Every day, the number of children diagnosed with developmental delays and learning problems increases, creating a growing need for compassionate and qualified special education teachers. If you have a passion for teaching, a dedication to creating inclusive learning environments, and a strong desire to make a difference in the lives of students with disabilities, then a career as a special education teacher might be the perfect fit for you.

In this guide, ProCare Therapy experts break down everything you need to know about becoming a special education teacher, including a step-by-step guide on how to become a special education teacher and the potential salary you can expect to earn in this rewarding profession.

Responsibilities of special education teachers

Special education teachers play a huge role in ensuring children who struggle with a disability participate in the classroom, learn in a way that suits their needs, and enjoy a fulfilling educational experience alongside their peers.

Special education teachers work with students who have physical, mental, emotional, or learning disabilities. On a daily basis, the responsibilities of special education teachers include developing lessons in core subjects like math, writing, and reading for students and providing them with specialized instruction so that the students can learn the material in the best format for them.

Special education teachers also play an important role in student Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), which outline the learning program for each special education student and ensure they have access to the appropriate resources and support to succeed academically and socially. In addition, teachers are responsible for tracking the progress of their students and the IEPs, working with teaching assistants, and collaborating with other school professionals and parents.

What’s the difference between a teacher and a special education teacher?

While both general education teachers and special education teachers are responsible for educating students, a general education teacher typically instructs students without disabilities, whereas a special education teacher works with students who have various disabilities, including learning, emotional, and physical impairments.

Special education teachers also adapt or modify the lesson plans and curriculum that general education teachers instruct into a format that their special education students will best understand and learn. Additionally, while special education teachers generally have the same education background and training that general education teachers have, special education teachers have added coursework and extensive training in additional subjects and specializations, such as IEPs and how to tailor the plans to each student’s unique needs.

Can a special education teacher teach general education? 

Yes, special education teachers can teach general education, but their primary focus is to support students with disabilities. They are often responsible for co-teaching or collaborating with general education teachers to create inclusive classroom environments that accommodate the needs of all students. However, some special education teachers may also hold dual certifications, allowing them to work as general education teachers when needed.

Requirements of a special education teacher

The qualifications needed to become a special education teacher are similar to those required for general education teachers. Typically, special education teachers are required to have a bachelor’s degree in special education, elementary education, or another relevant field such as math or science. It is essential to note that every state has its own licensing and certification requirements for public school educators; therefore, we recommend checking with your state’s regulatory laws and Board of Education to ensure you meet the most recent requirements for special education teachers.

In addition to the above requirements, various soft skills are required to become a successful special education teacher. For example, special education teachers must have exceptional communication skills to convey information and instructions clearly, actively listen to students’ concerns and needs, and work with other educators, support staff, and parents to create tailored learning plans. Patience and empathy are also crucial characteristics in special education teachers, as these teachers often work with students who face various challenges, requiring understanding and the ability to adapt teaching methods to accommodate individual learning styles.

How to become a special education teacher: A step-by-step guide

While the specific requirements and steps to becoming a special education teacher vary by state, below is a general guide on how to become a special education teacher:

  1. Obtain a bachelor’s degree: Enroll in a bachelor’s degree program in special education or a related field such as elementary education or psychology. Obtaining a master’s degree in special education is an option as well, and it’s important to note that some states may require public school special education teachers to have a master’s degree in addition to a bachelor’s degree.
  2. Complete internship: While obtaining your degree, you can expect to be required to work in a student internship, also called a practicum, which allows you to develop your skills and gain hands-on experience with students with disabilities.
  3. Pass state certification exams: Take and pass the required state certification exams for special education to demonstrate your knowledge and skills in the field.
  4. Apply for a teaching license: Submit your application, along with the required documentation, to obtain your state teaching license in special education.
  5. Find a job: Search and apply for special education teaching positions in public or private schools or as a telehealth special education teacher.

How much do special education teachers make?

The average special education teacher salary can vary depending on factors such as experience, location, and education level. However, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for special education teachers in 2022 was $62,950.

The national mean annual wage for kindergarten and elementary school special education teachers is $68,580. For secondary school special education teachers, the national mean annual wage is $71,290. CaliforniaNew York, Washington, Oregon, and Connecticut are among the highest-paying states for special education teachers, all with an annual mean wage of over $83,000.

In addition to a competitive salary, special education teachers also benefit from job security, as these roles will always be in demand, and demand continues to grow as more and more children receive a diagnosis. The overall employment of special education teachers is projected to grow, with 33,500 openings for special education teachers each year, on average, over the decade.

What is the starting salary for a special education teacher?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 90% of special education teachers make an annual mean wage of at least $45,730. While the starting salary depends on various factors, such as the school district, location, and individual qualifications, you can generally expect a starting salary of $40,000 to $45,000.

As educators gain experience and continue developing professionally, earning potential can increase significantly. In fact, a quarter of all special education teachers make over $79,580 a year.

Where can I find special education teacher jobs?

Becoming a special education teacher is a challenging but rewarding career choice. By following the steps outlined in this guide, you can embark on a fulfilling journey to make a positive impact on the lives of students with disabilities.

As a leading school therapy staffing agency, ProCare Therapy recognizes the crucial role that special education teachers play in schools nationwide every day. To show our appreciation for the work these educators do, when you take on an opportunity with ProCare, you’ll benefit from our custom job matching services, competitive salaries, extensive benefits packages, continuous career assistance, and many more perks.

Find openings for special education teachers with ProCare Therapy today, and get ready to embark on a deeply fulfilling career!

If you’re still researching the career, we invite you to explore helpful resources about special education teacher careers from ProCare, including information about the best colleges for special education, special education professional associations, interview questions, the best states for special education teachers, and more!