Becoming a Special Education Teacher

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Special education teachers work with preK-12 school children who have learning, behavioral, and physical disabilities. Pursuing a career in special education offers several benefits, including solid job prospects: The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a 3% growth in special education jobs from 2019 to 2029, on par with the national average growth projection.

Preschool-level special education jobs in particular project to grow faster-than-average. Elementary school special education jobs project 15% growth — much faster than average — from 2018 to 2028 in Colorado, Georgia, and Utah.

This guide delves into the typical steps required to become a special education teacher, and the benefits of this career choice.

Life as a Special Education Teacher

Special education teachers work with preK-12 students with mental, emotional, and physical disabilities in individualized or classroom settings. In 2019, 86% of special education teachers worked in local public schools, while only 7% worked in private schools.

In 2019, 86% of special education teachers worked in local public schools.

Responsibilities for special education teachers include assessing student needs and tracking their progress; preparing lesson plans and individualized education programs; and working in tandem with other teachers, counselors, and administrators to improve learning outcomes.

The link below provides more information about the typical job duties of special education teachers.

Read More About Special Education Teachers

Required Education for Special Education Teachers

All states require teachers to hold at least a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution to qualify for state certification in special education. Some states require master’s degrees for certification in specific special education areas like speech impairment.

The educational requirements for a teaching certification in special education vary by state. However, all states provide a path for individuals with a bachelor’s degree in subject areas outside education to become state-certified.

In some states, holding any bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution and completing a state-approved program in special education satisfies the educational requirements for certification. In other states, holding a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution and passing state exams in special education only suffice for a temporary license.

Though most states require only bachelor’s degrees, a master’s degree in special education entails higher average annual salaries. According to the National Council on Teacher Quality, teachers with a master’s degree earn thousands of dollars more per year on average than teachers with only a bachelor’s — almost $7,500 extra per year for experienced teachers.

Explore Online Programs in Special Education

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Internship Opportunities

In-state bachelor’s programs in education normally include state-required teaching experience — also known as student teaching. Special education majors complete this training in a special education classroom under the supervision of a state-certified teacher. Student teaching provides degree credit but does not normally come with any monetary compensation.

Prospective teachers without a bachelor’s degree in special education must usually complete a state-approved teacher preparation program. This preparation program includes supervised classroom training. You do not usually get paid for your time in preparation programs.

Certification and Licensure Requirements for Teaching Special Education

Teaching special education requires a state-issued teaching certificate — some states refer to this as a teaching license or teacher certification. Teachers typically renew their certificates every five years.

As part of the certification process, teachers must pass their state’s required certification exams in their desired subject areas. State certification exams usually comprise general pedagogy and subject area components.

After passing the certification exams, eligible candidates can complete the remaining requirements, including a background check and fingerprinting. In some states, certificate-seekers also need to secure a teaching job or teach special education at a public or state-approved nonpublic school to achieve certification.

Once they acquire state certification, teachers can pursue board certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (the National Board). To sit for the national board exam in special education, teachers need a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution and minimum three years of experience as a state-certified preK-12 special education teacher.

The national board exam comprises a computer-based assessment of knowledge of subject areas and three portfolio-based components. The portfolio-based components require exam-takers to submit materials such as video recordings of their teaching, analyses of their students’ strengths and needs, and instruction plans based on these analyses.

How Do I Become a Special Education Teacher?

To become a special education teacher, you need a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution, state-approved teacher preparation, and state-issued teaching certification in special education. Depending on the state, if you hold a bachelor’s in special education, you may not need state-approved teacher preparation.

Most students complete a bachelor’s program in four years of full-time study. The timeline for completing teacher preparation and earning teaching certification varies across states. Typically, teachers with a bachelor’s degree in special education earn teaching certification in 1-2 years.

State-certified special education teachers with three years of qualifying teaching experience can additionally obtain national board certification. Earning this credential can benefit teachers seeking employment in competitive school districts. National board certification also qualifies you for teaching jobs in states where you do not hold state certification.

