Special Education Teachers

Career, Salary and Education Information

What They Do: Special education teachers work with students who have a wide range of learning, mental, emotional, and physical disabilities.

Work Environment: Most special education teachers work in public schools, teaching students from preschool to high school. Many work the traditional 10-month school year, but some work year round.

How to Become One: Special education teachers in public schools are required to have a bachelor’s degree and a state-issued certification or license. Teachers in private schools typically need a bachelor’s degree but may not be required to have a state license or certification.

Salary: The median annual wage for special education teachers is $59,780.

Job Outlook: Overall employment of special education teachers is projected to grow 3 percent over the next ten years, slower than the average for all occupations. Demand will be driven by school enrollments and the need for special education services.

Related Careers: Compare the job duties, education, job growth, and pay of special education teachers with similar occupations.

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What Special Education Teachers Do[About this section] [To Top]

Special education teachers work with students who have a wide range of learning, mental, emotional, and physical disabilities. They adapt general education lessons and teach various subjects, such as reading, writing, and math, to students with mild and moderate disabilities. They also teach basic skills, such as literacy and communication techniques, to students with severe disabilities.

Duties of Special Education Teachers

Special education teachers typically do the following:

  • Assess students' skills to determine their needs
  • Adapt general lessons to meet the needs of students
  • Develop Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) for each student
  • Plan, organize, and assign activities that are specific to each student's abilities
  • Teach and mentor students as a class, in small groups, and one-on-one
  • Implement IEPs, assess students' performance, and track their progress
  • Update IEPs throughout the school year to reflect students' progress and goals
  • Discuss students' progress with parents, other teachers, counselors, and administrators
  • Supervise and mentor teacher assistants who work with students with disabilities
  • Prepare and help students transition from grade to grade and for life after graduation

Special education teachers work with general education teachers, counselors, administrators, and parents. Together, they develop IEPs specific to each student's needs. IEPs outline the goals and services for each student, such as sessions with school psychologists, counselors, and special education teachers. Teachers also meet with parents, administrators, and counselors to discuss updates and changes to the IEPs.

Special education teachers' duties vary by the type of setting they work in, students' disabilities, and teachers' specialties.

Some special education teachers work in classrooms or resource centers that include only students with disabilities. In these settings, teachers plan, adapt, and present lessons to meet each student's needs. They teach students in small groups or on a one-on-one basis.

In inclusive classrooms, special education teachers teach students with disabilities who are in general education classrooms. They work with general education teachers to present information in a manner that students with disabilities can more easily understand. They also assist general education teachers in adapting lessons that will meet the needs of the students with disabilities in their classes.

In addition, special education teachers collaborate with teacher assistants, psychologists, and social workers to accommodate requirements of students with disabilities. For example, they may have a teacher assistant work with them to provide support for a student who needs particular attention.

Special education teachers work with students who have a wide variety of mental, emotional, physical, and learning disabilities. For example, some work with students who need assistance in subject areas, such as reading and math. Others help students develop study skills, such as highlighting text and using flashcards.

Some special education teachers work with students who have physical disabilities, such as students who are wheelchair bound. Others work with students who have sensory disabilities, such as blindness and deafness. They also may work with those who have autism spectrum disorders and emotional disorders, such as anxiety and depression.

Special education teachers work with students from preschool to high school. Some teachers work with students who have severe disabilities until the students are 21 years old.

Special education teachers help students with severe disabilities develop basic life skills, such as how to respond to questions and how to follow directions. Some teach the skills necessary for students with moderate disabilities to live independently, find a job, and manage money and their time. For more information about other workers who help individuals with disabilities develop skills necessary to live independently, see the profiles on occupational therapists and occupational therapy assistants and aides.

Special education teachers must be comfortable with using and learning new technology. Most use computers to keep records of their students' performance, prepare lesson plans, and update IEPs. Some teachers also use various assistive technology aids, such as Braille writers and computer software that help them communicate with their students.

Work Environment for Special Education Teachers[About this section] [To Top]

Special education teachers hold about 437,200 jobs. Employment in the detailed occupations that make up special education teachers is distributed as follows:

Special education teachers, kindergarten and elementary school 184,300
Special education teachers, secondary school 142,000
Special education teachers, middle school 86,800
Special education teachers, preschool 24,000

The largest employers of special education teachers are as follows:

Elementary and secondary schools; local 86%
Elementary and secondary schools; private 8%

A small number of special education teachers work with students in residential facilities, hospitals, and the students' homes. They may travel to these locations. Some teachers work with infants and toddlers at the child's home. They teach the child’s parents ways to help the child develop skills.

Helping students with disabilities may be rewarding. It also can be stressful, emotionally demanding, and physically draining.

Special Education Teacher Work Schedules

Special education teachers typically work during school hours. In addition to providing instruction during this time, they grade papers, update students’ records, and prepare lessons. They may meet with parents, students, and other teachers or specialists before and after classes.

Many work the traditional 10-month school year and have a 2-month break during the summer. They also have a short midwinter break. Some teachers work in summer programs.

Teachers in districts with a year-round schedule typically work 9 weeks in a row and then are on break for 3 weeks.

How to Become a Special Education Teacher[About this section] [To Top]

Get the education you need: Find schools for Special Education Teachers near you!

