What Does a Special Education Teacher Do?

Learn About the Salary, Required Skills, & More

A day in the life of a special education teacher: Collaborate with other classroom teachers, Set learning goals for each student, Update parent on the progress of their children, Supervise and train teaching assistants

The Balance / Julie Bang

Special education teachers oversee the education and training of students with physical, emotional, mental, and learning disabilities. They design and deliver lessons geared towards the individual needs and capabilities of the students under their supervision. Special education teachers teach at the preschool, elementary, middle, and high school levels.

Approximately 439,300 special education teachers were employed in the U.S. in 2016.

Special Education Teacher Duties & Responsibilities

Special education teachers' responsibilities can vary depending on the grade they teach and where they're employed, but some common duties include:

  • Collaborate with other classroom teachers, school psychologists, learning disabilities specialists, speech/hearing specialists, and school social workers to provide an integrated plan for developing the capacities of their students.
  • Set learning goals for each student, assess their progress, and record their evaluations.
  • Update parents on the progress of their students and enlist parental support with behavior control and home activities designed to supplement their classroom lessons.
  • Supervise and train teaching assistants. 
  • Help plan for the transition of their students to productive lives after the completion of their secondary education.

Special Education Teacher Salary

Special education teachers earn on par with other educators, despite the additional challenges and responsibilities.

  • Median Annual Salary: $59,780 ($28.74/hour)
  • Top 10% Annual Salary: More than $97,070 ($46.67/hour)
  • Bottom 10% Annual Salary: Less than $39,680 ($19.08/hour)

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018

Education, Training & Certification

This career requires both education and sometimes certification.

  • Education: Special education teachers in public schools need at least a bachelor’s degree. Some teachers receive a bachelor’s degree specifically in education, or even special education. Some states require candidates for certification to possess a master’s degree in special education. Many school districts state a preference for candidates with master’s degrees.
  • Training and experience: Many special education teachers must complete a certain number of hours of student teaching before becoming certified. Special education teachers might learn how to plan lessons and manage a classroom under the supervision of a lead teacher while student teaching.
  • Certification: Most states require individuals to pass a certification exam. Private school teachers need a bachelor’s degree, but do not necessarily have to be certified. Some teachers get their licenses in specific disability categories, such as behavior disorders or autism.

Special Education Teacher Skills & Competencies

There are many skills specific to special education teachers, including empathy, patience, and organization.

  • Critical-thinking skills: A special education must accurately assess students' progress and adjust lessons to their needs.
  • Patience: These students often require different methods of instruction and aren't always immediately responsive to receiving it. It can be a difficult job, and the ability to step back briefly and take a deep breath can be critical.
  • Communication skills: These teachers must be able to communicate with parents, other teachers, and administrators, in addition to the children under their supervision.
  • Innovation: Not every one of these children can be taught in the same way. A good special education teacher will be able to conceive of different ways of reaching students and guiding them to progress.

Job Outlook

Employment of special education teachers is expected to grow at a rate of about 8% from 2016 to 2026, as fast as average for all occupations. This is due to more effective and earlier screening and identification of various physical, emotional, mental, and learning disabilities.

Federal and state regulations require school districts to provide free education to disabled students, so there's an ongoing need for these teachers.

Work Environment

Many special education teachers work in public or private schools at the elementary, middle, and high school levels, but they might also teach at childcare service centers. Others work for residential and day programs that serve the needs of disabled or special learners, or at community-based agencies that supplement the instruction provided by schools.

In any environment, this profession can uplifting and rewarding, but it can also be emotionally challenging and stressful. It can be physically challenging as well when dealing with children with physical disabilities.

Work Schedule

Most special education teachers work on school days and during school hours, but they might work after school hours as well to grade papers and take care of administrative tasks. Special education teachers typically have summers off, although some schools have summer school programs that can require additional months at work. Teachers are typically off for mid-winter breaks and spring breaks as well.

Comparing Similar Jobs

Some similar jobs and their median annual pay include: 

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018