What Does a Special Education Teacher Do?

Updated May 18, 2023 | Amy Boyington

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Future educators seeking a fulfilling career might consider special education. Special education teachers assist students with disabilities in public and private schools, meeting their physical, academic, and emotional needs. These professionals' responsibilities include developing individual education plans (IEPs), assessing students, and helping learners meet defined goals.

Why become a special education teacher? These professionals positively impact their students by helping them overcome learning challenges. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that jobs for special education teachers will grow by 3% from 2019-2029. Schools will need more special education teachers as medical advancements and early intervention allow for earlier detection of disabilities.

This page explores what a special education teacher does, how to become one, and what makes a good special education teacher. Our guide also features information on salary, professional organizations, and helpful resources for people interested in a special education career.

History of Special Education Teachers

The Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 signaled the transformation of special education. Before President Gerald Ford signed this law, schools did not have to guarantee an equal education for students with disabilities.

However, some educators became pioneers for the special education movement before the law's passing. Professor Evelyn Deno, the first director of special education in Minneapolis Public Schools, advocated for students with disabilities through groundbreaking changes to education law. Additionally, Dr. Frank Wood became the first teacher for students in need of emotional support and organized the University of Minnesota's first special education program.

The government has since modernized laws concerning students with disabilities several times. For example, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 ensures that highly qualified special education teachers, research-based practices, and early intervention pave the way for improved outcomes for students with disabilities.

Similar Specializations and Career Paths

Special education degree-seekers might consider careers related to special education, like human services jobs or occupational therapy. These professionals work with people with disabilities to improve their daily lives outside the traditional classroom setting.

Special education teachers can obtain a master's in education and apply their experience to careers as instructional coordinators, administrators, or policy development specialists.

Some similar careers require master's degrees and extend beyond the classroom. Special education teachers can obtain a master's in education and apply their experience to careers as instructional coordinators, administrators, or policy development specialists.

For these high-level education careers, licensed teachers can expect stronger salaries. For instance, postsecondary education administrators earn a median annual salary of $97,500, according to the BLS.

Career Description Required Education Required Experience Median Annual Salary
Recreational Therapist Recreational therapists provide interest-based activities for people with disabilities to meet their social, physical, and emotional needs. Bachelor's degree None $47,710
Social Worker Social workers work in various settings, including schools and child welfare agencies, to identify and solve their clients' well-being issues. Bachelor's degree None $51,760
Occupational Therapist Occupational therapists assist people with disabilities in growing and maintaining life skills. Master's degree None $86,280
Instructional Coordinator Instructional coordinators craft lesson plans and materials for schools and districts. They may also design curricula for special education programs. Master's degree 5+ years $66,970
Teacher Assistant Teacher assistants work in classrooms with licensed teachers to supervise students, review lessons, and help with classroom tasks. Some college, no degree None $28,900
Source: BLS

Special Education Teacher Job Description

A special education teacher works with students with disabilities. These teachers can work with students in general or special education classrooms. Parents, other teachers, therapists, and school administrators regularly connect with special education teachers to ensure students' needs are met through educational services.

A primary responsibility of these teachers is creating, implementing, and updating a learner's IEP. They also supervise teaching assistants, adapt lesson plans, and help students transition to new grades or life after high school.

These professionals face a series of challenges. As a learner's needs change, the teacher must modify an IEP and lesson plans to target new goals. Special education teachers should also be open to learning and using new adaptive technology. Additionally, student behavioral challenges sometimes can impact time in the classroom.

The hard and soft skills listed below can influence the success of a special education teacher.

Key Hard Skills for Special Education Teachers

  • Lesson Plan Development: Special education teachers must develop lesson plans that meet each student's needs and IEP goals. They also understand how to adapt lesson plans to match diverse capabilities and learning styles in the classroom.
  • Teaching: Special education teachers study math, language arts, and other subjects that students need to master throughout their school careers. Teachers complete continued education and professional development programs to expand their teaching skills.
  • Monitoring: Assessments and evaluations are critical in a special education classroom. Teachers work with several evaluation tools to measure student progress.
  • Classroom Management: Special education teachers must maintain an organized and well-managed classroom, whether they work with one or many students. Teachers with good classroom management skills clearly define policies, expectations, and consequences to ensure a classroom runs smoothly.

