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Every student deserves a quality education, no matter their needs. The heroes of the educational world making this happen every single day are special education teachers. 

Not only do special education professionals make learning possible for all, but they also foster an environment where every student can be celebrated. If you have a passion for helping students of all kinds reach academic success, then this purposeful and heartfelt career may be for you.

The path to becoming a special education teacher isn’t complex, but it requires dedication, patience, and a strong sense of leadership. Let’s explore the path to becoming a special education teacher, with some insights on how to become a teacher in Arizona and California.

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What Does a Special Education Teacher Do?

Students can have a wide variety of mental and behavioral conditions. For students with a learning disability, special education teachers are like learning architects. By building personalized journeys for these learners, they ensure that each one absorbs information and experiences education in a way that works for them.

Primarily, special education teachers focus on creating individualized education plans (IEPs). These plans address goals, insights, and accommodations for each student’s unique needs to create a supportive early childhood education. To help form and carry out these plans, special education teachers may be responsible for these tasks:

  • Assess students’ skills and educational needs through observations and assessments
  • Adapt lesson plans to cater to each student’s abilities
  • Prepare students to transition between grade levels and activities
  • Operate technology to aid students in their lessons (Braille writers, laptops, etc.)
  • Update IEP’s for each student to fit their evolving needs and goals

Of course, no special education program is the same. While some instructors may work with students who have physical disabilities, others may specialize in teaching students with sensory disorders. However, compared to educators for non-impaired students, nearly all special education teachers will work more with individual students and smaller groups.

What Is an Individualized Education Program (IEP)?

An Individualized Education Program (IEP) is a comprehensive plan and process that's essential to the responsibilities of a special education teacher. A special needs student is provided with an IEP, and special educators are responsible for creating these plans. It must be tailored to chart a unique educational journey for the child to ensure success.

Developing an individualized education plan calls for a collaborative approach. The Special Ed teacher and the student's parents and guardians should thoroughly review and endorse the plan. Everyone has to agree with the plan. IEPs are dynamic documents regularly revised to accurately mirror the special needs student's advancements and changing goals.

5 Steps to Become a Special Education Teacher

Compassion, patience, and positivity can take you a long way in the special education field—but there’s no career without meeting certain formal standards.

To become a special education teacher, you must complete state-held educational and legal criteria before you can enter the classroom in any school district. Otherwise, you can’t practice as an educational instructor. Kick off your own career path with these essential steps to become a special education teacher in California or Arizona.

#1 Earn Your Bachelor’s Degree 

The first step to becoming an educator? Start your own education.

No matter your location, you must earn a four-year bachelor’s degree to become a special education teacher.1 While neither California nor Arizona requires teachers to major in education, it’s best to major in some education-related degree to give yourself an applicable background. This could include any of the following majors:

  • Education
  • Special education
  • Elementary education
  • Child development and psychology
  • Communication sciences and disorders
  • Behavioral sciences
  • Social work
  • Adapted physical education


#2 Earn Special Education Teacher Credentials

A career in special education takes highly specific skills, from assessing academic impairments to forming individual lesson plans. While a traditional teacher may only need a bachelor’s degree to practice in a public school, you’ll need to pass a state-approved credential program to be a special education teacher in California or Arizona.

California Special Education Teacher Credentials

In California, special education teachers must climb a multi-step credential ladder. Before you can practice, California requires all special education teachers to complete at least the first phase of a two-phase Education Specialist Instruction Credential.

According to the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, this two-part credential is broken down into these steps:2,3

  • Preliminary credential – As the first phase, this one-time credential verifies a person’s ability to teach specific subjects to special needs students for up to five years. A preliminary credential is a combination of education and real-life experience, often including internships or student teaching. To earn this credential, you’ll need to pass the following steps:
    • Earn a bachelor’s degree
    • Pass basic skills requirements set forth by the state
    • Pass the state's subject competence requirements
    • Pass the RICA, or Reading Instruction Competence Assessment
    • Pass a certified course on the U.S. Constitution
    • Complete a Commission-approved Education Specialist Instruction Credential program
  • Clear credential – As the second phase, the clear credential verifies that special education teachers are fit for classroom duties in the long-term through gaining further industry experience. Within the five-year lifespan of your preliminary credential, you’ll need to choose either of the following paths to earn a clear credential:
    • Complete a Commission-approved teacher induction program and submit the application for the clear credential through the program sponsor (for new or in-state teachers)
    • Obtain a National Board of Professional Teaching Standards certification (for out-of-state transitioners)

Arizona Special Education Teacher Credentials

Unlike California, Arizona breaks down special education credentials into five different certifications. Each special education teacher certification defines the exact student age range and special conditions that an instructor may professionally teach, including;4

  • Early Childhood Special Education (Birth – Grade 3) 
  • Mild/Moderate Disabilities (K – 12)
  • Moderate/Severe Disabilities (K – 12)
  • Hearing Impaired Special Education (Birth – Grade 12)
  • Visually Impaired Special Education (Birth – Grade 12)

In Arizona, you can earn these certifications through a Teacher Preparation Program (for new or in-state teachers) or a combination of teaching experience and coursework (for out-of-state transitioners).5  

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#3 Complete Student Teaching Hours 

Direct experience is the best way to learn any profession—and that includes special education. In both Arizona and California, you’ll need some practice hours before you can become a true special education teacher for a school district.  

In California, student teaching hours are required to earn the Clear Education Specialist Instruction Credential.6 These can be earned through a state-approved teacher induction program or by proving past experience. 

