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What is a Special Education Teacher?

Special education teachers work with students who require additional assistance due to their varying disabilities, such as emotional, learning, mental, physical, and social developmental issues. The needs of the classroom will vary each year depending on the unique students who are enrolled in the school at any given time. Some students may have more severe cases than others, and students in the classroom will be representative of many different ages.

These teachers often focus on basic skill development, including effective communication techniques and literacy improvements. Teachers must adapt their lesson plans from the general education requirements. These teachers must then find the best ways to reach each student in their class with different approaches customized to the needs of each student. Part of the special education teacher responsibility is to provide the best education possible given student and classroom restrictions and to help these students be able to live more independently over time.

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Steps to Becoming a Special Education Teacher

To become a special education teacher, you must complete a number of steps as required by the state in which you intend to become employed. Each state may have slightly different requirements for special education teachers, so you’ll need to check with your state’s board of education. You’ll also have to become a certified special education teacher in any state in which you wish to teach. The licensures and certificates are not universal; they may work in a certain region of the US or not transfer at all. It is also important to note that the standards of teaching in some states have recently drastically increased. As such, the requirements for newer certificates and licensures in these states may be different than they were only a few years ago. Most states require a minimum of a bachelor’s degree to teach special education, a teacher preparation course, successful completion of teaching exams, work experience, licensure or certification, and continued education for license renewal.

  • Step 1: Complete A Bachelor’s Degree

  • Step 2: Teacher Preparation

  • Step 3: State Licensure

  • Step 4: Licensure Renewal and Continued Education


Step 1: Complete a Bachelor’s Degree

The overwhelming majority of states require a bachelor’s degree in special education. Some people might earn a bachelor's degree in early childhood education or elementary education and then specialize in special education. In other cases, potential teachers are able to select a degree program specifically in special education. However, some colleges and universities do not offer degrees in special education.

If you know you wish to pursue this career path, be sure to select a higher learning institution that has the degrees and majors that will lead to employability in the field. It is also possible to complete a bachelor’s degree in another area followed by a certificate program in special education. Do not forget about accredited online degree programs so that you might gain valuable work experience while you complete your degree.

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Step 2: Teacher Preparation

Many states with top public education require future special education teachers to complete a special teacher preparation program. For those individuals enrolled in a degree program at an accredited and reputable higher learning institution, this will be mandatory, and passing will be required to complete your degree.

This special education program provides future teachers with hands-on experience, a teaching mentor, feedback along the way, and an evaluation at the end. It is essentially an internship for teachers to prepare college and university students for the reality that is teaching before they accept a full-time position. During this time, program participants will engage in student teaching, in which they will assist with all forms and aspects of teaching in the classroom.

Step 3: Exams and State Licensure

Most states also require the completion of one or several state-mandated teaching exams before licensure. These exams are designed to ensure anyone pursuing licensure is, in fact, prepared for becoming a teacher. These exams will assess the area of special education directly. They will also test for competency and comprehension of various materials you should have learned during your degree program.

Once you pass your exams, you can apply for your teaching licensure or certification. Each state will be different in the certificates or licensures you require. It is important to note that, in some states, you will be required to have licenses and certifications to teach both as a special education teacher and as a general education teacher. You will also have to pass an extensive background check to be able to work with children of any age or of any special need.

Step 4: Licensure Renewal and Continuing Education

Your initial license or certificate is typically only valid for a few years. During this time period, you are still under evaluation to receive your official teaching licensure or certificate. You must demonstrate your ability to succeed as a special education teacher to be able to apply for and receive your renewed teaching license. Once you renew your teaching licensure for the first time, you will be required to complete a certain number of continued education activities, events, and courses each year to remain licensed or certified.

Such continued education may come in the form of online classes, teaching seminars, mandatory school teaching sessions, or more. It is also important to note that many people use this requirement to complete advanced degrees and specialized certifications to ensure career advancement and increases in pay. Keep in mind that continued education is a lifetime career requirement as teaching methodologies and best practices change regularly.

What Does a Special Education Teacher Do?

