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Special Education Teacher: Job Info & Qualifications

Special education teachers instruct students with emotional, physical and learning disabilities. They may work with infants, children and young adults, helping them develop the problem-solving, motor and social skills they'll need to complete their education and live independently. Read on to learn more about this profession.

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Career Definition

Special education teachers instruct students who have various mental and physical disabilities that may impede learning, including autism, visual and hearing impairments, and emotional disturbances. By creating an Individual Education Program (IEP) for each student, special education teachers are able to set goals and develop a curriculum tailored to each student's abilities. For kindergarten through 12th grade, these teachers are often found in a classroom setting, either working one-on-one with a student enrolled in a general education class, or instructing a group in a special resources class. Teachers may also specialize in working with students who have a particular type of disability.

How to Become a Special Education Teacher

Education and Certification Requirements

Every state requires special education teachers to be licensed. A bachelor's degree in special education is the minimum requirement for licensing in many states, but some states and employers require a master's degree. Many states also offer an alternative licensing program for candidates with a bachelor's degree not related to teaching. Most special education teachers are first licensed in general education for kindergarten through grade 12 before obtaining special education teaching certification. Employers may require further certification in specialized fields, such as teaching students with visual impairments. Additional board certification is offered through professional organizations, including the American Academy of Special Education Professionals (

Skills Required

Special education teachers must have excellent communication skills so that they can interact with students, parents and educators. They must be able to work with students in one-on-one and group settings, understanding the abilities and needs of each child. They must have good computer skills for detailed record-keeping of each student's progress, and familiarity with assistive technology devices used in the classroom. Special education teachers must be encouraging, creative and flexible, with the ability to motivate students and inspire the confidence needed to attempt new tasks.

Economic Outlook and Financial Forecast

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicted 6% job growth for special education teachers in general from 2012-2022, which was slower than average. However, faster-than-average growth of 16% in employment for special education preschool teachers was forecast during that same decade. The BLS reported in 2012 that the mean annual earnings for special education teachers at the elementary school level were $56,130, with the highest-paid ten percent earning more than $83,000. In that same year, mean annual earnings for special education teachers at the secondary school level were slightly higher, at $60,090. The top-paid ten percent of these teachers made over $89,000 per year.

Alternate Career Options

Recreational Therapist

Normally earning a bachelor's degree in recreational therapy or a similar field, these therapists work with people who have physical, emotional and cognitive disabilities. They assess clients, create treatment plans and implement programs that use recreation activities such as music, games and sports in therapeutic ways. An annual median salary of $42,280 was earned by recreational therapists in 2012, according to the BLS, and average employment growth of 13% was projected during the 2012-2022 decade.

Occupational Therapist

Requiring at least a master's degree, jobs in this profession involve treating disabled or injured individuals through the use of everyday activities as therapy. Much faster-than-average job growth of 29% was anticipated by the BLS from 2012-2022, and a median wage of $75,400 per year was reported in 2012.

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Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics