How to Become a Special Education Teacher

Special education teachers play a vital role in the educational system. They customize lesson plans for each student based on the child's needs. A degree in special education can also lead to positions in school administration, behavioral analysis, or academia. Special education teachers earn above average salaries, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reporting that special education teachers earn an average salary of nearly $60,000 a year. The BLS projects that jobs for special education teachers will increase 8% between 2016 and 2026.

The BLS projects that jobs for special education teachers will increase 8% between 2016 and 2026

This article explains how to become a special education teacher, including how to transition from an education degree to the workforce, career paths for graduates who earn a master's in special education online, and the licensure process. While earning an online special education degree, students should begin their career planning and job search preparation as early as possible. By researching the professional requirements and career options with a degree in special education, educators can learn how to advance their careers.

Special education teachers educate students from preschool to high school, working in public and private institutions. They help children with learning disabilities or special needs master reading, writing, and other subjects, while tailoring lesson plans to each student's abilities. Special education teachers must remain creative, adaptive, and patient to effectively support each student's learning.

Working in special education offers rewarding opportunities to help students and shape young people's lives

In addition to classroom teaching, pursuing a career in special education can lead to administrative job opportunities. For example, special education directors create programs that support a school district's special education program. Educators with a background in special education can also work as principals or teach at the college level, depending on their degree.

Working in special education offers rewarding opportunities to help students and shape young people's lives. The profession allows individuals to gain additional knowledge through continuing education classes, which keep special education teachers current in their field. Earning a bachelor's, master's, or doctoral degree in special education prepares graduates for an exciting career with growth opportunities.

How Much Do Special Education Teachers Make?

Several factors affect the potential salary of a special education graduate. A special education teacher salary varies depending on the teacher's experience, degree level, location, and job setting. As special education teachers gain experience, their salaries increase, as shown in the following chart. Similarly, an educator's degree influences their salary, with teachers who hold a master's degree typically earning more than those with a bachelor's degree. Salaries also vary by location and job setting, with public K-12 schools paying higher salaries than private schools. Finally, teacher salaries vary depending on whether or not the educator must hold a teaching license.

Median Salary for Special Education Teachers by Experience Level
Entry-Level (0-5 Years) $40,000
Mid-Career (5-10 Years) $43,000
Experienced (10-20 Years) $49,000
Late-Career (20+ Years) $55,000
Source: PayScale

Earn Your Degree

In every state, special education teachers at the K-12 level need a bachelor's degree. While earning a special education degree, students learn how to present information to students with different types of disabilities. Special education majors also study different disabilities and how they affect learning and cognition. Most programs incorporate a student teaching experience, during which majors work with a special education teacher in the classroom to gain hands-on teaching experience. The degree prepares graduates to earn teaching licenses and pursue jobs as special education teachers.

When choosing a special education program, prospective students must check each program's accreditation status. In many states, only accredited educator preparation programs meet the state licensing requirements. Accredited programs also follow the profession's highest standards, ensuring that students build the necessary skills to become successful special education teachers.

Earn Your License

Public schools sometimes require special education teachers to hold a state teaching license or certification. Every state requires at least a bachelor's degree to earn a teaching license. Some states require that special education teachers earn a degree in their specialization. Some states require applicants to earn a master's degree to become fully certified as a special education teacher, which educators may complete while teaching.

Most states require that candidates pass an examination on teaching methods, and some require a specialized test in the candidate's subject area.

Teaching license requirements vary by state. Typical requirements include a bachelor's degree from a teacher preparation program. Some states only accept accredited programs or set a minimum GPA. Many states mandate supervised teacher training, such as through a student teaching experience. Most states require that candidates pass an examination on teaching methods, and some require a specialized test in the candidate's subject area. The licensure process often includes a background check and may include a drug test.

For special education teaching licenses, most states offer a general license, while others require that educators earn endorsements for their specialization area, such as autism, behavior disorders, or other specific learning disabilities. Because the requirements vary by state, prospective special education teachers should research the teaching license requirements by state.

How Long Does it Take to Become a Special Education Teacher?