A special education teacher has many challenging responsibilities both similar and different to those of a general education teacher. Both types do share the same roles and responsibilities; however, a special education teacher works with students who have greater setbacks and challenges than those in other classrooms. Special education teachers will often have to work with special education teacher aides, counselors, parents, general education teachers, administrators, and any other aide the parents have hired to help.

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In addition to working with all of these people to complete their daily tasks, special education teachers must customize general education curriculum to suit the needs and varying levels of challenges each student in the classroom faces. It is these varying degrees of disabilities and unique challenges that make special education particularly difficult. Special education teachers must teach, observe, mentor, provide basic care, assess students, organize activities, and much more.

These special education teachers might work in a private or public-school system. They may have a classroom entirely dedicated to children with special needs or they might work in a general classroom and only work with the students who need special attention. It is also possible to work for a school dedicated entirely to students with special needs and it’s important to note that special education teachers will often work with different types of technology more so than in general education classrooms.

Needed Skills to Acquire

It takes a remarkable person to become a teacher, and it takes an exceptionally remarkable person to become a special education teacher. The nature of the work requires people who have the ability to engage children in a positive manner while at the same time establishing healthy and positive relationships with parents and education administrators.

Special education teachers must be resilient and emotionally strong. It is also possible that some teachers may need to be physically strong to restrain some students who may have physical reactions for any number of triggers or simply to help them in the bathroom. These teachers must understand that both students and their parents can be emotional from time to time. If you wish to become a special education teacher, you must prepare yourself mentally as much as educationally.

The following are just some of the skills and attributes required to be a successful special education teacher:

  • Patience
  • Resourcefulness
  • Love and Acceptance of All Children
  • Organized and Detailed-Oriented
  • Communication Skills
  • Humor and Flexibility
  • Enthusiasm
  • Creativity
  • Calming Nature
  • Computer Skills
  • Critical Thinker

Alternative Education and Career Paths

It is possible to start as a childcare worker, tutor, or any other entry-level position that does not require a bachelor’s degree. You can complete the appropriate higher education degree programs, certifications, and licensure online while you continue to gain experience. This experience will make the education and job placement processes easier.

If you already have a bachelor’s degree and work experience in another field, you have other options. You can complete a certification program and a teacher’s preparation course to become qualified to take the required exams for teacher licensure. You will likely still have to complete the necessary work experience before you can take the exams and qualify to legally work as a teacher. Additionally, like all teachers, you will have to pass a rigorous background check.

Special Education Teacher Career & Salary

Where Might You Work?


Public schools are the largest employers of special education teachers. In states that understand the importance of special education and the unique skill set these teachers possess, you will make more money than a general education teacher. In states that have yet to understand the value of these positions, you will likely make less money than teachers in general education classrooms.

It is also possible to work for private schools. The type of private school will affect the pay. Non-profit private schools dedicated entirely to children with special needs may not pay as well as private schools with both special education and general education classrooms. However, the opposite could be true if the parents of the students are wealthy. New job opportunities for special education teachers continue to expand. You might also work for the government, corporations, or colleges/universities.

Most special education teachers will work standard teacher hours. You might work for a school district that has the summers off or you might work for an employer year-round. It is also possible to work flexible hours if you work in the home of a family or several families.

Potential Career Paths

Many people experience burnout from being a special education teacher or they simply need a break now and again. If you have a degree and experience as a special education teacher, you have plenty of alternative career paths to pursue. You can choose a path that allows you to continue to work with children with special needs or you can choose other careers.

Childcare Worker
A childcare worker is employed by a family to watch and care for the children when family members and parents are unavailable. Some special education teachers work in the home of their employer and complete tasks such as baths, dinner, homework and more.

Social Worker
A social worker is often an advocate for children or adults in cases where their lives or health may be in danger. This might include planning unscheduled family visits, removing children from unsafe home environments, or helping people overcome their addictions.

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Teacher’s Assistant
A teacher’s assistant is often employed by schools as teacher aides in the classroom. These positions can be filled by people pursuing their education credentials or people without teaching licensure. They might be responsible for any classroom task, from grading papers to assisting students one on one.

