Special education teachers can find their calling in either elementary or secondary schools, working directly with students who are affected by physical or mental disabilities. These educators work together with families, social workers, school counselors, and administrators to incorporate students’ needs and strengths into the curricula. Since some of these students must be taught life skills to function independently in society, these teachers also plan skill-building strategies for students to use at home, in the classroom, and in future careers.

Typical Requirements to Become a Special Education Teacher

Minimum Education Level Bachelor’s degree. Some states require special education teachers to obtain a master’s degree.
Recommended Major Field(s) Elementary education, special education, or an academic subject (physics, chemistry) combined with a minor in special education. If you already have a bachelor’s degree, you can pursue a different certification route to gain licensure. Some programs award you a master’s degree upon completion.
Licensure/Certification State-issued licenses are necessary to teach in public schools. Most private schools do not require licensure.
Minimum Work Experience Supervised student teaching fieldwork. The time frame for this requirement will vary from state to state.

Featured Schools

  1. Western Governors University
  2. Regent University
  3. Liberty University

Key Skills and Strengths

  • Non-verbal communication: Many students enrolled in special education courses use body language to communicate, especially if they are deaf, hard of hearing, or unable to speak verbally. Special education instructors will need to be highly perceptive about students’ facial expressions and gestures, which can indicate a wide range of needs, desires, or even medical emergencies. These instructors might also specialize in American Sign Language or other non-verbal communication methods, which requires keen observation and use of body language.
  • Mediation: Special education teachers tend to work with students with very different skill sets and abilities. Students struggling with mobility or communication can become frustrated with classroom tasks or even with one another. Teachers must be able to mediate these differences and move forward with lessons that remain accessible to all students in their classroom.
  • Adaptability: The nature of a special education teaching role demands constant flexibility. A teaching method that is highly effective with one autistic child might not work for another autistic student. The willingness to try new teaching methods and materials is critical for this profession.
  • Empathetic: Due to the wide range of abilities within a single class, teachers can run into obstacles finding lessons and techniques all students can access. Being able to see experiences from different students’ perspectives will help educators tailor the curricula to fit their needs.
  • Inventive: Students in a special education classroom can’t be expected to use school supplies and resources in traditional ways. For example, students with restricted mobility can face challenges with holding writing implements. Educators often have to think outside of the box, finding new uses for everyday technology, toys, and school supplies to help students accomplish learning goals.

Bachelor’s Degree in Special Education

Before applying to bachelor’s degree programs, candidates should check the licensing requirements of the state they wish to work in, and make sure schools provide necessary fieldwork hours and subject-specific training. Generally, a bachelor’s degree in special education can take between 4-5 years, with time frames fluctuating based on the age groups aspiring teachers want to work with (K-8 or high school) and the types of disability they wish to specialize in (mild, moderate, or severe). Unlike secondary school teachers, most special education teachers are expected to instruct on a wide variety of subjects, along with teaching age-appropriate life skills.

Sample Courses

Bachelor’s students explore the psychological research surrounding child and adolescent disabilities, working to comprehend the spectrum of disorders and varying levels of ability found in special ed. classrooms. These programs often cover assistive technology, education policies, and local communities that special education teachers rely on during their careers.

  • Introduction to Psychology: Most colleges require this introductory survey course so prospective special education teachers can understand the different developmental disabilities that affect students. This course often delves into cognitive concepts about memory formation, learning, and idea retention – psychological factors that can directly influence the effectiveness of future special education teaching programs.
  • Instructional Technology in the Classroom: A wide array of assistive software and hardware is sold by consumer technology companies, which can broaden students’ abilities to communicate, acquire new skills, and become familiar with subject matter. Teachers must understand how to incorporate these devices into their own teaching programs for greater accessibility.
  • Family and Educator Cooperation: Special education teachers must work together with parents and other family members on a regular basis, as these people play a major role in a child’s continued development. Since each disabled student has their own challenges to overcome, educators must work with parents to develop individualized strategies that meet the student’s individual needs. This course examines how teachers can best maintain this essential line of communication.

Master’s Degree in Special Education

Some states require that educators earn a master’s degree in order to specialize in special education – be sure to contact your state’s Department of Education to fully understand the requirements. Master’s degrees generally take 12-18 months to complete. Students will delve further into student development psychology, behavior analysis, and teaching students with severe disabilities.

Sample Courses

Educators who have already studied special education will get the chance to focus their research on specific fields, such as advanced special education techniques or working with students with severe disabilities. Other candidates who have a bachelor’s degree in an unrelated field will often take a separate master’s degree track, covering the foundations of special education in order to meet licensure requirements.

  • Teaching Students with Specific Disabilities: Special education teachers will often come across groups of students who have similar learning disabilities, such as Autism Spectrum Disorders, ADHD, or deafness. Educators can increase their effectiveness by using certain teaching methods to address key challenges faced by students in these particular groups. For example, teachers working with autistic students will often reiterate directions verbally and in written form in order to comply with these students’ communication styles.
  • Behavior Analysis and Management: Special education teachers will encounter a diverse range of behaviors in their classrooms. They must often assess how socially acceptable these behaviors are, and then help students form behaviors that fit social norms. Skill training will often revolve around personal hygiene, classroom behaviors, and social skills for interactions outside the classroom.
  • Classroom Based Research: Graduate students will generally dedicate a certain amount of program hours to fieldwork in special education classrooms and to testing out teaching methodologies and theories. Graduate students are often expected to record their teaching experiences, examine current special education research, and present their findings during a degree capstone research project.

Work Experience Requirements

Some states require fieldwork experience in order to gain a special education teaching licensure, however the period of time will vary depending on your state’s licensure requirements. Most education degree programs will include fieldwork time in the classroom, where upcoming teachers get to practice working with students and school administration. Those who have earned a bachelor’s degree in an unrelated field will need to find a certification program that includes the necessary fieldwork hours.

Certification/Licensure Requirements

There is a great amount of variety between what states require with special education certification, along with a large array of teaching credentials educators can earn depending on years of experience and grade specialization. There are still minimum requirements that most states adhere to, which include:

  • A bachelor’s degree or higher
  • Supervised classroom fieldwork experience
  • A criminal background check

Looking for a Teaching Job

The career outlook for special education teachers is actually slower than the average predicted for all jobs in the nation, expected to grow only 6% before the year 2022 according the Bureau of Labor Statistics. With these challenges in mind, you should take your on-campus resources seriously before graduation: be sure to schedule appointments with career counselors to learn about local job boards, review your resume, practice interview questions, and polish your social media presence. Your state’s Department of Education site can be an excellent place to start searching for a job, along with career listings provided by special education professional societies, some of which are listed below.


Start leading in today’s schools