Steps to Teach Special Education

Path to State-Certified Special Education Teacher

  1. Earn a Bachelor’s Degree. Earn at least a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution, preferably in special education.
  2. Complete a Teacher Preparation Program. In-state bachelor’s in education programs normally include all state-required teacher training in the curriculum. Prospective teachers with a bachelor’s degree in a field outside special education or an out-of-state degree may need to complete a state-approved teacher preparation program.
  3. Pass State Certification Exams. Pass your state’s required certification exams for special education or other subjects you plan to teach.
  4. Apply for a State Teaching Certificate. Submit an online application packet for a teaching certificate in special education.
  5. Complete Additional State Requirements. If your state determines you are eligible for a teaching certificate, you can then complete your state’s additional certification requirements, such as special education employment or experience, a background check, and fingerprinting.

Path to Board-Certified Special Education Teacher

  1. Complete Board Prerequisites. To become a board-certified teacher, you must first complete the National Board’s education and experience requirements. These requirements include a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution and three years of experience as a state-licensed preK-12 teacher in special education.
  2. Register for Board Certification. To register for the 2021-2022 assessment cycle, create an account in the National Board’s candidate management system and pay a nonrefundable, nontransferable $75 registration fee by February 28, 2022.
    After registering, you can purchase the exam components you plan to complete during the 2021-2022 assessment cycle. You will need to pass all four components within five years. You must pay the registration fee each year you register to take exam components.
  3. Pass the National Board Exam. You must take the computer-assessed content knowledge component at a testing center. You can prepare and submit the three portfolio entries from your home or office computer.

Should I Teach Special Education?

Becoming a special education teacher can be a path to a highly rewarding career. This occupation offers opportunities to make meaningful differences in the lives of students. However, special education teachers also face challenges that can lower their job satisfaction and escalate turnover rates.

For example, special education teachers often strive for a team approach to maximize student outcomes. School administrators may lack an adequate understanding of this team-based approach and allocate resources that result in special education teachers providing all the educational services to their students on their own.

Special education teachers may also need to overcome obstacles linked to state testing requirements, time constraints, and budget constraints. All of these factors can contribute to low retention rates for special education teachers.

A Day in the Life of a Special Education Teacher Salary and Job Outlook for Special Education Teachers

The Job Hunt

To secure a job as a special education teacher, you can use a variety of resources. Earning a postsecondary degree often means you can use your institution’s career services: resume workshops, mock interviews, and networking opportunities with other teachers or mentors. Career sites present further options.

  • National Association of Special Education Teachers: Joining NASET opens up a world of job postings from across the country. Members have access to board certification resources and support groups, as well the latest publications relevant to the field.
  • SPED Jobs: A database exceeding 5,500 special education teacher jobs, this site allows users to search for employment via location or keyword. You can browse for jobs without becoming a member, though submitting your resume is an option.
  • K12JobSpot: An educator job aggregator, this site can help you access nearly every K-12 district in the country, and currently advertises 50,000 available jobs. You need not be a member to use the search feature.
  • Municipality websites: A more granular approach also yields results. Start by picking a county you seek employment within, then locate its public school system homepage for posted employment opportunities. Job openings usually reside under the “Careers” or “Employment” sections.
  • Google Job Search: Google allows job-seekers to enter a desired job role or location, such as “jobs near me” or “entry-level jobs in special education.” Google then searches online job listings to compile a list of openings in the requested role or location.
  • Glassdoor: Glassdoor enables current and former employees to anonymously review their employers and report their salaries. Users can also search job listings and apply for jobs.
  • Indeed: Indeed allows applicants to search and apply for jobs and upload application materials. The platform also provides content like cover letter and resume templates to help prospective employees enhance their profiles.
  • LinkedIn: The professional networking site LinkedIn enables job-hunters to upload their resumes and employers to post openings at their companies.
Look into professional associations for special education teachers.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How do I become a special education teacher?

    To become a special education teacher, you will usually need to earn a bachelor’s degree, complete a teacher preparation program in special education, and obtain state certification or licensure.

  • What degree do I need to become a special education teacher?

    Most states require special education teachers to hold at least a bachelor’s degree. If your degree is not in special education, you may need to complete an additional teacher preparation program in special education.

  • Should I teach special education?

    If you aspire to become a teacher and make a difference in students’ lives, special education may appeal to you. Special education provides many other benefits, including solid job prospects and above-average salaries.

  • Is teaching special education hard?

    Special education can be a challenging field. People with strong skills in active listening, disability awareness, and cognitive empathy may succeed in this field.


Featured Image: zoranm / E+ / Getty Images

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