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What Special Education Teachers Do About this section

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 learning, mental, emotional, or physical disabilities. They adapt general education lessons and teach various subjects to students with mild to moderate disabilities. They also teach basic skills to students with severe disabilities.

Duties

Special education teachers typically do the following:

  • Assess students’ skills and determine their educational needs
  • Adapt general lessons to meet students’ needs
  • Develop Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) for each student
  • Plan 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 students’ progress with parents, other 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 from school to life outside of school

Special education teachers work with students from preschool to high school. They instruct students who have mental, emotional, physical, or learning disabilities. For example, some help students develop study skills, such as highlighting text and using flashcards. Others work with students who have physical disabilities and may use a wheelchair or other adaptive devices. Still others work with students who have sensory disabilities, such as visual or hearing impairments. They also may work with those who have autism spectrum disorders or emotional disorders, such as anxiety and depression.

Special education teachers work with general education teachers, specialists, administrators, and parents to develop IEPs. Students’ IEPs outline their goals, including academic or behavioral milestones, and services they are to receive, such as speech therapy. Educators and parents also meet to discuss updates and changes to IEPs.

Special education teachers must be comfortable using and learning new technology. Most use computers to keep records of their students’ performance, prepare lesson plans, and update IEPs. Some teachers also use assistive technology aids, such as Braille writers and computer software, that help them communicate with their students.

Special education teachers’ duties vary by their work setting, students’ disabilities, and specialties.

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

In inclusive classrooms, special education teachers instruct students with disabilities who are in general education classrooms. They work with general education teachers to adapt lessons so that students with disabilities can more easily understand them.

Some special education teachers work with students who have moderate to severe disabilities. These teachers help students, who may be eligible for services until age 21, develop basic life skills. Some teach the skills necessary for students with moderate disabilities to live independently, find a job, and manage money and their 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.

Work Environment About this section

Special education teachers
Special education teachers work with students from preschool to high school.

Special education teachers held about 443,700 jobs in 2019. Employment in the detailed occupations that make up special education teachers was distributed as follows:

Special education teachers, kindergarten and elementary school 193,000
Special education teachers, secondary school 143,000
Special education teachers, middle school 84,700
Special education teachers, preschool 23,000

The largest employers of special education teachers were as follows:

Elementary and secondary schools; local 86%
Elementary and secondary schools; private 7

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

Helping students with disabilities may be rewarding. It also can be stressful, emotionally demanding, and physically draining.

Work Schedules

Special education teachers typically work during school hours. In addition to providing instruction during this time, they grade papers, update students’ records, and prepare lessons. They may meet with parents, students, and other teachers or specialists before and after classes.

Many work the traditional 10-month school year and have a 2-month break during the summer. They also have a short midwinter break. Some teachers work in summer programs.

Teachers in districts with a year-round schedule typically work 9 weeks in a row and then are on break for 3 weeks.

How to Become a Special Education Teacher About this section

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 the teachers are not required to be licensed or certified.

Education

All states require special education teachers in public schools to have at least a bachelor’s degree. Some require teachers to earn a degree specifically in special education. Others allow them to major in elementary education or a content area, such as math or science, and pursue a minor 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. Programs typically include a student-teaching program, in which prospective teachers work with a mentor and get experience instructing students in a classroom setting. To become fully certified, states may require special education teachers to complete a master’s degree in special education after obtaining a job.

Private schools typically require teachers to have at least a bachelor’s degree in special education.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

All states require teachers in public schools to be licensed in the specific grade level that they teach. A license frequently is referred to as a certification. Those who teach in private schools typically do not need to be licensed.

Requirements for certification or licensure can vary by state but generally involve the following:

  • A bachelor’s degree with a minimum grade point average
  • Completion of a student-teaching program
  • Passing a background check
  • Passing a general teaching certification test, as well as a test that demonstrates knowledge of the subject the candidate will teach

For information about teacher preparation programs and certification requirements, visit Teach.org or contact your state’s board of education.

All states offer an alternative route to certification or licensure for people who already have a bachelor’s degree. These alternative programs cover teaching methods and child development. Candidates are awarded full certification after they complete the program. Other alternative programs require prospective teachers to take classes in education before they can start to teach. Teachers may be awarded a master’s degree after completing either type of program.

Advancement

Experienced teachers may advance to become mentors who help less experienced teachers improve their instructional skills. They also may become lead teachers.

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

Important Qualities

Communication skills. Special education teachers need to explain concepts in terms that students with learning disabilities can understand. They also must write Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) and share students’ progress with general education teachers, counselors and other specialists, administrators, and parents.

Critical-thinking skills. Special education teachers must be able to assess students’ progress and use the information to adapt lessons.

Interpersonal skills. Special education teachers work regularly with a team of educators and the student’s parents to develop IEPs. As a result, they need to be able to build positive working relationships.

Patience. Special education teachers must be able to stay calm instructing students with disabilities, who may lack basic skills, present behavioral or other challenges, or require repeated efforts to understand material.

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

Pay About this section

Special Education Teachers

Median annual wages, May 2020

Special education teachers

$61,500

Preschool, elementary, middle, secondary, and special education teachers

$59,410

Total, all occupations

$41,950

 

The median annual wage for special education teachers was $61,420 in May 2020. 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 $41,120, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $100,160.

Median annual wages for special education teachers in May 2020 were as follows:

Special education teachers, secondary school $62,320
Special education teachers, middle school 61,820
Special education teachers, preschool 61,400
Special education teachers, kindergarten and elementary school 60,620

In May 2020, the median annual wages for special education teachers in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

Elementary and secondary schools; local $61,920
Elementary and secondary schools; private 56,290

Special education teachers typically work during school hours. In addition to providing instruction during this time, they grade papers, update students’ records, and prepare lessons. They may meet with parents, students, and other teachers or specialists before and after classes.

Many work the traditional 10-month school year and have a 2-month break during the summer. They also have a short midwinter break. Some teachers work in summer programs.

Teachers in districts with a year-round schedule typically work 9 weeks in a row and then are on break for 3 weeks.

Job Outlook About this section

Special Education Teachers

Percent change in employment, projected 2019-29

Total, all occupations

4%

Preschool, elementary, middle, secondary, and special education teachers

3%

Special education teachers

3%

 

Overall employment of special education teachers is projected to grow 3 percent from 2019 to 2029, about as fast as the average for all occupations. Employment of preschool education teachers is projected to grow 8 percent from 2019 to 2029, much faster than the average for all occupations. However, because it is a small occupation, the fast growth will result in only about 1,900 new jobs over the 10-year period. Demand will be driven by school enrollments and the need for special education services.

Demand for special education services and teachers should rise as disabilities are being identified earlier and as children with disabilities are enrolled into special education programs. 

Federal laws require that every state must maintain the same level of financial support for special education every year. This reduces the threat of employment layoffs due to state or federal budget constraints. However, employment growth may depend on increases in funding.

Employment projections data for special education teachers, 2019-29
Occupational Title SOC Code Employment, 2019 Projected Employment, 2029 Change, 2019-29 Employment by Industry
Percent Numeric

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

Special education teachers

443,700 458,000 3 14,300

Special education teachers, preschool

25-2051 23,000 24,900 8 1,900 Get data

Special education teachers, kindergarten and elementary school

25-2052 193,000 198,600 3 5,600 Get data

Special education teachers, middle school

25-2057 84,700 86,900 3 2,200 Get data

Special education teachers, secondary school

25-2058 143,000 147,600 3 4,600 Get data

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