Elementary School Special Education Teacher
An elementary school special education teacher often works in a classroom dedicated to young children with social, behavioral, or developmental concerns. The students may have minor to severe challenges and the students ages will vary.

Middle School Special Education Teacher
A middle school special education teacher will have the same roles and responsibilities as an elementary school special education teacher with a few differences. These special education teachers will work with older students, some of whom may be the age of a high school student yet developmentally the age of a middle school student.

Recreational Therapist
A recreational therapist works with young people or adults to improve the overall well-being of all participants who may have an illness or a disability. These professionals offer activity-based tools and recreation to improve physical and psychological health.

School Principal
A school principal is essentially the manager of the school and the teachers. They will hire and fire teachers and aides when appropriate. These administrators are also responsible for implementing school policies and discipline. They, too, will make the decisions for the school along with the superintendent and the board.

College Instructor
A college instructor will teach future special education teachers to become successful teachers. College instructors often require a master’s degree. However, if you wish to become a professor, you will require a doctoral degree.

Special Education Teacher Salaries

Occupation Entry-Level Mid-Career Late-Career
Special Education Teacher $35,000 $48,000 $70,000
Elementary School Teacher $40,000 $46,000 $59,000
Secondary School Teacher $39,000 $49,000 $63,000
School Counselor $44,000 $52,000 $67,000
Gifted and Talented Teacher $34,000 $47,000 $71,000
Elementary School Principal $68,000 $82,000 $93,000
Elementary School Vice-Principal $65,000 $69,000 $91,000
Secondary School Principal $62,000 $90,000 $97,000
Secondary School Vice-Principal $50,000 $70,000 $103,000
Social Worker $41,000 $50,000 $58,000

**Salary info provided by PayScale

Career Outlook

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), special education teacher positions are expected to grow roughly 8% by 2026. This growth will occur due to a number of factors, such as more schools dedicating appropriate resources to special education services. Also, greater emphasis as a society is being placed on the importance of diagnosing social, behavioral, and developmental issues at younger ages.

The government and federal law demand that all schools provide free education to all students diagnosed with disabilities. Schools and states are required to provide equal financial support to both general education classrooms and special education. Some school districts are only beginning to diagnose students with social, behavioral, and developmental issues at a much earlier age. This is another reason for the increase in job growth for special education teachers.

It is also important to note that in many school districts special education teachers are highly in demand and salaries are likely to increase. This teaching career is often more challenging than general education classrooms; therefore, the turnover rate is often higher, which requires more and more special education teachers in this teaching niche.

Advancing From Here

Whether one gets burnt out or has aspirations of career advancement, special education teachers have options to grow throughout their career. Some people will choose to move from elementary school to middle school and from middle school to high school as a way to advance their careers. Some teachers, regardless of their class specialty, will become school principals. They will work toward their master’s degree or their doctoral degree as part of their continued education requirements to accomplish their goals.

Others will choose to become a school counselor or an instructional coordinator. A master’s degree is also helpful to find work in these areas. Still others might choose to become a college instructor or a university professor with tenure. These, too, require advanced degrees. If you have such aspirations, be sure to pursue advanced degrees as part of your continuing education requirements.

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Frequently Asked Questions

How much do special education teachers make?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, special education teachers make around $61,000 per year.

What do special education teachers do?

Special education teachers work to develop individualized education programs to improve child development. Special education teachers help children with mental and physical disabilities develop skills. 

What are the requirements for special education teachers?

Each state will have a specific education requirement. Most states require a minimum of a bachelor's degree. Most states also require a specific amount of hours of student teaching and at least one state-mandated teaching exams before licensure. Special education teachers will also need to earn an official teaching licensure or certificate.  

What is the job outlook for special education careers?

Special education careers are expected to grow by 8% by 2030 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

Where can you work as a special education professional?

Special education teachers can work as special education directors or curriculum directors with a master's degree. Special education professionals can also earn a doctoral degree to qualify to teach at a college or university.

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