Becoming a Special Education Teacher: Job Description & Salary Info

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What are the pros and cons of a special education career? Get real job descriptions, career outlook and salary info to see if becoming a special education teacher is right for you.
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Becoming a Special Education Teacher: Pros and Cons

As a special education teacher, you'll have the opportunity to positively impact the lives of children with learning, emotional and physical disabilities. Read on to learn more pros and cons about this career to determine whether it's the right choice for you.

Pros of a Special Education Teacher Career
Opportunity to help others and influence children*
May have 2-month summer vacation*
Can work in many settings and grade levels (elementary, middle or high schools)*
Can become board certified*

Cons of a Special Education Teacher Career
Job is physically and emotionally demanding*
Additional hours outside of school hours are typical*
Employment depends on government budgets*
May need to obtain a master's degree*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Career Information

Job Description and Duties

Special education teachers work in public and private schools, childcare centers and treatment facilities to teach children with emotional, physical, mental or learning disabilities. In this career, you may develop Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) in order to define a plan for each student, and you may also monitor student progress and report back to parents, other teachers, administrators or counselors. To help children with special needs advance to new schools or grades, you also teach social and life skills.

You can expect to work during normal school hours, but additional hours are often required in order to meet with parents and school personnel and to grade papers and plan lessons. Depending on the school district or your work setting, you may work year round with reoccurring breaks or for 10 months and have the summer off, although some teachers do teach summer school during this time.

Salary Info and Job Growth

Salaries for special education teachers vary slightly based on the grade level being taught. May 2014 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) showed that special education teachers working in preschool, kindergarten and elementary schools earned average salaries of about $57,000. The same report showed average salaries for special education teachers in middle and secondary schools were about $59,000-$61,000.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimated that the growth rate for jobs in special education should reach an average of 6% from 2012-2022, but figures vary depending on grade level. Those working in preschool may experience fairly rapid growth at 16%. However, special education teachers for all other grade levels may only see a languid growth rate of 5% or 6% (with more opportunities being available to teach younger grade levels). You may find the most opportunities at inner-city or rural schools. Nevertheless, all hiring for special education teachers is subject to government budgets.

What Are the Requirements?

Education and Licensure

To become a special education teacher, you need to earn a bachelor's degree, preferably in special education; you could also major in elementary education or a specific subject and minor in special education. In a special education bachelor's program, you may learn about instructional strategies, assessments, various disorders and child development. Student teaching or another form of fieldwork is usually included in these programs.

To work in a public school you must have a license from your state. Often referred to as teaching certification, a license is earned after you complete a 4-year degree program, a teacher preparation program and some form of supervised teaching. Your state may offer a universal special education license or one that is valid for a specific expertise. Continuing education is often necessary to keep the license valid, and some states may require you to complete a master's degree program within a certain time frame.

What Employers Are Looking for

As a special education teacher, you must be patient since you will be working with students of varying capabilities. Also, employers look for candidates who can convey lessons in unique and interesting ways. Read the following April 2012 job postings to get an idea of what employers look for in special education teachers.

  • A nonprofit organization in Texas sought a high school special education teacher with a bachelor's degree and state teaching license to create lesson plans and provide individualized instruction for 6-8 students.
  • An Oklahoma City alternative high school hired for a special education teacher with at least 3 years of experience teaching at the high school level. Qualified candidates can develop IEPs, work with a variety of software and online programs and communicate with parents and personnel about student progress.
  • In Mississippi, a licensed special education teacher with a bachelor's degree in special education and expertise in autism was needed at a private special education school to provide therapeutic, age-appropriate, individualized education.

How Can I Stand Out?

You can set yourself apart from the competition by acquiring board certification in special education through the American Academy of Special Education Professionals. By becoming certified, you can demonstrate your skills and understanding of the field. Certification requires you to have a master's degree in a field relevant to special needs students. You must also complete 5 courses for Certificates of Advanced Professional Development in which you must pass a multiple-choice exam for each. Recertification is required each year by paying a fee.

Alternative Career Paths

Audiologist

If working in a school setting doesn't appeal to you, but you still want to help people with special needs, consider becoming an audiologist. These professionals identify and treat issues related to hearing and balance. To become an audiologist, a license and a doctoral degree in audiology are required. As of May 2011, audiologists earned average salaries of $71,000, reported the BLS.

Occupational Therapist

Occupational therapy may also be a field of interest for you. As an occupational therapist, you work with sick, injured or disabled patients in order to improve their quality of life. The BLS also predicted a high employment growth rate of 33% from 2010-2020, and as of May 2011, these professionals brought in average annual incomes of $75,000. A master's degree in occupational therapy and a license is necessary to become an occupational therapist.

