Special Education Careers

How To Become a Special Education Teacher

Special education teachers work with students from preschool to high school and even to the age of 21. These professionals understand the diverse learning needs of students with disabilities and implement goals and plans for those learners to reach their full potential at school.

Whether you’re a current teacher interested in transitioning to a special education career or you’re just getting started, there are several steps to take to reach your goal. This guide explores what a special education teacher does each day and how to become one. I’ve detailed the education, experience, and licensing requirements to help you get started.

Becoming a Special Education Teacher

  • What Is a Special Education Teacher?
  • What Does a Special Education Teacher Do?
  • What Are The Qualifications To Become a Special Education Teacher?
  • How Do I Get a Job as a Special Education Teacher?
  • Where Can I Go From Here?

What Is a Special Education Teacher?

A special education teacher works with students of varying abilities, usually in public school settings. School districts commonly employ these teachers to work in a specific school or at different schools within the district. Special education teachers tend to follow the same calendar as the school district, although some may also help with summer learning programs or year-round classrooms.

Special education teachers sometimes work in classrooms by themselves or with another special education teacher or aide(s), also known as paraprofessionals. Others spread their days between multiple classrooms to assist students in their general education classroom.

What Does a Special Education Teacher Do?

A special education teacher’s responsibilities may vary daily, depending on the needs of their students. These teachers typically have diverse learning needs in their classrooms comprised of students with different physical, mental, behavioral, and learning abilities. 

Still, special education teachers have several tasks they complete each day or week. For instance, they must design lesson plans that they can adapt to each student and set goals for their students to accomplish their learning objectives. These teachers also review, implement, and update Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) for students.

A significant portion of the day includes individualized instruction. Special education teachers plan activities that cater to each child’s learning abilities and goals while assessing their students for future planning.

What Are The Qualifications To Become a Special Education Teacher?

Special education teachers require skills that stretch far beyond teaching capabilities. Therefore, qualifications for these teachers are sometimes lengthier and stricter than credentials for general educators. Follow along to learn more about the requirements of special education teachers, from experience and skills to education and licensure. 

Minimum Education Requirements for Special Education Teachers

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), special education teachers must hold a minimum of a bachelor’s degree to teach in public or private schools. However, many school districts and some states require candidates to have a bachelor’s or master’s degree in special education, specifically. 

Some degree programs help students and educators with a bachelor’s degree outside of general or special education transition to special education teachers. These programs are usually shorter than a traditional bachelor’s degree, but they offer special education-specific courses to move you toward licensure. 

Degree programs may also allow you to specialize in a related minor area of study, like visual impairments or autism and behavioral disorders. While specializing isn’t required, it can help you secure a job working with students with specific needs.

Here’s a review of some of the best special education degree programs out there. Take a look!

Required Teaching Experience

Like other types of educators, special education teachers must gain student teaching experience to get licensed. Student teaching requirements vary by state, but they generally include a minimum number of weeks or hours of teaching in a special education classroom. 

During this period, another teacher supervises you to ensure proper interaction with students and that you carry out any other requirements of your teaching component. Your supervisor signs off on your student teaching experience as proof for your degree program and your state that you’ve completed it.

Special Education Teaching Licensure

Most states require specific licensure for special education teachers that differs from a general teacher license. You may also need to apply for a license based on the type of disabilities or ages you’ll work with, such as mild-to-moderate disabilities or K-2 special education. Learn more about state-by-state licensure for special educators.

The requirements to apply for licensure also vary by state. However, teachers usually need a bachelor’s degree in education, a completed student-teaching program, a passed teaching exam, and a passed criminal background check. Applicants with a bachelor’s degree in a non-education field can look into their state’s alternative licensure route, if available.

States also require different examinations for special education teachers. Most U.S. states and territories require Praxis® tests, at minimum. Others, like Ohio and Alabama, require additional testing in reading or other basic skills.

Necessary and Helpful Skills for Special Education Teachers

Several skills can help special education teachers excel in the classroom. 

Communication skills are an example. As a special education teacher, you work with students with varying abilities. Therefore, adapting your communication style to meet their needs is crucial to helping them learn. You’ll also be responsible for communicating with an IEP team, families, and other teachers and therapists to best support each student.