Special education teachers must complete a bachelor's degree and earn a state teaching license at minimum to work in their field. Most bachelor's programs require four years of full-time study, and accredited educator preparation programs meet the requirements for a license. Candidates may also need to complete tests and earn continuing education credits to renew the license. Special education teachers may then earn a master's degree, which takes 1-2 years, or a doctoral degree, which takes 3-5 additional years. Career paths in school administration or academia may require a doctoral degree.

Career options available for special education teachers depend on the type of degree and the individual's professional interests. Earning a special education degree prepares graduates to work in several education careers. The typical career path involves completing a bachelor's or master's degree in special education, earning a teaching license, and working as a special education teacher at the K-12 level. With a master's degree, educators can also move into administrative positions, working as a special education director or a curriculum director.

Special education professionals may also pursue a doctoral degree to qualify for certain career paths, such as working as a special education professor at a college or university. A special education degree provides strong training in behavioral and psychological issues, preparing graduates to work as behavioral analysts. The degree may also offer leadership training for educators interested in school administration.

Bachelor's Degree in Special Education

With a bachelor's degree in special education from an accredited educator preparation program, graduates meet the qualifications to earn a teaching license in most states. Special education majors work with students from preschool to high school as special education teachers, creating customized learning plans for their students. However, some states require educators to hold a master's degree to become a special education teacher. With a bachelor's degree, educators gain valuable teaching experience and training, and graduates can also work as school counselors or intervention specialists. Students considering a degree in special education can research the top online bachelor's programs in special education.

Careers with a Bachelor’s Degree

Special Education Teacher; Preschool, Kindergarten, or Elementary School

Description At the preschool, kindergarten, and elementary level, special education teachers work with young learners who have learning disabilities or special needs. They help evaluate students; tailor teaching material to students' abilities and levels; and communicate with other teachers, parents, and administrators. Special education teachers help elementary students learn concepts in creative and adaptive ways. The position typically requires a bachelor's degree and a teaching license.
Average Annual Salary $45,833

Special Education Teacher, Middle School

Description Middle school special education teachers work with students who have mental or physical disabilities and who range in age from 10-14. Special education teachers design a curriculum to educate students and help their intellectual development. They tailor goals and assessments to each student's abilities. Special education teachers typically need a bachelor's degree in the field and a teaching license.
Average Annual Salary $47,992

Special Education Teacher, Secondary School

Description High school special education teachers create a curriculum to educate students with learning disabilities or special needs. They customize the material to each student, in coordination with parents, counselors, and other teachers. Special education teachers at the high school level typically hold a bachelor's degree and typically need a teaching license.
Average Annual Salary $49,597

School Counselor

Description School counselors help students succeed academically, adjust to school, and manage social or behavioral challenges. In high schools, they may also help students apply to college. School counselors work with parents, teachers, and administrators to support students. Most positions require a bachelor's degree in education or a related field, and counselors may also need a license.
Average Annual Salary $48,959

Intervention Specialist

Description Intervention specialists create lesson plans for students with learning disabilities, create reports on student performance, and examine medical records. They communicate with parents, caregivers, teachers, and the school district on student progress. They work during school hours and may complete preparatory or grading work outside of school hours. The position requires a bachelor's degree, with some employers preferring a master's degree.
Average Annual Salary $39,161

Master's Degree in Special Education

A master's degree in special education allows special education teachers to earn higher salaries in most districts. During a master's program, graduate students in special education learn about behavioral assessment, classroom management, special education laws and regulations, and interventions. The program may also include a practicum or student teaching experience. After graduation, a master's degree can also lead to careers in school administration. For example, professionals can work as a curriculum director or special education director. Educators considering a master's degree can research the top online master's in special education programs to learn more.

