What does a Special Education Teacher do?

Mary Elizabeth

In the US, a special education teacher is an instructor who is specially trained to work with students who experience a wide range of disabilities as specified in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). These disabilities often include specific learning disabilities, mental retardation, speech or language impairments, hearing impairment, or emotional or behavioral disturbances. Less often, the teacher will work with a student who has a condition such as developmental delay, autism, traumatic brain injury, orthopedic impairments, visual impairments, deaf-blindness, or multiple disabilities. These teachers work directly with students, but may also work with a student’s classroom teacher, assisting him or her to adapt or modify the curriculum, adapt the learning environment, and make appropriate alterations to assessment.

Special education teachers help students with learning disabilities.
Special education teachers help students with learning disabilities.

A special education teacher usually forms part of a team of people who deliver special education services. He or she may work alongside a speech language pathologist, an occupational therapist, a physical therapist, resource room personnel, instructional assistants, and others who help students with special needs. In particular, this person will form part of the team to plan and implement a student’s Individual Education Plan (IEP).

Special education teachers may assist students one-on-one.
Special education teachers may assist students one-on-one.

For a person to work as a special education teacher, he or she must be licensed by the state he or she teaches in. Teachers may be licensed to work with children from kindergarten to grade 12, or for a smaller range of grades, for example elementary school or middle school students. Some states require that special educators first receive a qualification in general education before pursuing a special education license. In addition to state licensure, the American Academy of Special Education Professionals (AASEP) offers a Board Certification in Special Education (B.C.S.E.). The National Association of Special Education Teachers (NASET) recommends this certification to its members.

Special education teachers may work with children who have emotional issues.
Special education teachers may work with children who have emotional issues.

In the course of a day, the teacher may work with several students who are in different grades and have very different needs. He or she may need to use a number of different techniques and approaches to make sure the learning and assessment that are needed take place. For example, a special educator may read aloud to one student, write for another, and help a third one practice some skill. In addition, each child’s program and progress must be carefully documented.

State education boards typically create the requirements for special education teacher training.
State education boards typically create the requirements for special education teacher training.

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Discussion Comments


A special education teacher needs four years of college (under grad) and then one year of teacher's college. Often, extra courses are required after this to be qualified to teach special education.


Special Ed teachers do such a service to our community. I lived abroad and saw how terrible those with special needs are treated in the school system. We are truly lucky that our government and schools are looking out for all our citizens.


I have been teaching children with special needs for 17 years. It is truly my passion and what I love to do regardless of the pay. However, very interesting to read some of the posts that say we make more. Unfortunately, I teach in Indiana and we make much less than general education teachers. They are paid through the corporation in my area and we are paid through a co-op. The corporation pays into the co-op but for some reason we are viewed as second rate teachers and don't need as much pay.

I am not sure why we are viewed so poorly because I have a master's degree and quite a few different certifications in special education. I sure feel like I work much harder on most days than other teachers, but I do it for the kids and not the paycheck.


I have a cousin who went to school to be a special education teacher but she couldn't handle it. After about 2 years she took whatever schooling she needed and became a teacher in a 'regular' classroom. This is a job that is certainly not for everyone. She loves kids and loves teaching, but found the day to day challenges of working with special needs kids to be too much for her.


@GreenWeaver -- I didn't realize there were incentive programs like that for special education teachers. It makes sense though because there seems to be so many more kids that need this than there used to be. The number of kids who have autism seems to keep growing all the time. One thing I like is that there is more of an emphasis about integrating the kids who need special education into the mainstream classroom.

I think one of the hardest things about being a special education teacher is there are so many different types of needs and each child is so different. What works for one child may not work at all for the next one.

My niece is planning on being an elementary special education teacher and has already done some of her classroom training. She really seems to have a knack for it and she has developed a good relationship with her students. She has mostly worked with kids with learning disabilities but is also interested in those with behavioral problems.


A teacher can make a huge difference in a student's motivation whether they are in special education or not. My younger sister has Down syndrome and went to school until she was 21.

We lived in a small community and it seemed liked the "good" special education teachers didn't stay very long but moved on to better jobs. For a few years she had a teacher she absolutely loved and made more progress during those years than the rest of her school years combined. During this time she was reading and doing things she would have never done with her other teachers.


I think it takes a special person to be a special education teacher. This is a hard job that can be emotionally exhausting. That being said, it can also have many rewards.

One of my best friends has worked as a special education teacher in the public school system. Most of the kids she works with have behavioral problems and there are a lot of challenging days.

When the school year is over, she is usually encouraged by the progress most of the kids have made throughout the year. Many times they will bond with a certain teacher and this can make a big difference in their attitude and motivation.


Sunny27-Many schools are offering special education teacher programs because of the increase in children diagnosed with many developmental disorders.

I know that Miami Dade College offers a Bachelor’s degree program in special education because it is such a critical area for the school systems.

This school used to be called Miami Dade Community College, but they changed the name to Miami Dade College so that they could offer this program in special education for prospective teachers.

They also have a placement program for people that want to switch careers but are working full time. It is a night and weekend program that offered the special education teacher certification as well as direct job placement.

I know that the starting salary for a teacher with a Bachelor’s degree is $38,000 a year and a special education teacher starts at a higher salary of about $2,000 a year more and they also receive a loan forgiveness program in which the state will absolve their student loan debt if they work in the school system for a period of three years.


Many people want to know how to become a special education teacher. You really have to go to a four year college and seek a degree in special education.

This special education teacher degree does involve an internship and because it is considered a critical shortage area, a special education teacher salary is much higher than a traditional teacher’s salary.

Becoming a special education teacher is really a blessing to many because they really get to make an impact in children’s lives that need a little extra attention.

The job can be more demanding than working in a traditional classroom because these children are even more unpredictable then students in a traditional classroom and a high degree of compassion and patience is necessary to work as a special education teacher.

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