Careers in Special Education

Reviewed by Mary McLaughlin, Special Education Teacher; M.S. SpEd

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 who have autism and other cognitive, neurological and developmental disabilities.

What everyone seems to recognize is that, in the field of education, those who work in the special-education sphere are more satisfied with their jobs and are more likely to commit themselves wholeheartedly to their careers. Sure, this hints at the caliber of the kind of individuals that want to teach special education, 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 6 million children who have 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 who have 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.

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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 and secondary students) and their types of disabilities and necessary accommodations, IDEA is the framework that supports everything will you do and seek to accomplish as a special education teacher.

Special education teachers typically work with students a modified general education curriculum in integrated classrooms alongside 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 requires that students who have disabilities receive an education in the least restrictive environment. This means that, whenever possible, students will learn alongside their peers in the general education classroom. In other words, if teaching can occur in the general education classroom, special education students should not be removed from general classes. LRE is determined at the time a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) is established.

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 classroom.

LRE also requires that students who have disabilities be allowed to participate in school activities like assemblies, gym class and lunch, making use of the same facilities: library, cafeteria, restroom, and hallways. While this is de rigueur now, it represents a monumental shift from the old approach to special education.

It also clearly spells out that students who have disabilities should always receive regular, adequate support from special education teachers, teacher’s aids and other professionals like 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 who have 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. According to IDEA, the educations of more than 7.5 million students in the U.S. are regulated by IDEA.

According to the 2016 statistics by the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly 95 percent of all students with disabilities were served in traditional 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.

Fostering an 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.

What is a 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.

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Some children have severe issues that require extra attention, which could mean working in a separate classroom or school for those who don’t thrive in a traditional environment.

The Special Education Teacher’s Job is to Enforce IDEA Policy

While Congress implemented IDEA, they deferred 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 (IEP)
  • 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 who have disabilities to succeed academically.

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.