Any experienced teacher can tell you the true test of their abilities is not in mastering and communicating concepts, but in engaging those students who require extra motivation. It should come as no surprise then that a career in special needs education requires a tremendous amount of dedication, especially considering that teachers in the field are working with a segment of students who are often underserved and underfunded.
Yet, as difficult as the work can be, special needs educators consider their careers incredibly rewarding. In many districts, special needs education teachers are afforded a larger degree of freedom in developing the curriculum than traditional grade school teachers, allowing a great deal of personal creativity and investment. Some teachers use painting and drawing, music, or physical education to enable students to express themselves while exercising their minds and bodies. Developmentally challenged students will often come to appreciate the attention they receive from their teachers in a small setting – something not found in the typical crowded class.
It may seem strange to think of education as an industry, but make no mistake, as much as it is a necessary service for a developed society, education is also big business, with district expenditures totaling over $610.1 billion during the 2008-09 school year alone. Although educators are lucky to be in a field that will almost always be in demand, their employment is still at the mercy of market forces. For special ed teachers, though, the employment outlook is quite favorable in the foreseeable future. Opportunities in public and private schools, as well as other burgeoning special needs-related careers, offer a variety of options for teachers looking to work with students with unusual learning requirements.
Special Education Preschool/Kindergarten Teacher: Special education teachers at the preschool and kindergarten level should excel at working with students and associates in a friendly, non-competitive environment. Creativity and patience are both important and perhaps obvious virtues, but it’s also helpful to be able to make decisions autonomously and to direct groups with confidence.
Special Education Elementary School Teacher: Much like preschool and kindergarten teachers, elementary school special education teachers need to be able to stay open and friendly among both co-workers and students. However, in dealing with maturing students, there will likely be an increased need to confer with other staff and administrators to develop, evaluate and revise school programs. Conferences with concerned parents in order to resolve behavioral, developmental and academic issues may also happen more often than they would for traditional elementary-level teachers.
Students at this age level develop rapidly, thus programs to aid in communication, coordination, and focus can be very helpful. Teachers may consider programs such as Special Needs in Art Education (SNAE), a program through the National Art Education Association, or NAFME, the National Association for Music Education for opportunities to expose students to alternative modes of expression.
Special Education Middle/High School: As anyone who has gone through puberty knows, middle school years can be a difficult, confusing time. Thus, special education teachers with a strong sense of empathy for emotional, anxious students may do well in this field. Dependability and self-control are also exceedingly important, as students at this level will look to their teachers as role models instead of remote figureheads. Teachers must also be able to establish and enforce rules in order to maintain order. In many cases, special education teachers will be working with rooms full of students, each with individual physical, mental, and emotional needs. Teachers must also be able to prepare, administer, and grade tests and assignments that indicate the progress of both students and teachers.
Types of Special Needs Students: Special needs includes a broad range of students with exceptionally diverse learning styles. As a special needs teacher, you must be prepared to work effectively with mental issues such as autism, ADHD, and down syndrome; physical impairments like deafness, blindness or spina bifida; and various emotional issues. A full list of various disorders and other special needs information can be found at the site for the National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities.
As of May 2010, the median annual wage of special education teachers was $53,220. At $54,810, high school special education teachers earned the highest pay; however, the median salary for preschool, kindergarten and elementary school special ed teachers was only slightly lower at $52,250. Many special ed teachers work the traditional 10-month school year with a two-month break during the summer, though it is not unusual for these teachers to take on summer program assignments. Teachers in districts with a year-round schedule usually work eight weeks in a row before taking a one week break with a five-week midwinter break.
The special education field is rare among teaching fields in that it is expected to see significant growth over the next decade due to increased enrollment and continued demand for special education services. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) expects employment of special education teachers to grow 17% between 2010 and 2020.
Enrollment is expected to grow faster among kindergarten, elementary and middle school grades than among high school students. Thus, those looking for work in preschool, kindergarten and elementary school special education can look forward to 21% growth between 2010 and 2020, slightly stronger than the 17% projected rate for all occupations. Employment for high school special education teachers, however, is only expected to see growth of 7%. That said, the continued demand among all age groups as well as a significant number of retiring older special ed teachers should be an encouraging sign for those looking to enter the field.
Schools with special ed departments often focus on nurturing and understanding how development works with different disorders and at different stages of life.
Students in the KU special education program work closely with nationally and internationally renowned faculty. The school has become well known for its affiliations with the Center for Research on Learning and the Schiefelbusch Life Span Institute.
The mission of the Department of Special Education at Vanderbilt is to improve the lives of children and youth with disabilities through the preparation of exceptionally skilled and competent teachers; academic research that informs and improves educational programs behavioral interventions and leadership in professional associations and advocacy for persons with disabilities.
The faculty of University of Oregon’s special education program work to provide students with cutting-edge knowledge in evidence-based practices and all students are provided with guided opportunities to apply this knowledge in various settings, including early childhood programs, public schools, clinics, and through research experiences in one of their 17 research and outreach units.
University of Wisconsin programs prepare graduates in entry-level and leadership positions to work with, or on behalf of, people with disabilities, their families, rehabilitation counselors, psychologists, and counselor educators. There are programs for special education teachers, rehabilitation counselors and special education researchers.
The mission of the Department of Special Education at U of T at Austin is to advance society’s knowledge about disabilities and to enhance the capacity of society to accommodate and fully include persons with individual differences by preparing outstanding teachers, educators, counselors, educational leaders, rehabilitation professionals, and researchers.
Many special needs education programs offer a wealth of available opportunities for on-the-job training. As useful as studying theory can be, there is no substitute for in-class experience working with students. Many schools offer student teaching opportunities that can be an excellent resource for meeting professionals and making connections with those who may offer valuable referrals.
Cover Letters and Resumés: Cover letters and resumés should reflect intelligence and critical thinking as well as patience and creativity. All of these skills will be relevant in the classroom as well as dealing with parents and building lesson plans. Cover letters and resumés should focus on past experiences that suggest a knack for communication, critical thinking, and patience. Any leadership experience is also smiled upon.
Personal Branding: The true test of your success as a special needs education teacher will be in your ability to inspire students to work towards realizing their potential. Of course, this sort of success is not always the easiest to quantify, so building relationships with parents, students and coworkers will be very important. Building a network of people who can vouch for your abilities or offer referrals will be an important step in ensuring the longevity of your career.
Special needs teachers undoubtedly serve an essential role as we strive to ensure that every individual in our society is allowed an opportunity to use their abilities in a meaningful way. Remember, special needs education is a broad field, and to a large extent, the quality of the education students receive is directly linked to the innovation that each individual teacher brings to their role every day. Although success in the field requires dedication, hard work, and an ability to thrive under exceptionally difficult conditions, the relationships forged and the appreciation of students and parents can make for an exceptionally gratifying career.