Special Education Degree

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What is Special Education Teaching?

Special education teaching is an area of work that requires an individual to identify learning and other disabilities that affect a child and develop an educational curriculum and plan that assists in tackling the disability and in order to provide the student learning opportunities. Individuals in this field may choose to specialize in a particular disability or set of disabilities, resulting in a more specific curriculum and skills, whereas others may choose a broader area of focus allowing for more flexibility in employment.

What Does a Special Education Teacher Do?

A special education teacher is a unique type of teacher who provides academic and emotional support to students and their guardians.  As an educator and student advocate, special education teachers provide a range of support to students of all needs and all backgrounds.  Special education teachers my arrange their schedule to create lesson plans, teach a class or private session, perform classroom observations, assess students, and manage a student’s ever-evolving Individual Education Plan (IEP).

Like many other teaching positions, the job of a special education teacher requires organization, communication, and task-orientation.  From scheduling meetings with co-teachers, parents, and administrators to creating goals and organizing instructional material, a special education teacher is a vital professional in the teaching field.  In a recent survey performed by the U.S. Department of Labor of special education teachers nationwide, the most popular job duties of a special education teacher come into focus. The 5 most popular job duties of a special education teacher include:

  1. Meet with parents, administrators, paraprofessionals, testing specialists, social workers, medical professionals, counselors, and others to develop valuable individual education plans (IEP)
  2. Guide and instruct special needs students in academic subjects, using a variety of techniques, such as phonetics, multi-sensory learning, or repetition to reinforce learning and meet evolving student needs
  3. Create individual educational plans (IEPs) designed to promote educational, physical, and social development of each student
  4. Develop or implement strategies to meet the needs of students with a variety of disabilities
  5. Maintain accurate and complete student records as required by laws, policies, and administrative regulations of a particular school or school district

College Requirements for Special Ed Teachers

A special education teaching degree program teaches an individual to work with children with disabilities and develop an individual education program (IEP) for each child they work with to meet their educational needs. Bachelors, masters, and PhD programs are available, with some programs focusing on a broad spectrum of disabilities while others specializing in one. The final year of the program typically has the student in a teaching environment under the supervision of a certified specialist.

Programs may include courses in:

  • Education of Students with Severe/ Multiple Disabilities
  • Observations in Special Education
  • Working with Children with Emotional/Behavioral Disabilities
  • Psychological Foundations of Learning Disabilities
  • Literacy of the Special Learner

How to Become a Special Education Teacher?

In order to become a special education teacher, you will need to understand your state teaching requirements.  Most states require students to earn a bachelor’s degree in teaching along with a specific number of hours of supervised student teaching.  The mix of academic learning and hands-on experience help prepare students for managing a classroom and teaching a diverse group of students in a variety of settings.

After earning your college degree in teaching from an accredited college or university, you will need to apply for a teaching certificate or teaching license in your state of residence.  After successfully passing the examination for your teaching license or certificate, you will be eligible to teach in your state.  Your teaching license or credential will need to be perpetually renewed at a frequency established by your state with many at 5 year intervals.  You will also need to complete a set number of approved continuing education credits to keep your credential active between renewal cycles.

It is important to annotate the above process with a unique opportunity for some known as “emergency credentialing” or “emergency certification”.  In these situations, states or specific school districts provide teaching credentials to teachers based on demand or need without the teaching degree or student teaching requirements.  A teacher will step into a classroom as a full-charge teacher and work on their credentials during the evenings or weekends.

Most Popular Special Education Careers

Like many other professions, the field of special education is a dynamic vocation with ever-evolving needs and demands.  As academia and research bodies learn more about neurology, psychology, and medical science, the field of special education will also push its existing boundaries for the benefit of individuals with special needs.  A cross-section of special education areas of concentration that include a broad array of needs that include the following:

Early Childhood Credential (ECE)

An ECE certificate or degree is a professional credential authorizes a special education teacher to work with young students.  Students in early childhood education can range in age from infant through kindergarten with a range of needs from behavioral to physical disabilities.

Visual Impairment (VI)

With a visual impairment teaching credential, a special education teacher can extend their knowledge and skills to students of all ages suffering from total or partial blindness.  A special education teacher with a VI endorsement may be a specialist in visual needs or work with students with multiple disabilities as part of a team or specialists or as the go-to specialist.


While ADHD and ADD are different conditions, a special education teacher is often trained in both instead of one or the other.  Attention Deficit Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder are diverse medical conditions affecting a student’s focus, behavior, mood, and ability to develop a variety of interpersonal skills.  A recent study by the National Resource Center on ADHD cites that over 11% of children are affected by ADD and the need is growing to understand the condition and help to remediate for the benefit of each child.

Cognitive Disabilities

Special education teacher may also find themselves working in the field of cognitive disabilities.  The cognitive disability field is a broad category that includes an array of intellectual or cognitive limitations related to a brain injury, learning disabilities, neurodegenerative diseases, and low-level deficits.


In the last decade, there has been a large uptick in special education teachers specializing in autism given the current rate of young adults diagnosed with ASD is near 1 in 50.  The field of autism is a classification of neurodevelopmental disorders that can impact a person’s ability to effectively negotiate domains such as social, cognition, behavioral, and communication.

