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Students in special education classes require a distinctive sort of attention that only dedicated and specially trained teachers can provide. Special education degree programs help aspiring teachers learn how to work with groups of special needs students and adapt general education lessons to suit the wide variety of learning modes in each classroom.

The diversity among and within special education classes means that no two jobs in the field are exactly alike, but some general duties special ed teachers might perform include:

  • Teaching and mentoring students in small groups, in classroom settings and individually
  • Assessing students' skills and abilities to help develop suitable lessons
  • Designing education programs specific to students' individual needs
  • Planning and organizing class-wide and individual activities
  • Discussing student progress with parents, administrators, counselors and other educators

Special Education Degrees and Requirements

Special education degree programs typically cover a wide range of concepts related to pedagogy, mental and physical disabilities and the U.S. education system. Courses may vary from education program to program, but students generally explore topics such as:

Special Education Teaching
  • Fundamental educational perspectives
  • Educational psychology
  • Student skills assessment
  • Classroom management
  • Principles of learning and behavior
  • Legal issues in special education
  • Instructional design
  • Elementary educational methods

Every state in the U.S. requires special education teachers to possess at least a bachelor's degree in an education-related field. Some teachers choose to major in a general education discipline and minor in special education, while others go all the way through school as special education majors.

Graduates interested in teaching at a public school will also need to earn a state-specific teaching certification or license. Students should check with each state's board of education for specific licensing or certification information. Typically, special education teachers in private schools are not bound by state requirements, but school administrators may prefer to hire teachers with a particular background or level of education.

Career Outlook for Special Education Majors

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects employment among education, training and library occupations to grow 11 percent nationwide between 2012 and 2022. Jobs for special education teachers should increase about 6 percent during the same period.

Special education majors may also find employment in related careers, depending on education, job experience and regional demand for their skills:

  • Instructional coordinators work with school administrators to develop, oversee and monitor the effectiveness of teaching standards and curriculum plans. Typically requires a master's degree in education.
  • Recreational therapists plan, organize and implement recreational activities designed to promote physical, emotional and social well-being in people with injuries, illnesses or disabilities.
  • Social workers use their knowledge of mental, emotional and behavioral issues to help people address difficulties in their everyday lives. Clinical social work positions require a master's degree and two years of clinical experience.

According to the BLS, special education teachers in the U.S. earned a median annual salary of $55,060 in 2012. Instructional coordinators took home a median pay of $60,050 that same year, while recreational therapists and social workers earned national median salaries of $42,280 and $44,200, respectively.

Sources:
"Instructional Coordinators," Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook 2014-15 Edition, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/instructional-coordinators.htm
"Recreational Therapists," Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook 2014-15 Edition, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/recreational-therapists.htm
"Social Workers," Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook 2014-15 Edition, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/social-workers.htm
"Special Education Teachers," Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook 2014-15 Edition, www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/special-education-teachers.htm

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