Are you ready to educate students who are in need of a little extra support to reach their full potential? Becoming a special education teacher is an extremely important and immensely rewarding profession. As a special education teacher, your role will be to employ unique teaching methods to meet the needs of each special student. You will support and educate students, preparing them to lead fulfilling lives. Your work will leave a lasting impression on how they view themselves and what they accomplish in life. 

By reading this article, you’re taking steps towards this profound profession. We’re here to guide you through the process. In this blog, we will discuss how you can join the special education teaching profession whether you’re a graduate, a teacher, or a career changer. We will also share a few insights into the job and address other common questions that you may have. 

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Special education teachers perform standard activities like preparing lesson plans, grading tests, and coordinating with parents to discuss their child’s progress. What sets them apart from other teachers is that special education teachers are required to prepare Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) for each student. Since each student learns differently, it is the teacher’s job to plan and adapt lessons differently to meet the varied needs of the students. These IEPs are discussed with parents and other staff members and are updated and developed throughout the year according to the student’s progress. 

Another important role that special education teachers perform is to identify the diverse skill sets as well as limitations of each student, noting potential areas for improvement. They recommend necessary services, like speech therapy, to aid students’ development. Special education teachers may benefit from proficiency in technology, as some students rely on specific technologies to enhance their learning and independence.

The responsibilities of special education teachers can differ based on their work environment, the specific disabilities of their students, and their areas of expertise.

Depending on your current status, the path to becoming a special education teacher may look different for you. You may be an undergraduate student or a teacher with a different specialty or even a career changer. We will explore all three categories in detail:

1. The Traditional Route (Preferable For An Undergraduate Student)

If you’re currently an undergraduate student interested in becoming a special education teacher, here are the steps you can follow:

  • Bachelor’s degree 

The most common route is to pursue your bachelor’s degree in special education. Alternatively, you could also opt for a related field with a concentration in special education such as education with a focus on special education. 

  • Student teaching internship 

As a part of your bachelor’s program, you will complete a student teaching internship, which will give you hands-on experience in a special education classroom and working directly with students with disabilities.

  • State-level exams

After completing your degree you will need to pass state-level teaching exams.  These exams are different for different states, so check which exams your state requires. In general, many states require special education teachers to pass the Praxis Special Education exam. Ensure you prepare adequately for the specific exams your state mandates.

  • Apply for licensure 

After passing your required state exams you can apply for your teaching license or certification. 

2. Transition Into Special Education For Certified Teachers With A Different   Specialty 

If you are already a certified teacher and want to transition into a career as a special education teacher, you can follow these steps to achieve your goal:

  • Evaluate your existing qualifications

Start by evaluating your existing teaching credentials and experience. Determine if you meet any prerequisites for special education certification or endorsement in your state.

  • Additional Education

Depending on your current qualifications, you may need to pursue additional coursework, a certificate program, or a master’s degree in special education. This is often a requirement for special education certification.

  • Choose the Right Program

Research and select a graduate program in special education that aligns with your career goals and interests. Ensure that the program is designed for individuals transitioning from other teaching fields or backgrounds.

  • Apply for licensure or certification

Lastly, you will have to pass your state-required exams and then you can apply for your licensure.

3. How To Become A Special Education Teacher With A Non-Education Undergrad Degree

Becoming a special education teacher with a non-education undergraduate degree is possible through alternative certification or graduate programs designed for career changers. Here are some common alternate routes to special education teaching:

  • Alternate certification programs 

You need a bachelor’s degree in any field to enroll in an alternate teaching program. Research alternate certification programs in your state or region that focus on special education. These programs can also be completed online. Be sure to check accreditation. 

  • Masters in special education 

You can pursue a graduate certificate or master’s degree in special education. These programs are designed for individuals with non-education backgrounds and provide comprehensive training in special education.

  • Teach for America or similar programs 

Teach for America (TFA) is a well-known program that places recent college graduates and professionals in high-need schools. TFA and similar programs provide training and support for individuals without traditional teaching backgrounds to become certified teachers.

Choose an alternate route that you prefer. Beyond your teacher training, you will need to pass state-level exams, and then you can apply for licensure or certification.

If you are interested in pursuing a bachelor’s in special education, you’ll need a high school diploma or equivalent, your academic transcripts, a decent GPA, and often standardized test scores. These are just a few general requirements; research your selected schools to understand more specific details. 

If you’re pursuing a master’s in special education, you’ll generally need a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution. Programs often require transcripts, letters of recommendation, a personal statement, and occasionally standardized test scores or teaching experience. Be sure to review your chosen program’s specific admission criteria for exact requirements.

