Becoming a Director of Special Education: Job Description & Salary Info

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A special education director's mean annual salary is around $92,000. Is it worth the education and licensure requirements? See real job descriptions and get the truth about career prospects to find out if becoming a director of special education is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of a Special Education Director Career

Special education directors design and oversee educational programs for students with various disabilities. Find out the pros and cons of being a director of special education to decide if it's right for you.

Pros of Becoming a Director of Special Education
Higher-than-average salary (mean wage was $91,780 in 2014 for all education administrators, elementary and secondary school)*
Special education is an in-demand area of K-12 education (48 states and the District of Columbia reported personnel shortages in 2011-2012)**
Rewards of striving to provide the best education for students with disabilities*
Working in special education was one of the 10 happiest jobs chosen in 2011 by the Christian Science Monitor***

Cons of Becoming a Director of Special Education
Normally requires a master's degree****
State license needed****
Working with special education students can be highly stressful*
Because of legal requirements and concerns, special education directors spend a lot of time on paperwork*****

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **The National Coalition for Personnel Shortages on Special Education and Related Services, ***Christian Science Monitor, ****Personnel Improvement Center, *****National Association of State Directors of Special Education.

Essential Career Info

Job Description

Directors of special education are responsible for the schooling of students with special needs. The children that special education directors serve have special needs that vary widely and range from mild to severe. Students may have learning disabilities, speech delays, autism spectrum disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, behavior problems or developmental disabilities. Others may be physically disabled or have a sensory impairment like blindness.

Special education directors devise programs that comply with federal, state and local regulations and supervise the teachers and staff who implement those programs. They also report to parents on their children's development and act as mediators when parents bring complaints. Special education directors appear at community meetings when their programs are discussed. They also oversee special education budgets and apply for grants. They tend to work in both public and private schools. Most work at the school or district level, but each state has a director of special education as well. There is also a federal Office of Special Education Programs within the U.S. Department of Education.

Salary Info and Job Outlook

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) calculated that education administrators for elementary and secondary school earned a mean annual salary of $91,780 in 2014.

The BLS has a predicted job growth of 6% for special education administrators from 2012-2022, which is slower than the average growth. Growth should vary by region, following expected increases in student enrollment. The BLS anticipates more employment growth in the South and West, not much change in the Midwest and modest losses in the Northeast. Government budget concerns may curtail employment gains, however.

What Are the Requirements?

Education

Special education directors normally must have a master's degree in their specific field or a closely related area, like education administration. In addition to traditional and online master's degree programs in special education administration, there are also post-master's certificate and doctoral programs. Graduate coursework in special education administration covers subjects such as collaboration and leadership, curriculum development, legal issues in special education and personnel management. Programs normally include a practicum as well.

Licensure

Every state mandates some kind of licensing or certification for special education directors. Some states issue credentials specifically in special education administration. In other states, directors of special education must hold general administrator or special education teaching certifications, sometimes with an additional endorsement in special education administration. Prerequisites for licensing vary by state, but generally include a master's degree, some years of teaching or other education experience and demonstrable competencies in key areas. Graduate programs are generally designed so that students who have the professional experience will be prepared to meet the other licensing requirements of their state upon graduation.

Skills

Special education directors should have the qualities of a good special education teacher and a successful manager. They need to know how best to customize educational material and techniques for children with wide-ranging disabilities. They also need to be effective communicators, have abundant patience and be able to develop good working relationships with students, parents and other educators. But they also must have good leadership, decision-making and problem-solving skills to handle staffing, planning and resource management.

What Employers Are Looking for

Applicants for special education administration positions need to have the requisite education and licensing. But employers also seek candidates with more than the minimum experience and with a proven track record of the people skills, collaborative spirit and managerial acumen that are essential in this field.

Here are some real job postings from May 2012:

  • An island school district in Alaska was looking to hire a director of special education services. Candidates needed to have, or be eligible for, a state administrative certificate.
  • A suburban district in Michigan sought a director of special education to oversee services for children from birth through high school. Requirements included a master's degree, state certification (or ability to obtain certification) in teaching or administration and experience as a K-12 teacher. Additional administrative experience was preferred.
  • A public school system in Massachusetts needed to appoint an interim director of special education and support services for 6-12 months. Minimum qualifications were state license as special education administrator, master's degree or higher in special education and/or administration and three years of experience as an administrator.
  • An education service district serving the school systems of four rural Washington counties advertised for an assistant special education director. Candidates had to have a bachelor's degree in special education, a state teaching, school staff or administrator certificate and five years of experience teaching or working with disabled students. A master's degree and three years of experience teaching life skills to individuals with blindness and/or deafness were preferred.
  • A private day school in Virginia serving academically gifted students with autism spectrum disorders and other social and communication impairments was seeking a new head of school. Requirements were a bachelor's degree, demonstrated success as a teacher and administrator, strong general knowledge of special education and extensive experience educating students with Asperger's syndrome, autism and similar conditions. A master's or higher degree was preferred.

How to Stand Out

The Personnel Improvement Center, which receives federal funds to improve recruitment and retention in special education, offers several tips to aspiring special education administrators:

  • Starting in high school, begin to develop leadership skills by running for office in school organizations.
  • Seek opportunities to work with children with special needs in order to build your resume and to see how well suited you are to the field's rewards and challenges. Summer camps, tutoring programs and the Special Olympics provide potential volunteer opportunities.
  • When there are school board meetings or other public gatherings concerning the schools in your community, attend. Through discussions of special educations services you can learn about what the community wants and how the school system tries to handle those expectations.

Alternative Careers

If you want to help people overcome disabilities but think education may not be the right field for you, consider becoming an occupational therapist. Occupational therapists help the permanently disabled successfully negotiate daily life and help people recovering from illness and injury regain lost skills and capacities. They may specialize in working with specific populations, such as children, or with certain conditions, such as cerebral palsy or mental illness. Like special education directors, occupational therapists need a master's degree and a state license. The BLS expects employment of occupational therapists to grow by a very rapid 33% from 2010-2020. Their average salary in 2011 was $75,000.

If managing services for those in need appeals to you but getting a master's and a state license doesn't, you could pursue a career in social and community services management. Like special education directors, social and community service managers lead staff, monitor budgets and track their programs' progress. But running community organizations or social service programs may only require a bachelor's degree, though work experience is a must. The BLS anticipates robust employment growth of 27% from 2010-2020 for this field. Social and community service managers earned a mean annual salary of $63,000 in 2011.

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Colorado State University Global

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