Key Soft Skills for Special Education Teachers

  • Communication: Special education teachers communicate with students, other teachers, specialists, and parents or caregivers daily. Oral and written communication skills are equally important for these teachers to educate students, hold meetings, and write IEPs and lesson plans.
  • Problem-Solving: Adaptability is necessary for special education teachers. These teachers solve daily problems that affect their students, like adapting an activity to better meet their needs. They also listen to families' concerns and suggestions and modify lessons accordingly for students.
  • Empathy: Students in special education settings should feel supported and understood in order to thrive. Empathizing with students allows special education teachers to better understand and overcome challenges through targeted activities.
  • Stress Management: Effective special education teaching requires thoughtful and organized planning. Stress can interfere with a teacher's ability to assist students. Understanding how to relieve and balance stress can help special education teachers focus on their students' needs.

A Day in the Life of a Special Education Teacher

A special education teacher's duties vary daily, depending on the students they work with. Generally, they create and adapt lesson plans, implement IEPs, and plan activities to meet each student's goals.

Special Education Teacher Salary and Career Outlook

The BLS projects that jobs for special education teachers will grow by 3%, or as fast as average, from 2019-2029. Improved developmental monitoring and early childhood intervention may increase demand for special education teachers.

According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, a growing number of students are covered under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Several disability categories, like autism and learning disabilities, included thousands more students during the 2018-19 school year than the 2017-18 school year.

According to the BLS, special education teachers earn a median salary of $61,240, which is similar to other teachers. Special education teachers may advance to higher positions in education with increased salary potential. Some careers for master's degree-holders include instructional coordinators and postsecondary education administrators, earning median annual salaries of $66,970 and $97,500, respectively.

Special Education Teacher

Median Annual Salary


Source: BLS

How to Become a Special Education Teacher

Special education teachers graduate from bachelor's degree programs in special education and receive licensure in their state. Generally, a bachelor's degree program takes four years to complete. Many of these programs lead to teaching licensure, allowing degree-seekers to take the Praxis test soon after graduating.

Some states and school districts may require special education teachers to pursue master's degrees after securing professional development positions.

Next, graduates can obtain a teaching job. Some states and school districts may require special education teachers to pursue master's degrees after securing professional development positions. Students can expect to complete a master's degree in about two years.

Learn more details about the process of becoming a special education teacher and finding the right degree by exploring the links below.

Resources for Special Education Teachers

Professional Organizations for Special Education Teachers

  • Council for Exceptional Children: The CEC improves the academic outcomes of students with disabilities or gifts. Educators can join for resources that meet their current networking, instructing, and professional development needs.
  • National Association of Special Education Teachers: NASET supports special education professionals through professional development courses, parent-teacher resources, and industry research. Members also receive a discount on the American Academy of Special Education Professionals' board certification in special education credential.
  • TASH: Formerly the Association for the Severely Handicapped, TASH modified its name to include more individuals with disabilities. Professionals and advocates of special education and needs benefit from exclusive research, annual conferences, and networking opportunities.
  • Association for Positive Behavior Support: Special education teachers working with behavioral challenges can join APBS for additional resources. Members enjoy online communities, mentorship opportunities, and live webinars. They also receive a copy of the Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions with research-based practices for supporting positive behavior.

Learn More About Special Education Teachers

How to Become a Special Education Teacher

How to Become a Special Education Teacher

Learn more about each step special education teachers must follow for higher education and teaching licensure before securing a special education position.

Salary and Career Outlook for Special Education Teachers

Salary and Career Outlook for Special Education Teachers

Special education teachers possess specialized knowledge that gives them an edge with salary and potential job growth. Explore some of the benefits of a special education teacher.

Day in the Life of a Special Education Teacher

Day in the Life of a Special Education Teacher

Discover some of the unique challenges that special education teachers face each day, along with typical responsibilities, duties, and rewards that come with the career.

Frequently Asked Questions

What does a special education teacher do?

A special education teacher supports students with disabilities in the classroom. These professionals create, implement, and revise IEPs, prepare students for new grades, and design lesson plans that cater to their students' academic and life goals.

Is a special education teacher a good career?

The BLS projects that special education teaching jobs to grow by 3% from 2019-2029. The agency lists their median wage at $61,420 a year. Additionally, special education teachers can advance their careers with further education and experience to earn higher salaries.

What makes a good special education teacher?

An effective special education teacher possesses excellent communication and classroom management skills to assist various learners and their families. They also have a deep passion for adapting education to fit each learner's specific needs.

Should I become a special education teacher?

People interested in an education career outside of the traditional classroom might find special education a good fit. Special education teachers excel in organization, planning, empathizing, and problem-solving. They also desire to help students with disabilities and advocate for the special education field.

Featured Image: FatCamera / E+ / Getty Images

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