Alternative programs may require you to have a bachelor’s degree in any field from an accredited college or university. Many programs require passing basic skills tests and may have subject-specific competency requirements, particularly if you’re planning to teach a specific disability category or grade level. The exact criteria may vary from program to program so be sure to do your research. 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for special education teachers was $62,950 in May 2022. Wages can vary based on factors like experience and location. According to the data, The lowest 10 percent earned less than $45,780, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $102,450.

The grade level taught can also influence your pay. Based on the grade level taught, the salary data may look something like this:

Grade Level Salary Data 
Kindergarten And Elementary School$62,390
Middle School$62,990
Secondary School$63,560

There are several compelling reasons to pursue a degree in special education:

  1. Make a Difference: 

Special education teachers have the opportunity to make a profound and positive impact on the lives of students with disabilities. They play a crucial role in helping students overcome challenges and reach their full potential.

  1. In-Demand Profession: 

There is high demand and an ongoing teacher shortage in special education. For this reason, special education promises a stable career. This profession also offers good pay and benefits. Schools continually seek qualified educators to support students with diverse needs.

  1. Personal Fulfillment: 

Working in special education can be personally rewarding. Witnessing the growth and achievements of your students can bring a deep sense of fulfillment and satisfaction.

  1. Diversity of Experience: 

Special education encompasses a wide range of disabilities and age groups. This diversity offers educators the chance to work with a variety of students and develop a broad skill set.

  1. Career Opportunities: 

A degree in special education can open doors to various career opportunities, including teaching in public schools, private schools, special education centers, and even consulting or administrative roles.

  1. Continuous Learning: 

Special education is a dynamic field that requires educators to stay current with evolving teaching methods, technologies, and research. This ongoing learning can keep your career engaging and intellectually stimulating.

  1. Highly Rewarding Challenges: 

While it can be challenging, working with students with disabilities offers opportunities for problem-solving, creativity, and personal growth.

  1. Community and Support: 

Special education teachers often find a strong sense of community and support among their colleagues, as they share a common dedication to helping students with disabilities.

  1. Impact on Society: 

By becoming a special education teacher, you contribute to creating a more inclusive and compassionate society, where individuals with disabilities are given the chance to thrive and succeed.

Pursuing a degree in special education is a meaningful choice for those who want to make a positive difference in the lives of individuals with disabilities and contribute to a more inclusive and equitable education system.

Here are some qualities and considerations that are typically important for success in this profession:

  1. Passion for Education: 

A genuine passion for teaching and helping students with special needs is vital. This profession can be demanding, so a strong commitment to the field is important.

  1. Empathy and Patience: 

Special education teachers work with students who have diverse learning needs and abilities. You should have a high level of empathy and patience to understand and support these students effectively.

  1. Flexibility: 

Special education teaching often requires adapting lesson plans and teaching methods to meet the individualized needs of each student. Being flexible and willing to try different approaches is essential.

  1. Problem-Solving Skills: 

Special education teachers often encounter unique challenges in the classroom. The ability to identify problems and develop creative solutions is valuable.

  1. Strong Communication Skills: 

You will need to communicate effectively with students, parents, other teachers, and support staff. Clear and compassionate communication is crucial.

  1. Organization and Planning: 

Special education teachers must prepare and keep track of individualized education plans (IEPs) and monitor progress. A lot of paperwork can be involved in this process, so good organizational skills are essential.

  1. Continuous Learning: 

Education is an evolving field, and you should be committed to ongoing professional development to stay up-to-date with best practices and new research.

To determine if you are a good fit for the special education teacher profession, consider your own strengths and areas for growth. Gaining experience through volunteering or substitute teaching in special education classrooms can provide valuable insights into whether this career path aligns with your interests and abilities. Finally, consulting with educators or professionals in the field for guidance and advice can be beneficial in making an informed decision.

When it comes to special education, there’s plenty to learn and explore. In this field, every day presents a chance to make a lasting impact on the lives of students with unique needs. You’ll find yourself constantly learning, adapting, and finding innovative ways to support your students’ development. This field is not just about teaching; it’s about making a positive difference in the lives of students who require specialized support to reach their full potential.

What is an Individualized Education Plan (IEP)?

An IEP is a legal document developed for each eligible student with a disability. It outlines the student’s specific learning needs, goals, and the services and accommodations they will receive to help them succeed in school.

Can I become a special education teacher with an associate degree?

Typically, a bachelor’s degree in special education or a related field, along with state certification, is required. An associate degree may qualify you for paraprofessional roles in special education or as a teacher’s assistant, but it may not be sufficient for a teaching position. Specific requirements can vary by location, so it’s essential to research the regulations in your area and consider pursuing further education if you aspire to be a special education teacher.