Popular Schools

  • Online Programs Available
    1. George Mason University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • Master of Education in Special Education, specializing in Applied Behavior Analysis
      • Master of Education in Special Education, specializing in Autism Spectrum Disorder
  • Online Programs Available
    2. Purdue University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • Master of Science in Education in Special Education
  • Online Programs Available
    3. Saint Joseph's University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • MS in Education - Special Education: Autism
      • MS in Education - Special Education: Masters Only
      • MS in Education - Special Education and Special Education Certification
      • MS in Education - Special Education and Wilson Reading System Certification
      • MS in Education - Deaf and Hard of Hearing Education PK-12 Certification
      • MS - Secondary Education with Autism Specialization
    Bachelor's
      • BLS in General Studies - Autism Studies Concentration
  • Online Programs Available
    4. Kaplan University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • MS in Educational Psychology
      • Master: Teaching (for Aspiring Teachers: Grades 5-12)
      • Master: Education (for Practicing Teachers: K-12)
      • Master: Higher Education - Student Affairs
      • Master: Higher Education - College Admin./Leadership
    Bachelor's
      • BS in Early Childhood Administration
      • Undergraduate in Early Childhood
  • Online Programs Available
    5. Penn Foster High School

    Program Options

    High School Diploma
      • Penn Foster High School with Early College Courses
      • HS Diploma
  • Online Programs Available
    6. American InterContinental University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • Master of Education - Elementary Education
      • Master: Education - Curriculum and Instruction
      • Master: Education - Instructional Design
      • Master: Education - Leadership in Educational Organizations
  • Online Programs Available
    7. Saint Mary's University of Minnesota

    Program Options

    Master's
      • Master of Arts in Special Education
  • Online Programs Available
    8. The George Washington University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • Masters in Interdisciplinary Secondary Transition Services
      • Master of Arts in Education and Human Development in Special Education for Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Learners
      • Master of Arts in Education and Human Development in Organizational Leadership and Learning
      • Master of Arts in Education and Human Development in Educational Technology Leadership
  • Online Programs Available
    9. Concordia University Portland

    Program Options

    Doctorate
      • EdD Professional Leadership, Inquiry, and Transformation
    Master's
      • Master of Education - Curriculum & Instruction: Leadership
      • M.S. - Curriculum & Instruction: The Inclusive Classroom (SPED)
      • MEd in Curriculum and Instruction - STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math)
      • M.S. - Curriculum & Instruction: English Language Development
      • MEd in Curriculum and Instruction - Early Childhood Education
      • M.S. - Curriculum & Instruction: Methods & Curriculum
  • Online Programs Available
    10. Northcentral University

    Program Options

    Doctorate
      • PhD in Education - Special Education
      • Ed.D. - Special Education
      • Ed.D. - Curriculum and Teaching
      • Ed.D. - General Education
      • Ed.D. - Early Childhood Education
      • PhD in Education - Instructional Leadership
    Master's
      • MEd - Special Education
      • M.Ed. - Curriculum and Teaching
      • M.Ed. - General Education
      • M.Ed. - Instructional Leadership
    Certificate
      • Education Specialist - Special Education
      • Education Specialist - Curriculum and Teaching
      • Education Specialist - Early Childhood Education

Featured Schools

George Mason University

  • Master of Education in Special Education, specializing in Applied Behavior Analysis
  • Master of Education in Special Education, specializing in Autism Spectrum Disorder

What is your highest level of education?

Purdue University

  • Master of Science in Education in Special Education

What is your highest level of education?

Saint Joseph's University

  • MS in Education - Special Education: Autism
  • MS in Education - Special Education: Masters Only
  • BLS in General Studies - Autism Studies Concentration

What is your highest level of education completed?

Kaplan University

  • MS in Educational Psychology
  • Master: Teaching (for Aspiring Teachers: Grades 5-12)
  • BS in Early Childhood Administration
  • Undergraduate in Early Childhood

Which subject are you interested in?

Penn Foster High School

  • Penn Foster High School with Early College Courses
  • HS Diploma

What is your age?

American InterContinental University

  • Master of Education - Elementary Education
  • Master: Education - Curriculum and Instruction
  • Master: Education - Instructional Design

Are you a US citizen?

Saint Mary's University of Minnesota

  • Master of Arts in Special Education

What is your highest level of education completed?

The George Washington University

  • Masters in Interdisciplinary Secondary Transition Services
  • Master of Arts in Education and Human Development in Special Education for Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Learners
  • Master of Arts in Education and Human Development in Organizational Leadership and Learning

What is your highest level of education?