The special education teacher wears many hats. Unlike other teachers who focus primarily on academics, the special education teacher serves both as an educator and as an advocate for students with special needs. His or her schedule is divided among planning, instruction, assessing students and managing their individualized education programs (IEPs).
The job is demanding, and it requires the teacher to juggle many responsibilities. These can include scheduling, attending and following up after IEP meetings, writing IEPs with attainable and measurable goals, tracking and reporting student progress on IEP goals, providing guidance to general education teachers who wish to accommodate students, administering assessments, day-to-day classroom management, planning and instructing, managing and evaluating instructional assistants and other paraprofessionals, developing behavior management plans and more.
A Day in the Life
Although most teaching unions negotiate eight-hour work schedules for teachers, it is not uncommon for special education teachers to work well beyond this standard. The following is an example of a typical day in the life of a special education teacher.
- Hour 1: Arrive at school one hour before students arrive. Manage administrative tasks, respond to parent emails, check in with the front office, write the daily schedule on the board and prepare the classroom for students’ arrival.
- Hour 2: Manage start-of-day tasks and delegate to instructional assistants as needed. Prepare students for learning, read or listen to announcements, collect homework, review the daily schedule, assign learning groups, etc.
- Hours 3-5: Supervise instructional time, which includes:
- Preparing lessons for instructional assistants.
- Delivering whole-group instruction.
- Facilitating small-group learning.
- Meeting with students to assess progress on goals.
- Offering intensive, one-on-one academic or behavioral support.
- Assessing students for progress on IEP goals.
- Collecting data and adding it to IEP files.
- Offering support and guidance to general education teachers.
- Hour 6: Manage end-of-day tasks and delegate to instructional assistants as needed. Tidy the classroom and plan and preparr for the following day.
- Hour 7: Attend an IEP meeting for a current student on caseload. Review progress on goals, write new goals and address parental or administrative concerns. Ensure that the new IEP is signed by all necessary parties and duplicate paperwork and distribute to parents, administrators, school district, general education teachers and the special education department.
- Hour 8: Manage administrative tasks: contact parents, teachers and administrators to schedule IEP meetings, respond to parent emails and phone calls.
- Hour 9: Additional tasks that may include lesson planning, grading, filing, staff meetings, extracurricular or adjunct duties and other requirements.
General Licensing Requirements
Though specific teaching license requirements vary from state to state, federal legislation via the No Child Left Behind Act requires special education teachers to have a bachelor’s degree and to complete a teaching preparation program that includes supervised student teaching. Upon successful completion of an accredited program, prospective teachers can apply for a preliminary credential, which generally expires after five years. To obtain a “clear” or permanent credential, teachers must complete continuing education courses and serve as a classroom teacher for two or more years.
Some states or districts also offer “emergency credentials” for teachers who are willing to take hard-to-fill positions. In this case, the teacher forgoes the unpaid student teaching requirement and assumes all the responsibilities of a teaching position while completing credential classes after school hours. Though this option may appeal to individuals who need a steady income, it can be especially grueling because it places the newest and most inexperienced teachers in some of the most challenging classrooms.
For more information about specific licensing by state, visit the teacher certification section of the Special Education Guide website.
Areas of Specialization
Special education is a fluid and evolving discipline. As the educational community learns more about individual students, it attempts to categorize and define their needs; teachers can complete preparation programs and internships specifically designed to prepare them for meeting those needs.
Special education credential specializations include:
Early Childhood Credential
This credential authorizes teachers to work with students from birth to pre-kindergarten. Students may have a range of cognitive or physical disabilities.
Teachers who hold mild/moderate special education credentials often work in resource specialist programs (RSPs) or special day classes (SDCs). Their students usually have mild academic or behavioral difficulties, and can often be very successful with limited or moderate special education intervention. Generally, this credential authorizes a teacher to work with students from kindergarten through age 22.
With a moderate/severe credential, teachers can work in fully contained classrooms. These rooms generally offer basic and functional skills instruction for students with severe cognitive or physical disabilities. Generally, this credential authorizes a teacher to work with students from kindergarten through age 22.
Deaf and Hard of Hearing (DoHH)
This credential authorizes teachers to support students who qualify as DoHH. Students may range from those without cognitive impairments to those with severe and multiple disabilities. Many DoHH teachers work at multiple sites, advising classroom teachers on accommodations and assistive technology.
Visual Impairment (VI)
With the VI credential, teachers can work with students who are partially or fully blind, from those without cognitive impairments to those with severe and multiple disabilities. Many VI teachers work at multiple sites, advising classroom teachers on accommodations and assistive technology. Other sub-specializations include Braille teachers and orientation and mobility experts.
Many states offer additional specializations, including credentials in autism, physical and health impairments, behavior and more.
Previous and Next Steps: Special Education Teachers on the Career Path
Special education teachers come from a variety of backgrounds. Some complete general education teacher preparation programs and find more employment opportunities in special education. Others have children or relatives with special needs, and choose the career as a way to make positive educational changes for those with disabilities. Regardless, all special education teachers hold bachelor’s degrees, and those who teach at the high school level generally have bachelor’s degrees in one of the four core subjects: English, history, mathematics or science.
Many special education teachers remain very happy in their roles and complete 30 years of educational service inside the classroom. Others go on to be special education coordinators, school district administrators, directors of educational departments, consultants and even educational advocates and lobbyists.
If you’re a teacher looking to advance your career with a special education degree, check out our comprehensive list of master’s degree programs by state focused on special education.
National Organizations of Interest
The following organizations serve the interests and needs of special education teachers: