For millions of students around the country, special education teachers make a huge difference in their lives.
What is a special education teacher?
Special education teachers are caring and highly trained professionals who help students with developmental, physical and behavioral/emotional needs. These needs include mild or moderate learning disabilities that create academic challenges while still allowing students to function as normal in other areas. Students with severe or profound disabilities are more dependent, and may have little ability to communicate or physically function without assistance. For some of these students, learning life skills becomes a greater need than learning academic content.1
Many special education teachers pursue certification in a particular subfield of special education. These subfields include:
- Early childhood. This certification enables teachers to work with preschool and younger children with a variety of special needs.
- Physical and health impairment. Teachers with this certification work with children who have physical impairments (such as muscular dystrophy) or health impairments (like epilepsy) which may impair learning.
- Visual impairment. This certification qualifies special educators to teach students who are blind or partially blind, and help them read and write in Braille and develop spatial awareness.
- Deaf and hard of hearing. To become certified to teach students with hearing loss, educators must be proficient in sign language and even lip reading.
- Mild/moderate disabilities. This certification allows teachers to work with special education students who have developmental, emotional, behavioral or health challenges, but who integrate well into traditional classrooms with resource support.
- Moderate/severe disabilities. With this certification, teachers are equipped to aid students with more challenging conditions such as autism, severe emotional disturbance, and multiple disabilities like deaf/blindness.
What Does a Special Education Teacher Do?
Although most special education teachers are qualified to work with ages up to 22, their respective teaching positions usually limit them to elementary, middle or high school ages. Within their schools, special educators support student learning in various ways. Many of these duties are the same things that general educators do: plan and present lessons according to state standards, continuously assess students’ understanding of class content, reteach if necessary, monitor student progress, and maintain a gradebook. But a typical special education teacher job description includes some key distinctions.
Much of what special education teachers do revolves around Individual Education Programs, or IEPs. In general, an IEP is a personalized plan for each public school student with special needs. It lists a student’s annual academic and behavioral goals, and the educational resources and services that he or she will receive. For each academic subject, and even for school-sponsored extracurricular activities, the IEP shows any and all accommodations that the student must receive. Accommodations are meant to level the playing field to allow students with special needs to be successful. Common accommodations include providing print-outs of class notes rather than requiring a student to copy them out by hand, allowing extra time to complete assignments, and reducing the number of homework questions.
Here are some of the things that a special education teacher may do on a regular basis.
- Develop and Maintain IEPs. When it’s determined that a student qualifies for special education, a team begins meeting to develop a custom IEP that meets that student’s needs. The IEP team is made up of the student, his or her parents, the special education teacher, at least one of the student’s regular classroom teachers, and other specialists and administrators. This team meets throughout the year to discuss the student’s progress and whether the IEP needs to be adjusted in any way. Although every member of the team contributes to the document’s development, the special education teacher provides unique input about special needs, learning strategies, modifications and implementation.
- Provide Individualized Instruction. All students, whether or not they have special needs, learn in different ways. So all teachers must be able to discern these learning differences and modify lessons to suit their particular groups of students. But teaching students with disabilities and special learning needs – from autism to visual impairment – requires unique training that most general teachers do not receive. It also includes the use of assistive and adaptive technologies that help students overcome physical or cognitive limitations. Depending on the teaching position, special educators may instruct small groups of students or work one on one. At times special needs students may be pulled out of their general education classes for individual work or therapy – such as speech – with the special education teacher.
- Adapt Curriculum. A student’s academic goals must be both challenging and achievable. Part of individualized instruction involves adapting the subject curriculum for each student based on the requirements of his or her IEP. Adaptations come in many forms, such as altering classroom seating, providing graphic organizers and other visual aids during presentations, adjusting the duration of activities, allowing verbal rather than written responses, highlighting text and adjusting font size for visibility, and simplifying wording.
- Assess Student Performance. Even though they may also be adapted to meet students’ needs, assessments are ongoing. They can be as informal as students holding a thumb up or down to show their understanding, or as formal as a statewide end-of-course exam. Assessments are how special educators monitor students’ progress and know whether they are meeting their annual IEP goals.
- Collaborate with Classroom Teachers. Special educators are responsible for distributing IEPs to their schools’ general education teachers, and making sure those teachers understand the IEP requirements and how best to implement the modifications. The special education teacher may also visit the classroom to give the special needs student extra guidance. This sometimes looks like “team teaching,” where the regular classroom teacher presents a lesson and the special education teacher follows up with the student to check for understanding.
- Meet with Parents. Because of the extra monitoring and individual attention that many of their students require, special education teachers typically communicate with parents more often than the average general education teacher would.
- Oversee Resource Aides. Many schools have one or two special education teachers on staff and several resource aides who work closely with those teachers. Because special education teachers often have heavy caseloads, aides are sometimes assigned tasks like physically assisting students with limited mobility, providing help on assignments, and preparing materials for the special education classroom.
- Manage the Classroom. Just like their general education colleagues, teachers must maintain orderly and efficient special education classrooms by establishing expectations and procedures. Along with behavior goals as specified in IEPs, teachers proactively create behavior intervention plans that outline what to do when a student disrupts and how to positively reinforce good behavior.
A good teacher is someone who has an interest in helping for special education students and adolescents, who understands the needs of those with physical and learning disabilities, and who is patient and level-headed in stressful situations.2 It’s a job full of both rewards and challenges. The number of students, the amount of paperwork required, and having to deal with ongoing behavioral issues are all challenges that can lead a teacher to feel burned out. However, teachers who spend their entire careers in special education and see the difference they’ve made in students’ lives know that the rewards can be great.
So how do you become qualified to teach special education?
Becoming a Special Education Teacher
Teaching elementary school or secondary public school requires at least a bachelor’s degree and a teaching certificate. This shows that you’re competent in your subject area and have completed a teacher preparation program. You can get training in special education by majoring or minoring in the degree. Some colleges and universities offer a dual major that combines elementary and special education with teacher preparation. These programs include courses on educational philosophy, human development, and strategies for teaching elementary English, math, science and history. Courses also cover diversity, classroom management, and assessments and behavior strategies in special education.
If you already have a bachelor’s degree in a non-education field, you can become qualified through a credential program in special education. One option is the Preliminary Credential in Education Specialist Instruction, Mild/Moderate Disabilities. This program includes coursework in behavior support, technology, curriculum and instruction, assessment and evaluation, and teaching English language learners. It also includes options for classroom experience, from traditional student teaching to a salaried internship.
Many students preparing for a career in special education turn to Alliant International University’s California School of Education. Alliant’s California teaching credential programs combine online coursework with the hands-on classroom experience you need to become a licensed educator. To learn more about our special education programs, contact our University today at (844) 582-4927.
- CareerExplorer, “What Does a Special Education Teacher Do?,” CareerExplorer (CareerExplorer), accessed November 23, 2021, https://www.careerexplorer.com/careers/special-education-teacher/.
- “Special Education Teacher.” Truity. Accessed November 23, 2021. https://www.truity.com/career-profile/special-education-teacher.
- “Special Education Teachers : Occupational Outlook Handbook.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Accessed November 23, 2021. https://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/special-educatio…;