Careers with a Master’s Degree

Curriculum Specialist

Description Curriculum specialists analyze educational materials to determine their effectiveness, propose curriculum changes, and monitor learning outcomes. They may also assist teachers on instructional technique, recommend textbooks, and analyze data to assess learning. Most curriculum specialists hold a graduate degree in education, and they may possess prior teaching experience.
Average Annual Salary $54,683

Curriculum Director

Description Curriculum directors develop educational guidelines for schools, following state regulations and teaching standards. They also create strategic goals for schools, help train educators, and revise educational content. Curriculum directors often work with teachers, principals, and administrators, adjusting the curriculum to fit student needs. The position typically requires teaching experience and a master's degree.
Average Annual Salary $73,094

Special Education Director

Description Special education directors oversee a school or district's special education program. They ensure the program meets student needs and supports staff. Special education directors may oversee teams at different schools, working business hours throughout the year, including in the summers. The position typically requires a master's degree in special education or a related field.
Average Annual Salary $73,474

Education Administrator, Elementary or Secondary School

Description K-12 education administrators include assistant principals and principals. They oversee a school's administration, managing staff and teachers and setting goals for the school. School administrators ensure the school meets district standards, monitor the budget, and make staffing decisions for the school. Most positions require a master's degree, teaching experience, and a principal license.
Average Annual Salary $70,251

Behavior Analyst

Description Behavior analysts help teachers and parents implement behavior support plans. They design education and behavioral programs and train people on how to implement them. These professionals also assist with interventions and other evaluations and help assess behavioral programs. Behavior analysts typically hold a master's degree in psychology or special education.
Average Annual Salary $56,190

Doctoral Degree in Special Education

At the doctoral level, special education students conduct in-depth field research and write an original dissertation that contributes to scholarly knowledge about special education. Doctoral students study prominent theories and research in special education, and they may specialize in a particular learning disability. With a doctoral degree, graduates qualify for the highest level positions in education. Many academic positions require a doctoral degree, helping graduates advance into roles such as school superintendent. Prospective doctoral students can research the top online doctoral programs in special education to learn more.

Careers with a Doctoral Degree

Professor, Postsecondary

Description College and university professors design and teach courses in their specialty. They give lectures, assess student learning, and mentor students. Many professors also conduct research and publish their work in academic journals. Special education professors may teach undergraduates and graduate students who plan to become special education teachers. The position typically requires a doctoral degree.
Average Annual Salary $86,010

Department Chair

Description Department chairs act as the senior administrator within a college department. They carry out department goals, coordinate with the administration, oversee the department's budget, and supervise faculty development. Department chairs typically hold a doctoral degree in their field and earn tenure in the department before becoming chair.
Average Annual Salary $84,131

School Superintendent

Description School superintendents oversee a school district, acting as the system's highest administrator. They work with the school board to set standards and goals, and they also manage the district's resources. Superintendents must address any problems in the district and hire principals for each school. Most positions require a graduate degree along with prior experience as a teacher or principal.
Average Annual Salary $116,891

Special education teachers spend most of their time interacting with students who have learning disabilities or special needs. To effectively teach these students, educators need strong communication and interpersonal skills. Teaching also requires patience and resourcefulness, as educators work to communicate ideas to students. The position also requires critical thinking and the ability to work well with other teachers, parents, counselors, and administrators. While earning an online special education degree, students develop many of these skills.

Critical Thinking Skills

Special education teachers assess student learning, design lessons for each student's level, and adapt lessons depending on student progress. Critical thinking skills help teachers succeed in the classroom.

Communication Skills

Special education teachers communicate with students, teachers, parents, and administrators. They possess exceptional communication skills, teaching topics in a way that students with learning disabilities can understand.

Interpersonal Skills

Working with other teachers, school counselors, administrators, parents, and learning disability experts, special education teachers help create individualized education programs for their students. They must foster positive, collaborative relationships with colleagues.

Patience

Students with different abilities and special needs often need a patient teacher who can adapt the material for each student's abilities. Special education teachers must remain patient when interacting with students.

Resourcefulness

Creativity and resourcefulness help special education teachers effectively present information to students. Teachers develop different means of communicating the same information, depending on a student's needs.

Special education teachers work in multiple locations and school settings. They work with children from preschool through high school, teaching both in public and private schools. Special education teachers also work in rural and urban areas, educating children across the country. With so many options available, students considering a bachelor's, master's, or doctoral degree in special education can benefit from researching the various locations and settings where special education teachers work.

