Special education is considered a specialized career field within the realm of education. Though working as a professional in the field of special education is a demanding career choice, it can be very fulfilling and rewarding. The increasing demand for licensed special education teachers within schools and organizations provides qualified graduates with plenty of employment options. Those who aspire to change the lives of individuals with disabilities combined with the motivation to complete the required education and certification yields a stable career and respectable salary.
Education and Certification
Special education teachers require a degree in education or a similar career field and then a specialization in special education. It is common for teachers to obtain a bachelor’s degree in education and then a master’s degree in special education.
Coursework for special education is similar to that of other teaching fields with special emphasis on behavioral, learning and physical disorders in children. Special education teachers will also take additional classes dealing with legality surrounding special needs students, including the additional responsibilities of services , IEP (individual education plans) and reporting practices.
Teaching degrees commonly end with no less than two semesters of student teaching. Student teaching is similar to an unpaid internship when a student will work in the classroom under the supervision of a licensed teacher. Most special education teachers complete three sets of student teaching experience comprised of two sets in a traditional classroom and one set in a special education classroom.
Special education teachers may also choose to specialize in a specific area of disability, such as speech and language pathology.
Special education teachers are licensed by the department of education in the state where they are employed. State requirements for licensure vary, but generally an appropriate degree with specialization is required in addition to passing state skills tests.
Job Requirements and Work Environment
Special education teachers commonly work in public or private school settings. Their salary is based on regular school hours, but they will do a variety of tasks beyond working with students. These include meeting with parents and other teachers and specialists. They may also do home visits. The amount of paperwork associated with special education should not be underestimated. Each child in a special education environment will have an accompanying IEP which may range from a few dozen pages to hundreds of pages in length. The teacher will be required to read and review each IEP in its entirety. The IEP is a legally binding document that the teacher is expected to follow, report on and update periodically.
Students in a special education situation will require individualized and modified teaching strategies and lessons. Special education teachers may also be called on to support general education teachers in the classroom in cases where students with special needs have been mainstreamed, or placed into general education classrooms on a part time or regular basis. Mainstreaming is a common occurrence in today’s classrooms.
Special education teachers should be prepared to work on teams regularly. They may be paired with other specialized teachers and may be assigned to manage one or multiple classroom aides. They will regularly meet with teams assigned to their student’s cases.
Special education teachers should be extremely organized, detail oriented, patient and flexible. They may manage large caseloads of thirty students or more. They will also be dealing with a variety of behavior issues at once, and will need to be able to carefully and appropriately handle each child.
Salary and Job Outlook
The median annual salary of special education teachers in 2010 was $53,220. This is slightly higher than the salary of general education elementary teachers, which was $51,380. These values are strongly determined by state budgets with some states which pay more, or dramatically less, than the median salary range. Wage is also influenced by the budget of each school district and the teacher’s personal education and experience. Master’s degree teachers will earn more than those with only a bachelor’s degree even if they hold the same position in the same school. Teacher wages commonly increase for each year of experience in a district.
Most teachers are hired on a contractual basis with a goal to achieve tenure with a school district. A tenured teacher has incredible job security and is extremely difficult to legally fire. Tenure requirements vary, but they are usually based on a combination of job performance review and years of experience with a district.
The job outlook for special education teachers is very good compared with that of elementary general education teachers. The legal requirements surrounding special education hold districts to much stricter standards regarding class sizes and the availability of special education services. This ensures that special education teachers are always in high demand, even in districts that may not be hiring general education teachers.