In Arizona, student teaching hours (also known as capstone hours) are part of any state-held Teacher Preparation Program, usually lasting 12 weeks.7

However, your required student teaching hours barely scratch the surface. Special education is a wide, diverse, and dynamic field, so extra experience can make you a more prepared teacher. Before full-time positions, consider these developmental roles to gain valuable industry skills:

  • Internships
  • Assistant teacher positions
  • Volunteer work
  • Substitute teacher positions
  • Tutoring
  • Professional workshops

#4 Obtain Your State License

All teachers need a teaching license, no matter the subject or location. So, how do you get a state government’s approval?

As you sail through degrees and certifications, you’ll already be making your way to licensure. In both California and Arizona, you’ll need to provide these materials and requirements to earn a teacher’s license:8

  • Education – Both states require teachers to earn a bachelor's degree from an accredited university or four-year program.
  • Certification – In California, you must earn at least a Preliminary Education Specialist Credential, as outlined above. This involves passing certain skills tests and completing a Commission-approved credential program. In Arizona, you must earn at least one of five special education certifications by completing a Teacher Preparation Program.
  • Examination – Teachers in California must pass the California Basic Educational Skills Test (CBEST) and California Subject Examinations for Teachers (CSET). Teachers in Arizona must pass the Arizona Educator Proficiency Assessment (AEPA) exam related to the certification grade level or specialization they wish to teach.
  • Application and fees – Of course, every license comes with its paperwork and costs. In both states, you can apply either online or via mail. In California, the initial license application costs $100, and the Certificate of Clearance application (for the clear credential) costs $50.9 In Arizona, you can apply for any teacher’s license or certification for $60.10

#5 Renew Your License

One extra step to remember with teacher licenses? Renewal.

If you plan to keep this career for life, you’ll need to stay aware of license renewal requirements. In California, you must renew your clear credential to stay in practice. A clear credential lasts just five years, but renewal is as simple as an online request and application fee.11

In Arizona, all special education teacher licenses last 12 years. You can renew your license up to two years past its expiration without consequences.12 However, you must complete at least 180 of professional development or equivalent college coursework to renew your license.

Explore a Path in Special Education at Alliant International University

Enrolling in a special education program can set you on the path of fulfillment working with the younger generation. By learning how to help every student shine their brightest, you can make a positive impact in both individual lives and entire communities. 

Gain a brilliant education to light the way—and that starts with Alliant International University

With our Credential in Education Specialist Instruction, you’ll learn not only the basic requirements for teaching special education, but also the applicable life skills to become a true education ally. With options for both new and experienced teachers, our program is tailored to give you the most fitting education for your career goals in this field. Additionally, our program is approved by the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing (CTC), providing a direct path to a career in the state.

Explore Our Education Specialist Credential Program

FAQs About Special Education

Is special education teaching the right choice for me?

If you have passion for working with diverse learners, patience, and dedication to fostering inclusive education, then you're a step towards the right direction. If you want to make a positive impact on students with learning disabilities, and enjoy different teaching methods, this path could be rewarding for you. Explore relevant education and gain practical experience through volunteering to gauge your aptitude and interest in the field.

Why are special educators needed? 

They're important because their teacher education credentials specifically address the diverse learning needs of students with learning disabilities. They are experts in adapting teaching methods and providing individualized support to make sure that every student has the opportunity to improve academically and socially. They promote equal access to education and facilitate the development of students with unique learning requirements.

Where can a special ed teacher find employment? 

They can work in public and private schools, specialized education centers, and even within mainstream classrooms. They may also be employed in early intervention programs, hospitals, or community organizations that support individuals with special needs. The flexibility of having a special education degree or background allows them to contribute to inclusive education in diverse settings.

Take the leap toward your passion and learn more about our Education Specialist Credential Program today.


  1. Indeed Editorial Team. How To Become a Special Education Teacher in California in 5 Steps”. March 30, 2023.….  Accessed July 25, 2023.
  2. California Commission on Teacher Credentialing. “Education Specialist Instruction Credential (CL-808CA).” April 26, 2023. California Commission on Teacher Credentialing. Accessed July 25, 2023.…-(CL-808CA). Accessed July 25, 2023.
  3. TEACH California. “Special Education Credential Requirements.” N.d., TEACH California. Accessed July 25, 2023.
  4. Arizona Department of Education. “Certification Requirements.” N.d., Arizona Department of Education.…. Accessed July 25, 2023.
  5. Arizona Department of Education. “Certification Requirements.” N.d., Arizona Department of Education.…. Accessed July 25, 2023.
  6. California Commission on Teacher Credentialing. “Education Specialist Instruction Credential (CL-808CA).” California Commission on Teacher Credentialing. April 26, 2023.…-(CL-808CA). Accessed July 25, 2023.
  7. Arizona Department of Education. “Certification Requirements.” N.d., Arizona Department of Education.…. Accessed July 25, 2023.
  8. “How to Become a Special Education Teacher in California.” N.d.,…. Accessed July 25, 2023.
  9. California Commission on Teacher Credentialing. “Fee Schedule Information (CL-659).” N.d., California Commission on Teacher Credentialing.  Accessed July 25, 2023.
  10. Arizona Department of Education. “Certification Requirements.” N.d., Arizona Department of Education.….  Accessed July 25, 2023.
  11. “How to Become a Special Education Teacher in California.” N.d.,…. Accessed July 25, 2023.
  12. Arizona Department of Education. “Educator Certification: Renew Your Certification.” N.d., Arizona Department of Education.…. Accessed July 25, 2023.

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