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According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, seven million students received special education services in U.S. public schools between 2017 and 2018. Those special needs students, ranging in age from 3 to 21, made up 14 percent of the nation’s total public school enrollment that year. Their most common conditions included specific learning disabilities, speech or language impairment, other health impairments, and autism. In order for students with special needs to thrive in a school environment with other children, they need instruction and guidance from specialists who understand their challenging conditions.
From narrowing and defining your career goals, to finding out which degree you need, this guide tells you how to become a special education teacher.
Teaching Special Education
Teachers in special education do everything that general education teachers do. They prepare and manage their classrooms, write and present lesson plans, assess and monitor student progress, adapt and reteach lesson plans as needed, provide student feedback, score student work and maintain a gradebook, attend faculty meetings, and communicate with parents. But those tasks are only part of a special ed teacher’s job.
As specialists who understand the developmental, cognitive, behavioral, learning disability and physical issues that constitute special needs, they fill unique and vital roles within their schools. In addition to the duties listed above, they also manage Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) for all special education students. An IEP lists all of the accommodations - such as extra time for classwork, or printouts of class notes - that a particular student must receive in each of his or her classes. The special education teacher meets regularly with the rest of the IEP team, which reviews the plan and the student's special educational needs and progress, and decides whether reevaluating that special needs student is necessary.
The special education teacher is also responsible for distributing those plans to the appropriate teachers, making sure those teachers understand the required accommodations, providing one-to-one student support, creating behavior plans, and much more. It’s both a challenging and rewarding job.
Research Areas of Specialization
If you’ve decided to pursue a special education certification but don't yet have a plan, it's important that you first spend some time defining your career goal. Unless you have prior knowledge of what special education entails, you should research special education careers in order to formulate your own options. While general special education degrees are available, you may choose to specialize in a particular type of learning disability. Here are some specializations in a special education degree that educators pursue. Unless otherwise noted, these certifications will allow you to work with special education students in grades K-12, and even students outside of grade school up to age 22.
Mild/moderate disabilities. Many students in this category will have specific learning disabilities, behavioral and/or emotional issues, autism spectrum disorder, or other health issues, but typically integrate well into general classrooms with resource support from the special education teacher.
Moderate/severe disabilities. This category includes autism, severe developmental and intellectual disabilities, multiple disabilities like deaf-blindness, and serious emotional disturbance. Due to the nature of these issues, students in this category are typically taught in a special education or resource room, where it’s easier to provide specialized attention.
Deaf and hard of hearing. Students in this category have varying levels of hearing loss, and therefore require instructors who are fluent in sign language and trained in lip reading.
Visual impairment. In addition to academic content, students with partial or complete blindness receive training in spatial awareness, orientation, and reading and writing in Braille. A qualified teacher in this category need to also know how to incorporate assistive technology tools into classroom instruction.
Physical and health impairment. This category includes various physical disabilities (like cerebral palsy and spina bifida) and health impairments (like epilepsy and cystic fibrosis) which create educational challenges for students.
Early childhood. Special education teachers certified in early childhood may only work with preschoolers and younger children. But within that narrow age range, these teachers are qualified to teach students with a range of impairments, from mild to severe.
Earn Your Degree and Credential
At bare minimum, you’ll need a bachelor’s degree and a state-approved teaching credential in order to become a teacher or earn your special education teacher certification. Here is the process for obtaining your preliminary credential (valid for five years) in California:
- Earn a bachelor’s degree. The state doesn’t require your bachelor’s degree to be in a particular subject. But if you know ahead of time that teaching is your career goal, you will likely save yourself time and be better prepared by getting an Education degree, if not Special Education.
- Meet the basic skills requirement. Regardless of your content area, you must demonstrate minimum proficiency in mathematics and reading and writing in English. In California this can be met by passing the CBEST or a number of other options.
- Meet your subject matter requirement. You are, of course, expected to be proficient in the subject you intend to teach. California’s CSET exams are used to assess your subject matter knowledge, but completing your state-approved subject matter program should satisfy this requirement.
