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
Special education teachers typically do the following:
Special education teachers work with general education teachers, counselors, school superintendents, administrators, and parents. As a team, they develop IEPs specific to each student’s needs. IEPs outline the goals and services for each student, such as sessions with the school psychologists, counselors, and special education teachers. Teachers also meet with parents, school administrators, and counselors to discuss updates and changes to the IEPs.
Special education teachers’ duties vary by the type of setting they work in, student disabilities, and teacher specialty.
Some special education teachers work in classrooms or resource centers that only include 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 the information in a manner that students with disabilities can more easily understand. They also assist general education teachers to adapt lessons that will meet the needs of the students with disabilities in their classes.
Special education teachers also 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 by using flashcards and text highlighting.
Some special education teachers work with students who have physical and sensory disabilities, such as blindness and deafness, and with students who are wheelchair-bound. 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.
Most special education teachers 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 students.
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 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.Education
All states require special education teachers in public schools to have at least a bachelor’s degree. Some earn a degree specifically in special education. Others major in elementary education or a content area, such as math or science, with 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. These programs typically include fieldwork, such as student teaching. To become fully certified, some states require special education teachers to complete a master’s degree in special education.
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
All states require teachers in public schools to be licensed. A license is frequently referred to as a certification. Those who teach in private schools are not required to be licensed. Most states require teachers to pass a background check.
Requirements for certification vary by state. In addition to a bachelor’s degree, states also require teachers to complete a teacher preparation program and supervised experience in teaching. Some states require a minimum grade point average. Teachers may be required to complete annual professional development classes or a master’s degree program to maintain their license.
Many states offer general 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 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 programs require prospective teachers to take classes in education before they can start to teach. They may be awarded a master’s degree after completing either type of program.Training
Some special education teachers need to complete a period of fieldwork, commonly referred to as student teaching, before they can work as a teacher. In some states, this program is a prerequisite for a license to teach in public schools. During student teaching, they gain experience in preparing lesson plans and teaching students in a classroom setting, under the supervision and guidance of a mentor teacher. The amount of time required for these programs varies by state, but may last from 1 to 2 years. Many universities offer student teaching programs as part of a degree in special education.Advancement
Experienced teachers can advance to become mentor or lead teachers who help less experienced teachers improve their teaching skills.
Teachers may become school counselors, instructional coordinators, assistant principals, or 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
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 regularly work 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, as 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.
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