Locations

Every school system in the country employs special education teachers. Location plays a significant role in a special education teacher's career. Each state sets its own teacher licensure process, for example, which often involves meeting different educational requirements, passing examinations, and completing continuing education credits to maintain a current license. Salary potential also varies depending on location, with some states offering higher salaries. Location affects the diversity of the student population, the cost of living, and the quality of life for special education teachers. The following map shows special education teacher data by state.

Settings

Job setting affects a special education teacher's career. For example, the special education teacher salary at private schools tends to be lower than salaries at public schools. Similarly, job growth varies by setting, with a similar projected job growth rate for elementary, middle school, and high school special education teachers. However, special education teachers at the preschool level may see higher demand for jobs. Job setting also influences employment requirements. Private schools may not require a teaching license, while some settings may require a master's degree. The following tables provide additional data on employment outlook and salary by setting.

Special Education Teacher Employment Outlook by Setting
Special Education Teachers, Secondary School 7%
Special Education Teachers, Middle School 7%
Special Education Teachers, Kindergarten and Elementary School 7%
Special Education Teachers, Preschool 11%
Source: BLS
Special Education Teacher Salary by Setting
Elementary and Secondary Schools, Local $59,720
Elementary and Secondary Schools, Private $51,300
Source: BLS

After earning a special education degree, graduates must navigate the job market. Networking and completing teaching licensure requirements while completing the degree can help graduates on the job market. Teachers can strengthen their resumes by highlighting their specializations, listing advanced coursework in special education, and pursuing a special education certification, such as board certification. On cover letters and in interviews, candidates can highlight their classroom experience, connect their teaching philosophy to their portfolio, and explain why they are a strong fit for the position.

Special education teachers can also look for openings on job boards, such as SPED Jobs and TeachingJobs.com, which list openings from districts around the country. Individuals can stay current through resources such as lesson plans, a dictionary of special education terms, and education technology.

  • National Association of Special Education Teachers This site offers resources for special education teachers, including articles on placement tests, classroom management, behavior modification, parent handouts, and suggested classroom activities. NASET also publishes a monthly e-journal and scholarly journal with field research. Special education students can access the organization's career center, which includes job postings, continuing education courses, and career advice.
  • National Education Association Dating back to 1847, NEA advocates for teachers across the country. Today, the association represents more than three million educators, who also belong to state and local affiliate organizations. NEA offers member benefits, such as instructional resources, teaching strategies, career guidance, and teacher grants.
  • National Board for Professional Teaching Standards Special education teachers can earn national board certification through the National Board. The organization offers certification for exceptional need specialists who work with children from birth through age 21. After passing a four-part exam, including a content knowledge test, teachers can earn board certification.
  • National Center for Learning Disabilities NCLD provides tools and resources for special education professionals, including information on assistive technology, the Individualized Education Program, and 504 Plans. The center publishes research and reports on issues in special education. NCLD also offers scholarships and awards to students, educators, and schools.
  • Learning Disabilities Online The educators page at LD Online offers teaching materials, strategies, and information for special education teachers. The page offers advice on assessment, language and reading skills, learning strategies, and teaching writing and math. Teachers also benefit from the list of state-specific resources, recommended books, and organizations.
  • U.S. Department of Education State Contacts Part of the federal agency devoted to education, the state contacts page provides contact information for state departments of education, higher education agencies, and boards in charge of teacher licensure in each state. The site also lists each state's special education agency.
  • TEACH Grant Special education teachers qualify for the federal TEACH grant program, which provides financial support for teachers in high-need fields. Applicants must attend a qualifying program and meet academic benchmarks to receive funding. Recipients also sign an agreement to serve, meaning they must teach for four years in the eight years after graduation, or they must pay back the grant as a loan.
  • Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation Special education teachers should always choose an accredited program. Unaccredited programs may not meet the qualifications for a teaching license or board certification. CAEP accredits educator preparation programs, and its website offers a list of programs that currently hold accreditation.