.
What you’ll do: An essential position in any special education department, teacher’s aides assist teachers at all levels of special education, including preschool. This is a crucial special education career in every special ed classroom.
TAs coach students with learning disabilities in and out of the general ed classroom, providing an extra layer of support to the special education teachers.
Many times, paraeducators are the primary point of one-on-one help for special needs students, and they can be called upon to grade papers, present lessons and participate in classroom activities whenever the teacher requires assistance.
Required training: A teacher’s aide position generally does not require any previous training, although a deep commitment to helping children is necessary. Most of the training is done on the job. However, some districts require paraeducators to complete classes and certification requirements over time.
Early Childhood Ed
What you’ll do: An early childhood special education career is for teachers who work in preschools, homes, daycare and special education centers. They are responsible for helping infants and toddlers under the age of 5 build learning skills to prepare them for school.
If you work with these youngest of special needs students, you’ll need to be prepared to communicate and collaborate with others involved, be they parents, therapists, social workers or medical professionals, because everyone works together to determine the best possible environment and strategies for each child.
It’s important to be flexible and organized in the role because disabilities vary widely from child to child, and training parents on the medical and developmental tasks necessary for their child’s progress can be a large part of the role.
Required training: To work in special ed schools, a bachelor’s degree with an endorsement in teaching early childhood special education is often required. However, some private schools or homes will not require specific education or certification.
What you’ll do: Primary and secondary special education teachers work with parents, general education teachers and school administrators to develop an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for their students, tailoring schedules and goals to each child’s specific needs and abilities. Then, they work with students and parents to carry them out. Other duties may include the following:
- Designing and using modified curricula to fit student abilities
- Providing testing assistance, including oral examinations, extended test times and larger print materials
- Assessing student performance, including grading homework and tests
- Helping students develop emotionally and behaviorally
- Teaching student’s basic life skills
- Working closely with parents on student progress
- Collaborating with parents, counselors, physical therapists, administrators, and other teachers
Required training: A special education teaching position requires the minimum of a bachelor’s degree and a teacher certification, although some schools or states may require a master’s degree in special education.
What you’ll do: Special education administrators, usually heads of school district special education departments, are responsible for handling budget details and curricula, running department operations, setting policies, supporting teachers and fostering department growth. This special education career molds the system in which teachers and parents of special needs kids work.
If you are interested in taking on higher-level responsibilities and supporting the teachers who spend their days with special needs students, an administration position may be right for you.
- Identifying educational standards and goals for special education programs
- Motivating teachers and staff
- Writing grants and preparing budgets
- Mediating disputes between schools and parents
- Providing parents with progress reports
- Reviewing all programs under the special education services umbrella
Required training: A special education career in administration requires a master’s or doctoral degree in special education, as well as administrative experience and proven excellence in the field.
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Individualized Education Plans (IEP)
A huge component of the career is the creation of the Individualized Education Plan. As the name implies, an IEP is a personalized educational map that special education teachers create for each special ed student. IEPs outline educational goals, strategies and special services. Each IEP is created with a collaborative effort from all of the student’s teachers, and is reviewed by the student’s parents before implementation.
Since such a variety of learning disabilities and special situations exist among special education students, you will find it helpful as a teacher to lay out specific, achievable goals for each student as you go. Like many special education teachers, you may even find that your collection of IEPs determines the way you structure your class time, in the same way a curriculum does for a mainstream teacher.
Because of the central role IEPs play in the daily life of a special ed teacher, a fundamental part of the special education training you receive will involve how to create effective individualized education plans. Because IEPs direct the flow of your teaching, make sure your teacher training school provides you with instruction and experience in creating IEPs. Effective IEPs will help you become the kind of special education teacher that makes a lasting impact on the lives of your students.
Special Education Teacher Salary and Job Outlook
Few teachers grow rich as a result of their teaching vocation but they aren’t hurting financially either. A special education teacher salary is usually competitive and is complemented by a solid benefits package. Teaching brings other rewards as well, especially when working closely with exceptional students whose day-to-day progress can be a great source of inspiration.
But since you can’t live off emotional rewards alone, it’s wise to research your special education teacher salary before pursuing a degree in the field and embarking upon your career.
Your special education teacher salary will depend on the location and type of school in which you choose to make your living. A public-school position will offer a package complete with paid summer vacations and a pension.
However, the details will depend upon the city and the type of school in which you teach. In general, suburban schools pay more than urban or inner-city schools, but it can be harder to find jobs in the higher paying districts.
Teachers holding special ed endorsements don’t generally make higher salaries than those in traditional classrooms, but some districts do pay a bit more.
Like other teachers, if you are seeking a position at the high end of the salary spectrum, you’ll need to build up experience and earn an advanced degree, most likely in a specialized area of special ed.
Median Annual Salary
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) current Occupational Outlook Handbook, the median national annual salary for special education teachers is $57,910. Actual salaries may vary greatly based on specialization within the field, location, years of experience and a variety of other factors. National long-term projections of employment growth may not reflect local and/or short-term economic or job conditions and do not guarantee actual job growth.
Special Education Administration
Because administrative positions require advanced degrees, such as a master’s or a doctorate, and a substantial amount of field experience, these positions pay more than classroom teaching.
According to the BLS, the median national annual salary for elementary, middle and high school principals is $92,510. As always, actual salaries may vary greatly based on specialization within the field, location, years of experience and a variety of other factors.
Special Education Teacher Benefits
Something else to keep in mind is that most classroom teaching positions come with perks, such as the added benefit of lengthy summer vacations, during which you can travel or supplement your income with a summer job (either teaching or something completely different).
And don’t forget, you will enjoy winter and spring breaks, a pension plan, comprehensive health care and life insurance benefits, and supplemental pay for working with students in extracurricular activities.
The BLS calculates that the number of special education teaching positions will increase by eight percent over the next decade. This demand is aided by the retirement of current special education teachers. Many school districts are already experiencing special ed teacher shortages, so job prospects in the area are already proving strong.