Speech Disorders

Special education teachers that specialize in working with students with speech disorders will typically focus on those with one or more of the following needs: voice, stuttering, apraxia, and dysarthria.  With nearly 10% of young students having an identifiable speech disorder, the needs are real.  Fortunately, special education teachers and paraprofessionals have the tools and adaptive technology to help students with speech intelligibility, phonology, auditory disorders, language development, and articulation.

Hearing Impairment

A special education teacher may elect to concentrate on helping student with hearing impairment in the classroom or during private tutoring sessions.  Hearing loss can be grouped into sensorineural, conductive, or a mix of conductive & sensorineural.  With hearing loss or hearing impairment reaching 15% of adults in the United States, special education teachers are needed more now than ever to perform audiometric assessments and treatment programs.

Learning Disabilities

The NCLD defines a learning disability as a “neurological difference in the brain’s structure and functionality that restricts the capability to receive, process, store, communication, and/or retrieve information”.   Special education teachers working with students suffering from one or more types of learning disabilities are uniquely trained and equipped to help modify and enhance learning for students of all types.

Physical Disability

Special education teacher’s may also specialize in helping others with a physical disability and can find themselves working in a public school, private school, educational support facility, or government agency.  Physical disabilities can include a wide array of conditions that adversely affects dexterity and/or mobility such as paraplegia, hemiplegia, quadriplegia, multiple sclerosis (MS), cerebral palsy, polio, dystrophy, and absent limb/reduced limb functionality.

Schools Other Students Requested Information From:

Employment Opportunities and Teaching Licensure

All 50 states requiring licensing for special education teachers, though the requirements for licensing will vary from state to state. As detection methods for disabilities improve, the need for qualified special education teachers is expected to increase. Additionally, special education teachers can move into regular education positions, which is another source of expected open positions. The shortage of qualified individuals ensures that work will be available upon completion, though demand may vary by area and  require relocation. Teachers specialized to work with specific disabilities may find it easier to find work.  A special education teacher needs to be attentive and patient when working with children with disabilities and must be able to apply a variety of teaching methods in order to work with students who are having difficulty learning.

Common Job Titles of a Special Education Teacher

A set of common job titles for a special education teacher will vary from district to district along with the specific job responsibilities.  Nonetheless, we have gathered a list of popular job titles to help prospective students understand some nomenclature and terminology used by school districts and private organizations.  The list of common job titles of a special education teacher includes:

  • Early Childhood Special Educator
  • Severe/Profound Mental Handicapped Special Education Teacher
  • Special Education Inclusion Teacher
  • Emotional Disabilities Teacher
  • Hearing Impaired Itinerant Teacher
  • Learning Support Teacher
  • Resource Program Teacher
  • Severe Emotional Disorders Elementary Teacher
  • Special Education Resource Teacher
  • Special Education Teacher

Where Do Special Education Teachers Work?

A special education teach can work in a number of different settings across various industries.  By in large, special education teachers will work in a public or private teaching setting while a small number of other teachers will work for government agencies and various educational support services.  A list of the most popular places a special education teacher can work include:

Early Childhood Education School:  A special education teacher may work in a early childhood education center as a Lead Teacher or Assistant Teacher.  The qualification requirements depend on the school or school district along with specific state requirements for the program.  Special Ed teachers may work with individual children in a preschool setting or with small groups to work on specific skills such as communication, self-help skills, sign language, and behavior modification.

Elementary School:  Special education teachers working in an elementary school may work independently or with a team of aides or paraprofessionals in the classroom depending on the set-up of the class and the needs of the children.

Middle School/Junior High:  The requirements of a special education teacher in middle school tend to shift from basic communication found in ECE and primary grades to behavior management and disability assistance.

High School:  Special education teachers working in a high school setting are focused on helping students develop life skills necessary to succeed after graduation.  From working with students on communication skills to preparing students for a vocational program after high school, special education teachers are an important facet for students with disabilities transition from school or high school to college.

Medical/Healthcare:  Special Education teachers can also be found working in medical and healthcare settings.   Although limited in number, special education teachers have the skills, attributes, and personal characteristics to assist patients from a variety of backgrounds and disparate needs move forward.

ESS: Educational Support Services (ESS) is yet another work setting you will find special education teachers.  Working in a district office or as a paraprofessional for a private or public entity supporting the work of others is the nature of an ESS professional.

Vocational Rehabilitation:  Vocational Rehabilitation Services or VRS is a viable career path for a special education teacher.  A special education teacher may work with or for a Physical Therapist, Occupational Therapist, or an associated professional to help prepare individuals join the work force.

Government Agencies:  A special education teacher may find themselves working for a variety of state, local, or federal government agencies.  From politics to family support services (CPS, DSHS), a special education teacher will often have the demeanor and latent skills needed in various types of government-related jobs.

Job Growth, Salary and Related Teaching Fields

As the acceptance of educational needs for students becomes more widespread, and the requirement  to have specialized teachers in public school systems becomes mandatory, the resulting growth is expected to increase steadily over the next decade. Areas of higher population will have more opportunities for employment.  The average salary of special education teachers is $57,910 per year, with a projected growth rate of 6% over the coming decade adding some 28,100 special education teachers during that time.

Individuals interested in a career in special education teaching may also be interested in education, early childhood education, or elementary education.  For more information about a career in teaching, check out The Single Most Comprehensive Guide to a Teaching Career post on our blog.

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Career Summary: Special education Major




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