- Pass the reading competency exam. This is not required if you have a bachelor’s degree, and a valid California Teaching Credential you received after completing a teacher training program, including student teaching.
- Meet the state’s U.S. Constitution requirement. You may satisfy this through coursework or testing.
- Complete an approved Education Specialist Instruction Credential program.
Before the preliminary credential expires, you would need to obtain a clear credential in one of the following ways:
- Complete a teacher induction program. This is a two-year mentoring and teacher support program for new teachers, which is available through school districts and county offices of education. After completing the program, you will apply for the clear credential through the program sponsor.
- Become a National Board Certified Teacher. Offered through the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, this certification shows that you have advanced knowledge, skills, and practice in your content area.
Since prerequisites for teaching credentials vary by state and the type of teaching you want to do, it's important to research your state's requirements - or requirements for the state in which you plan to teach - as you make a career plan. Also remember that, as part of your teacher preparation, the degree you pick affects how long it takes to become a teacher. Here are a few common educational routes into a special education teaching career.
Bachelor’s degree plus credential program. If you don't yet have a bachelor's degree, many colleges and universities offer degree programs in Special Education that include coursework in behavioral intervention, classroom management, educational psychology, inclusive strategies, technology, and techniques for teaching students with mild/moderate disabilities. Many of these programs include teacher training, so that after completion of the special education program, you'll have both a bachelor's degree and be ready to apply for your teaching credential.
Credential program only. If you already have a bachelor’s degree but not a teaching credential, consider enrolling in a program such as the Credential in Education Specialist Instruction, Mild/Moderate Disabilities. Program coursework may include curriculum and instruction, assessment and evaluation, technology, teaching the English language and diverse learners, and positive behavior support, which will allow you to work with special needs students in any school. Four clinical practice courses give you the opportunity to do classroom observation and practical teaching experience – which can be completed as traditional student teaching or as a paid internship.
Special education endorsement. If you’re already working as a teacher but want to become certified to teach special education, there are a couple of ways you can add a Special Education endorsement to your current credential:
- Teacher training program. You may complete a state-approved teacher training program in special education. If you’ve already had teacher training, going through this process again may take longer than you want. However, this training would undoubtedly provide you the specialized skills required in special education classrooms as part of the teacher preparation.
- Add-on endorsement program. Instead you may also choose an add-on endorsement program through a series of special education courses, which many colleges and universities offer online or as an online/in-class hybrid. These courses are often applicable to a master’s degree if you should choose to pursue one.
Master’s degree. You may have a special education teacher certification and want to advance your qualifications and earnings. If that's the case, you won't need another credential, just a degree program. The degree program's course topics may include current issues in special education, emotional and behavioral disorders, diagnostic assessment, and inclusive classroom practice.
Projected Salary and Job Outlook
Regardless of the job market, special education teachers will continue to provide a good education and necessary life skills for millions of students around the country.
Alliant International University wants to help you reach your goal of becoming a special education teacher. Alliant offers teaching credential programs in single subjects, multiple subjects, education specialist instruction and mild/moderate disabilities. Find out more online or talk to an Alliant representative at (866) 825-5426.
- “Children and Youth with Disabilities,” National Center for Education Statistics https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cgg.asp
- “What Special Education Teachers Do,” Special Education Guide https://www.specialeducationguide.com/teacher-certification/what-specia…
- “Guide to the Individualized Education Program,” US Department of Education https://www2.ed.gov/parents/needs/speced/iepguide/index.html#contents
- “Top Special Education Degree Specializations to Consider in 2018,” Special Education Careers https://specialeducareers.com/resources/blog/top-masters-special-educat…
- Information and Resources for Students with Disabilities https://disabilities-informational-resources.weebly.com/physical-and-ot…
- “Special Education Credential Requirements,” TEACH California https://www.teachcalifornia.org/Steps/Special