Adaptability also tops the list of necessary skills. As your students learn and master skills, you’ll need to reconsider their goals and ways to meet them. When students struggle, you may need to modify your lesson plans to accommodate.

Compassion, active listening skills, organization, classroom management, and creativity are additional skills that can benefit these teachers.

How Do I Get a Job as a Special Education Teacher?

Now that you know the typical pathway to become a special education teacher, you might be interested in learning about the job-hunting process. 

First, consider some of your must-haves and nice-to-haves, since not all special education teaching jobs are the same. For example, what age range are you most comfortable working with? Does one school district offer more perks than another? How far are you willing to travel each day for work?

Make a list of your priorities and deal-breakers to determine whether a job is the best fit for you. Let’s dig into the different ways you can find teaching jobs and what to know about the application process.

Tapping Into Your Professional Network

If you’re already a teacher, you probably have a network of other educators and education administrators. Your network might comprise other faculty members at schools you’ve taught at, teachers from professional development programs, or educators in social networking groups. This network can prove to be an excellent source for job hunting. 

Tap into your network when you’re ready to transition your career from a general classroom to a special education environment. You might already know special education teachers who can advise you on what to look for in a job and where open opportunities might lie. 

Leverage your network as you see fit without being pushy. Updating your LinkedIn feed with a quick post letting your network know that you’re looking for a new opportunity in special education is a respectable way to do it. You might also reach out privately to a few of your closest contacts to request that they keep their eyes peeled for potential openings.

Where to Search for Special Education Teacher Jobs

As helpful as a professional network can be for current or future educators, it’s not necessary to secure a special education job. Other resources to take advantage of include your local school’s or district’s job openings, online job boards, and job fairs. 

Some job boards specialize in teaching jobs, like K12JobSpot and SchoolSpring. You can also browse your state’s Department of Education website for teacher-focused job listings.

Applying for Special Education Teacher Jobs

Applying for a teaching job can feel intimidating, especially if this will be your first. But knowing what to expect can help you feel prepared.

School districts have different requirements for applying, but most require a paper or online application as the first step. You should also have a resume and a copy of your teaching licensure ready to send with your application. 

Once the school or district confirms your credentials, you’ll receive an interview, usually from a district administrator. Some questions you might get during the interview include:

  • What prior teaching experience do you have?
  • Describe your classroom setting during your student-teaching experience.
  • How will you create lesson plans for your students?
  • Why did you choose to become a special education teacher?

Arrive at your interview dressed professionally, just like you would in the classroom. Bring a pen and notebook to jot down any notes regarding the job. Also, write down any questions you want to ask your interviewer.

If it’s your first ever interview or you haven’t interviewed in a while, here’s an article I wrote with some questions and preparation tips specific for special education teachers.

If you’ve interviewed and accepted your new position as a special education teacher, congratulations! That’s amazing! Here’s an article I wrote to help first year special education teachers survive!

Where Can I Go From Here?

Have you decided on the special education teacher path? First, check with your state’s Department of Education to determine the exact steps necessary to become a special education teacher. Preparing yourself ahead of time can help you ensure that you’re not missing any critical component of licensure along the way.

If you’re already a teacher who’s interested in transitioning to a special education role, you might seek help from your school district. Your principal may have a few resources to get your journey started. You can also contact your college or university to ask about available programs to help you make the switch. 

I’d love to hear from you about your current special education pathway. Are you hitting any stumbling blocks along the way, or do you have any insight to share with others? Leave a comment below or feel free to send me an email!

About the author

Emily Cummings

I am a mom of two crazy, amazing, independent, little feminists. They bring so much light to my life and a lot less sleep. Since becoming a mother and increasingly in the last year, I have witnessed parents struggling to connect with their child's special education team with no success. I have become more aware of the gaps in our public school system and how parents may benefit from empowerment and advocacy tools.

My work experiences range from a juvenile detention center to an autism specialist in the Issaquah School District and a special education teacher in a self-contained program in the Lake Washington School District. My master's in teaching focused on special education and behavioral disorders from Seattle Pacific University. I completed my BCBA coursework from Montana State University.

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