“Special education” can be defined as the increased attention and personalized schooling given to children with diverse disabilities, whether they are physical, mental or developmental. These disabilities can include visual or hearing impairment, brain injuries, dyslexia, retardation, or autism, among many others.
Special education teachers adapt a general education curriculum to meet the child’s individual needs and skill level. The work of these teachers usually extends beyond standard school subjects as well, as they also teach basic life skills like dressing and socialization to children with mild or moderate disabilities.
Note: Special education can also include work with gifted children who possess exceptionally high intelligence or talent-they may be reading twelfth-grade material at the age of seven, for example. The majority of special education teachers, however, are those who work with challenged youths, and this is the type of instructor covered here.
Virtually all states have made it mandatory for special education teachers who work in public schools to possess a bachelor’s degree in education, and many states require additional courses in special education, child development, educational psychology, rehabilitation, social work, or some similar subject. Public schools in all states require that special education teachers possess a teaching license, which must be renewed annually. Some states recognize a number of different specialties within the field of special education, and license each of them before the instructor can practice them. Many states also require that special education teachers possess a master’s degree, or are actively engaged in obtaining one.
Private schools may not require that special education teachers have a bachelor’s degree or teaching license. They often prefer the teacher to possess one, however.
Special education teachers have a wide range of choices which determine the specifics of their tasks. They have the choice of working with children of any age, from infancy through high school graduation, for instance. They might choose to work with physically challenged children, or they might choose to focus on children who are mentally or developmentally challenged. They might work in a public or private school or in a special school or facility designed to accommodate groups of children with similar disabilities. In some cases, special needs children are placed in regular classes and special education teachers work in the classroom side-by-side with traditional teachers.
Regardless of the areas of specialization they choose to pursue, the responsibilities of special education teachers are often quite similar. To begin with, they assess each child’s individual educational needs, then construct lesson plans designed to address the child’s specific learning capabilities and disadvantages. They create an Individualized Education Program (IEP) to set goals for the challenged child. They also produce a plan to prepare the student for transition to the next grade level, and review this plan with parents, teachers and administrators. They track the child’s progress, and suggest to parents ways in which they can help promote learning at home.
Special education teachers help children grow socially and emotionally as well as intellectually. They attend to the special needs of challenged children, and teach their students basic life skills suitable to their level of development and learning capability.
Special education teachers require a special set of interpersonal skills. They must be patient, organized, motivating, positive, passionate, flexible, tolerant and compassionate. They must respect, even celebrate, differences among people. They must be assertive and resourceful enough to obtain the services their students need. They should be good at analyzing situations and solving problems, and they should have strong leadership qualities and a good sense of humor
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, employment of special education teachers is expected to increase dramatically well into the next decade, due to an increase in the number of students requiring their services. Most of these job opportunities are expected to be found in rural areas and inner cities.
Statistics released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that while the average annual salary of special education teachers in preschools, kindergartens and elementary schools was about $43,570 in 2004, middle school special education teachers earned around $44,160 in the same school year, and special education instructors and teachers in secondary schools earned a slightly higher median salary of approximately $45,700.