Careers in Special Education

It takes a special kind of dedication and patience to work in special education, an equal measure of heart and drive. Maybe it’s an experience in your own life that brought you to this decision. Maybe it’s the fact that there are no shortage of opportunities to affect real change in the world when working with students with autism and other cognitive, neurological, and developmental problems.

What everyone seems to recognize is that in the filed of education where the turn-over rate for teachers is notoriously high, those that work in the special ed sphere are more satisfied with their jobs and much more likely to commit themselves heart and soul to their careers. Sure, this hints at the caliber of the kind of individuals that want to teach special ed, but it also tells the story of the unique and fulfilling experiences they enjoy everyday.

IDEA and the Life of the Special Education Teacher

Today, the career of a special education educator is largely influenced, shaped, and guided by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a framework for how states and public agencies provide services to the more than six million children with disabilities in the U.S. public school systems.  But it doesn’t stop there.

Signed into law in 2004, IDEA is a federal law that guarantees that all children in need of special accommodations, including those with severe disabilities, receive early intervention, special education, and similar services. IDEA is binding in all states. While state laws can provide more protection for children with disabilities under IDEA, they cannot provide less protection.

While your career as a special education teacher may differ according to the age of the children you work with (from early intervention services for infants and toddlers to special education services for elementary, middle, and high school students) and their types of disabilities (from mild to moderate to severe) and the types of accommodations they need, IDEA will be the framework that supports everything you do and seek to accomplish as a special education teacher.

Though a small percentage of special education teachers focus their careers on teaching children with significant cognitive disabilities, most teach children with mild to moderate disabilities, and virtually all work with students a modified general education curriculum in integrated classrooms right along side mainstream students.

The integration of children with disabilities into the general education classroom, referred to as the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE), is a hallmark of IDEA that plays a major role in how and where you perform your job as a special education teacher.

It Takes a Village… Special Education is a Team Effort

LRE, as part of IDEA, requires that students with disabilities receive their education in the least restrictive environment. This means that, whenever possible, students will learn alongside their non-disabled peers, in the general education classroom. In other words, if teaching can successfully occur in the general education classroom, then special education students are not to be removed from regular classes.

LRE doesn’t mean that special education teachers must provide their special education students with the same curriculum as other students; in fact, they often modify the curriculum and/or provide resources that allow their students to achieve greater success in the general education classroom.

LRE also requires that students with disabilities be allowed to participate in many age-appropriate school activities with their general education peers, such as assemblies, gym, and lunch, making use of the same resources and facilities, such as the library, cafeteria, restrooms, and hallways. While this would all look familiar to anybody who has been in the public school system in the past 10 years, it represents a monumental shift from the old approach to special education when special needs students were largely removed and isolated from the general student population.

It also clearly spells out that students with disabilities should always receive regular, adequate support from special education teachers, teacher’s aids, and other professionals, including speech-language pathologists and counselors.

You will often hear terms like “mainstream” and “integration” when speaking of LRE, for the sake of clarity we even made a reference or two to these concepts here. However, these are not terms used by Congress when describing the concept of LRE, nor do they appear in the legal language that describes the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act . You will find, however, that states and school districts throughout the nation use these terms when describing the special education services they provide under IDEA.

Where Special Education Teachers Work: Learning Environments

You may work with children who have learning or physical disabilities, as well as those with emotional and behavioral disorders. Your students may have autism spectrum disorder, cerebral palsy, hearing impairments, speech or language impairments, attention deficit hyperactivity disorders, anxiety disorders, or aggressive behaviors, just to name a few. IDEA identities 14 disability categories, with many of the categories covering several disabilities.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, the “vast majority” of special education students have mild to moderate disabilities. The largest group of students receiving special education services have “specific learning disabilities,” which means they spend much of their day in a general education classroom. The second largest group of students receiving special education services have speech or language impairments. Both groups total about 60 percent of all special education students.

According to the 2016 statistics by the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly 95 percent of all students with disabilities were served in regular schools in 2013. About 3 percent were served in a separate school for students with disabilities, 1 percent were placed in private schools by their parents, and another 1 percent were collectively served in hospitals, correctional facilities, and residential facilities.

Inclusive Environment

The inclusive environment involves integrating children with disabilities into the general education classroom throughout the day. It also supports a variety of co-teaching models, with special education teachers and general education teachers encouraged to find a model that works best for them while meeting the needs of the students with disabilities.

Resource Environment

The resource environment allows the special education teacher to remove special education students from the general education classroom to teach them in another location that may be more appropriate on an as-needed basis. With the new way of thinking and the modern approach to special education, resource room teaching is pretty minimal these days and typically only takes place for part of the school day when it is necessary. This means it’s common for special education teachers to work in both types of environments, often on the same school day.

In the Case of Severe Disabilities

The whole concept of all special needs students being relegated to separate classrooms for their entire time in school is largely a thing of the past, but there are exceptions, of course.

Working with children with severe issues that require them to be taught outside of the general classroom could very well mean working in a self-contained classroom or even a separate school for children who can’t manage in a traditional school environment.

The Special Education Teacher’s Job is to Implement Policies Established Under IDEA

While Congress implemented IDEA, they defer to the states to ensure the implementation of this federal program, including the LRE. And, in turn, special education teachers implement state and district policy to ensure that children with disabilities receive the following:

  • An assessment to determine their needs
  • An appropriate education, free of charge
  • Education in the LRE at the school closest to their home
  • Appropriate supplementary aids and services that allow them to get the most out of their instructional program

Under IDEA, (1) states must have an early intervention system for children age birth to age 2 with disabilities; and (2) public schools must provide special education to children ages 3-21. Your goal as a special education teacher is to identify, assess, and then provide services that allow children with disabilities to succeed academically and to prepare them to go on to enjoy success in life and work.

For example, as a special education teacher, you will develop and monitor student IEPs, which must include a statement that describes how the student’s disability affects involvement in the general education classroom, as well as annual goals that are marked with benchmarks and other short-term objectives related to the student within the general education classroom.

IEPs for new special education students must also include why the child was referred for special education and proof that the standard resources within the general education classroom have already been considered. In short, it is now up to the school district to provide reasons why a child with disabilities cannot be educated in the general education classroom.