Many types of disabilities qualify students for special education programs. These include specific learning disabilities, speech or language impairments, emotional disorders, mental retardation, hearing impairments, orthopedic impairments, visual impairments, autism, deafness, blindness, traumatic brain injuries, and other health impairments. Usually, students are classified under one of the aforementioned categories, and special education teachers are prepared through their training to work with specific groups. An important aspect of a special education teacher’s job is recognizing a child with special needs at the earliest stages. Early intervention is often critical in educating children with disabilities.
Special education teachers utilize various techniques to promote learning. Teaching methods can include individualized instruction, problem-solving assignments, and small-group work, depending on the disability. These teachers also help develop an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for each special education student. The IEP sets personalized goals for each student and is designed to meet the student’s individual needs and abilities. Teachers review the IEP with the student’s parents, school administrators, and the student’s general education teacher. Special education teachers work together with parents to inform them of their child’s progress and to suggest learning methods at home. When appropriate, the IEP program includes a transition plan laying out specific steps to prepare students with disabilities for middle school or high school or, in the case of older students, a job or postsecondary study.
Special education teachers design and teach appropriate curricula, assign work geared toward each student’s needs and abilities, and grade papers and homework assignments. They are directly involved in the students’ behavioral, social, and academic development. Preparing special education students for daily life after graduation is also an important aspect of the job. As schools become more inclusive, special education teachers and general education teachers are increasingly working together in general education classrooms to adapt curriculum materials and teaching techniques to meet the needs of students with disabilities. Special education teachers coordinate the work of teachers, teacher assistants, and related personnel (therapists and social workers, for example) to match the individualized needs of the given student within the special education structure. Special education teachers are in frequent contact with parents, social workers, school psychologists, occupational and physical therapists, school administrators, and other teachers.
All 50 states require special education teachers to be licensed, which generally requires at least a bachelor’s degree and completion of an approved training program in special education teaching. Many states require a master’s degree. Other states have alternative methods for entry into the field for bachelor’s degree holders who do not have training in education.
In order for one to be an effective special education teacher, one must be patient, be able to motivate students, be understanding of the students’ special needs, and be accepting of differences in others. Special education teachers must be creative and apply different styles of teaching methods to reach students who are having difficulty learning. Communication and cooperation are necessary skills because special education teachers spend a great deal of time interacting with others, including students, parents, school faculty, and administrators.
The job prospects are excellent as many school districts increasingly report difficulty in finding adequate numbers of certified special education teachers. The median annual earnings in May 2006 for wage-and-salary special education teachers who worked primarily in preschools, kindergartens, and elementary schools were $46,360. The median annual earnings of wage-and-salary middle school special education teachers were $47,650. And the median annual earnings of wage-and-salary special education teachers who worked primarily in secondary schools were $48,330. In many schools, teachers receive extra pay for coaching sports and working with students in extracurricular activities. And some teachers earn extra income during the summer, working in the school system or in other related jobs.
In short, with all the opportunities currently out there for special education teachers, a career in special education may well be worth pursuing.