Special education teachers in public schools are required to have at least a bachelor's degree and a state-issued certification or license. Private schools typically require teachers to have a bachelor's degree, but the teachers are not required to be licensed or certified. For information about teacher preparation programs and certification requirements, visit Teach.org or contact your state's board of education.

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Education for Special Education Teachers

All states require special education teachers in public schools to have at least a bachelor's degree. Some require teachers to earn a degree specifically in special education. Others allow them to major in elementary education or a content area, such as math or science, and pursue a minor in special education.

In a program leading to a bachelor's degree in special education, prospective teachers learn about the different types of disabilities and how to present information so that students will understand. Programs typically include a student-teaching program, in which they work with a mentor teacher and get experience teaching students in a classroom setting. To become fully certified, some states require special education teachers to complete a master's degree in special education after obtaining a job.

Teachers in private schools do not need to meet state requirements. However, private schools may prefer to hire teachers who have at least a bachelor's degree in special education.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations for Special Education Teachers

All states require teachers in public schools to be licensed in the specific grade level that they teach. A license frequently is referred to as a certification. Those who teach in private schools typically do not need to be licensed.

Requirements for certification or licensure can vary by state but generally involve the following:

  • A bachelor's degree with a minimum grade point average
  • Completion of a teacher preparation program and supervised experience in teaching, which is typically gained through student teaching.
  • Passing a background check
  • Passing a general teaching certification test, as well as a test that demonstrates knowledge of the subject the candidate will teach.

Many states offer general certification or licenses in special education that allow teachers to work with students with a variety of disabilities. Others offer licenses or endorsements based on a disability-specific category, such as autism or behavior disorders.

Some states allow special education teachers to transfer their licenses from another state. Other states require even an experienced teacher to pass their state's licensing requirements.

All states offer an alternative route to certification or licensure for people who already have a bachelor's degree. Some alternative certification programs allow candidates to begin teaching immediately, under the close supervision of an experienced teacher. These alternative programs cover teaching methods and child development. Candidates are awarded full certification after they complete the program. Other alternative programs require prospective teachers to take classes in education before they can start to teach. Teachers may be awarded a master's degree after completing either type of program.

Advancement for Special Education Teachers

Experienced teachers can advance to become mentors or lead teachers who help less experienced teachers improve their teaching skills.

Teachers may become school counselors, instructional coordinators, and elementary, middle, and high school principals. These positions generally require additional education, an advanced degree, or certification. An advanced degree in education administration or leadership may be helpful.

Important Qualities for Special Education Teachers

Communication skills. Special education teachers discuss students' needs and performances with general education teachers, parents, and administrators. They also explain difficult concepts in terms that students with learning disabilities can understand.

Critical-thinking skills. Special education teachers assess students' progress and use that information to adapt lessons to help them learn.

Interpersonal skills. Special education teachers work regularly with general education teachers, school counselors, administrators, and parents to develop Individualized Education Programs. As a result, they need to be able to build positive working relationships.

Patience. Working with students with special needs and different abilities can be difficult. Special education teachers should be patient with each student, because some may need the instruction given aloud, at a slower pace, or in writing.

Resourcefulness. Special education teachers must develop different ways to present information in a manner that meets the needs of their students. They also help general education teachers adapt their lessons to the needs of students with disabilities.

Special Education Teacher Salaries[About this section] [More salary/earnings info] [To Top]

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Entry Level Experienced

The median annual wage for special education teachers is $59,780. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $39,680, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $97,070.

Median annual wages for special education teachers are as follows:

Special education teachers, secondary school $60,600
Special education teachers, middle school $60,250
Special education teachers, kindergarten and elementary school $59,390
Special education teachers, preschool $55,840

The median annual wages for special education teachers in the top industries in which they work are as follows:

Elementary and secondary schools; local $60,430
Elementary and secondary schools; private $52,390

Special education teachers typically work during school hours. In addition to providing instruction during this time, they grade papers, update students’ records, and prepare lessons. They may meet with parents, students, and other teachers or specialists before and after classes.

Many work the traditional 10-month school year and have a 2-month break during the summer. They also have a short midwinter break. Some teachers work in summer programs.

Teachers in districts with a year-round schedule typically work 9 weeks in a row and then are on break for 3 weeks.

Union Membership for Special Education Teachers

Compared with workers in all occupations, special education teachers have a higher percentage of workers who belong to a union.

Job Outlook for Special Education Teachers[About this section] [To Top]

Overall employment of special education teachers is projected to grow 3 percent over the next ten years, slower than the average for all occupations. Demand will be driven by school enrollments and the need for special education services.

Demand for special education services and teachers should rise as disabilities are being identified earlier and as children with disabilities are enrolled into special education programs.

Federal laws require that every state must maintain the same level of financial support for special education every year. This reduces the threat of employment layoffs due to state or federal budget constraints. However, employment growth may depend on increases in funding.

Employment projections data for Special Education Teachers, 2018-28
Occupational Title Employment, 2018 Projected Employment, 2028 Change, 2018-28
Percent Numeric
Special education teachers 437,200 450,800 3 13,600
  Special education teachers, preschool 24,000 25,900 8 1,900
  Special education teachers, kindergarten and elementary school 184,300 189,400 3 5,100
  Special education teachers, middle school 86,800 89,200 3 2,300
  Special education teachers, secondary school 142,000 146,300 3 4,300


*Some content used by permission of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor.

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