Hack College Presents: How To Become A Special Needs Educator

special needs education

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.

Part I. The Education Industry

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.

Teaching Specialties Within Special Needs Ed

  • 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.

Salary and Career Outlook

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.

Part II. Top US Special Ed Programs

Schools with special ed departments often focus on nurturing and understanding how development works with different disorders and at different stages of life.

University of Kansas (Lawrence, KS)

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.

  • Accreditation: KU is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools (NCA).
  • Specialized Degrees: Autism Spectrum Disorders, Early Childhood Unified, High-Incidence Disabilities, Low-Incidence Disabilities, Secondary Special Ed Transition, Doctoral Studies in Special Education.
  • Industry Perception: The department consistently ranks as one of the top graduate-level special education programs in the country. In 2013, the program was ranked number one among public universities by U.S. News and World Report.
  • Cost: For the 2013-2014 academic year, Wisconsin residents are expected to pay $10,609 in tuition, while out-of-state students are expected to pay $26,863.
  • Financial Aid: The School of Education distributes approximately $300,000 in scholarships and awards to undergraduates each year, with about half coming from school-wide competition and half from individual departments and programs. Many awards are also offered by the School of Education for majors unrelated to teaching.

Vanderbilt University (Nashville, TN)

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.

  • Accreditation: Vanderbilt University is accredited by the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACSCOC) to award bachelor’s, master’s, education specialist and doctoral degrees.
  • Specialized Degrees: Special Education (M.Ed.), Special Education (Ph.D.), Special Education (BS), Behavior Analysis Certification Program, Student Publications & Organizations.
  • Industry Perception: Ranked as the top graduate school of education nationwide for 2013 by U.S. News & World Report. The college is regularly noted for its student selectivity, low student-to-faculty ratio, and large volume of funded research.
  • Cost: $1,680 per credit hour, total estimated living expenses are $21,856.
  • Financial Aid: Vanderbilt has boldly made three core commitments regarding financial aid. Firstly, their admissions process is “need blind,” meaning a family’s ability to pay for a Vanderbilt education does not factor into admissions decision-making. Second, the school pledges to meet 100% of a family’s demonstrated financial need. And lastly, financial aid awards offered by Vanderbilt do not include loans. Due to these commitments, Vanderbilt offers many valuable opportunities for financial aid, both through merit-based scholarships and awards based solely on need.

University of Oregon (Eugene, OR)

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.

  • Accreditation: The University of Oregon is accredited by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities.
  • Specialized Degrees: Special Education Undergraduate Minor, Special Education – Early Intervention -Early Childhood Licensure and Endorsement, Kindergarten – 12th Grade License, Master’s Only Program, Doctoral Degree.
  • Industry Perception: The College of Education at the University of Oregon was voted by US News & World Report at the third best school in the nation for special education. The school has garnered an acclaim for designing academic programming used throughout the nation such as the Positive Behavior Support system and the Youth Transition Program.
  • Cost: $14,556 per year in-state tuition, $20,658 out-of-state tuition.
  • Financial Aid: The College of Education provides donor create scholarships ranging from $1,000 – $5,000 to support the studies of COE students. At times these scholarships are even awarded to multiple recipients. Other scholarships are available for COE students through the University and external sources. The college and the UO Graduate School offer graduate teaching fellow position openings for various academic programs as well as offering opportunities to support academic services or instruct classes.

University of Wisconsin – Madison (Madison, WI)

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.

  • Accreditation: The University of Wisconsin–Madison is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools (HLC-NCA).
  • Specialized Degrees: Educational Leadership & Policy Analysis, Rehabilitation Psychology
  • Industry Perception: The school is widely perceived as encouraging a global slant on education at every level, allowing students the opportunity to complete teaching placements in countries like Australia, the United Kingdom and Namibia.
  • Cost: $11,375 per year in-state tuition, $25,133 per year out-of-state tuition.
  • Financial Aid: The Department of Rehabilitation Psychology and Special Education works in tandem with various federal and state agencies to provide a limited number of graduate fellowships in its dual program areas. However, these fellowships are limited to US citizens. Each year, a variety of research and project assistantships are available. Students utilized to fill these positions are chosen by project directors, so interested student are encouraged to become acquainted with their professors and make known their interest early on.

University of Texas – Austin (Austin, TX)

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.

  • Accreditation: The University of Texas at Austin is accredited by the Commission on Colleges (COC) of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), the regional accrediting organization for eleven states in the southeastern United States, including Texas.
  • Specialized Degrees: All-Level Special Education, Masters & Doctoral Programs offered in Autism & Developmental Disabilities, Early Childhood Special Education, Learning Disabilities & Behavioral Disorders and Rehabilitation Counselor Education.
  • Industry Perception: The school is highly ranked by a number of organizations due to their internationally recognized programs, including the Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk and Texas Child Study Center. The college’s labs in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education have also helped U. Texas gain a reputation for contributing to breakthroughs in fitness, muscle regrowth, spinal cord injury rehabilitation and nutrition. The emphasis on kinesthetics can be very beneficial for special education teachers in working with students who face physical impairments.
  • Cost: $8,110 per year full-time in-state tuition, $15,770 full-time out-of-state tuition.
  • Financial Aid: The Austin Independent School District has collaborated with the university to establish a fund for aspiring teachers looking to certify in critical shortage subject areas, including special education. Other scholarships include the ‘I am EDDIE’ scholarship, named for the official mascot for the College of Education. The scholarship is awarded to students who best demonstrate the school’s ideals of selflessness, philanthropy and hard work.

Part III. Launching a Special Needs Education Career

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.

Insight from Five Highly Effective Special Needs Educators

  1. Get contact information from special education teachers you meet outside of your district. You never know who may be able to provide any number of resources in the future. -Rose Clearfield, Masters in Special Education in Milwaukee, WI
  2. Be open to feedback. (Never assume you know what happens behind closed doors.) Do your research. Find a mentor in your subject area. - Chris Satterfield, Special Education Teacher, NC
  3. Try to get past (the bureaucracy) to what really counts – your interactions with children. Special education is about helping the neediest of a vulnerable population. Learn to identify those kids in your own way (while staying within legal guidelines) and find ways to use the bureaucracy to help them. – Glenn Schmidt, elementary special education teacher, Sun Prairie, Wisconsin
  4. A clear understanding of your core values is critical when embarking on a special education teaching career. You will teach alongside many colleagues each day—some who share your teaching philosophy and some who do not. But it’s all about what you can do for your students and how you can guide them to become self-advocates. This sense of values, this mission, becomes your focused strength. When your core values are set, you grow personally and professionally. And your values will evolve as you evolve. - Elizabeth Stein, National Board-certified special education teacher in the Smithtown Central School District on Long Island, N.Y.
  5. Teaching learning disabled youngsters will present you with some unique and distinctive challenges. Not only will these students demand more of your time and patience; so, too, will they require specialized instructional strategies in a structured environment that supports and enhances their learning potential. It is important to remember that learning disabled students are not students who are incapacitated or unable to learn; rather, they need differentiated instruction tailored to their distinctive learning abilities. - Anthony D. Fredericks, excerpted from The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Success as a Teacher

A Career of Compassion and Service

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.