Guide to College Majors in Special Education

An understanding heart is everything in a teacher, and cannot be esteemed highly enough. The curriculum is so much necessary raw material, but warmth is the vital element for the growing plant and for the soul of the child.
--Carl Jung

What Is Special Education?

Special education teachers cater to students with special needs. These students, whether because of physical, mental or psychological disabilities, must be taught by professionals trained in helping students in need. Federal and state law mandates that every student with a disability, regardless of that disability's nature, is entitled to an adequate education.

This concept sprang directly from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a federal law enacted in 1974 that sets out special-education requirements with which states must comply. Although periodically revised, this law consistently frames the vital role of the special educator.

To become a special education teacher, students must complete a degree program that prepares them to work with special-needs children. This includes classroom training, coursework and completing proper teacher certification. Each state's Department of Education governs the requirements for average course contents, in-class training, and the various certifications.

Teaching in Special Education Schools & Classrooms

Special education is, arguably, the most diverse curriculum in any given school. Since special education can encompass any academic subject or life skill, the special education major must be well-versed in a number of subjects. Each special-needs student is different and the settings in which a special educator serves is constantly changing. Most special education degree programs, therefore, include general coursework on institutional education as well as specialized courses dealing with a variety of disabling conditions.

Federal and state law dictates that every student is entitled to receive their education in the least restrictive manner possible. In the best cases, that means placing a special needs child into a regular classroom in a standard school. The Individuals with Disablities Education Act states that, "To the maximum extent appropriate, students with disabilities [should be] educated with children who are not disabled."

Unfortunately, the level of need from some students makes classroom integration impossible. Due to these factors, special education majors are introduced to a full range of different environments in which they may be required to teach. For example, a student with severe cerebral palsy may be bedridden. In this case, the special education teacher must provide that student with an education in spite of hospital restrictions.

Do You Have What It Takes to Teach Special Education?

Special education teachers work closely with students and enjoy the unique opportunity to establish meaningful and long-lasting relationships with them. But despite its rewards, this career can drain even the best teachers, both emotionally and physically. Compared to general education teachers, special education teachers give out and grade fewer assignments, but must produce more paperwork, especially a series of highly detailed and individualized progress reports on students. Additionally, in some areas, special education teachers work a longer school year than their general education counterparts. Some schools offer year-round special education assistance, but the majority still adheres to the ten-month school year.

Special Education Degree Programs

Most special education degrees exist at the master's level, although some undergraduate programs with this particular specialization are available. At the graduate level, online degree programs in special education are increasing in popularity, particularly for working teachers who are required to earn master's degrees within a certain time period (a common practice in public school districts). Online college classes allow teachers to earn advanced degrees without leaving the tenure track at their school. For students who are not yet teachers and want to earn licensure as part of their online degree, in-person student teaching experience is still required and can usually be arranged locally.

Bachelor's Degrees in Special Education

To enter a bachelor's degree program, a successful candidate must have a high school diploma or GED. Generally, a bachelor's degree program covers general education courses in addition to special education coursework over four years. Undergraduate special education majors begin with introductory courses in education or psychology. Sophomore students participate in core courses covering education, psychology and child development. Third-year students begin the specialized training required for special education majors, including supervised experiences and classroom visits. Senior students prepare for certification and graduation with advanced coursework and student teaching.

General studies constitute about 40 percent of the undergraduate program; 20 percent is devoted to education psychology and child growth and development; the remaining 40 percent concentrates on the knowledge and skills needed for the education of students with disabilities. Many universities have instituted a fifth undergraduate year (or post-baccalaureate year) for special education majors, designed to provide additional training in educational psychology, legal issues of special education, and other highly specialized topics.

Master's Degrees in Special Education

In some cases where the prospective special education major holds a general education degree, they may participate in further study to meet the special education requirements. All 50 states require public school teachers to hold a bachelor's degree and complete an approved teacher preparation program with a prescribed number of subject and education credits and supervised practice teaching. Many states require special education teachers to obtain a master's degree in special education as well as additional student training in order to become licensed. Compared to general education teachers, special education teachers routinely undergo longer periods of training as well as more intensive student teaching periods.

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What can you do with an Early Childhood Education Major?

Most positions in the field of special education involve educating young children with disabilities. The education and training level of a teacher usually determines her qualifications to fill a certain position. In most instances, professionals who have earned more advanced degrees earn higher salaries.

Public or Private School Systems

Most special education teachers work for public or private school systems. Always in demand, the special education teacher is an essential part of any school system. Special education teachers at this level are required to have at least a bachelor's degree in special education, and a master's degree is highly desirable. Job seekers must first obtain all necessary certification and licensure from their state.

Special education teachers may also aspire to take on positions as educational administrators. These professionals generally oversee the day-to-day operations of an educational institution. Administrators manage curriculum while directing staff and properly insuring that the institution meets all state and federal standards. In larger or more prestigious schools, this position requires an advanced degree; a bachelor's degree and several years of respected teaching experience may suffice in smaller school systems.

Private Learning Centers

Private learning centers operate on a per-person basis. Though they are better known for providing SAT tutoring and similar services, special education teachers are needed in these facilities as well. Special needs students often need additional help with coursework in subject-specific areas. Since general education teachers have not trained for the challenges of working with special needs students, special education majors can provide essential assistance.

Correctional Facilities

Regardless of a juvenile's legal situation, the same free education laws apply. Special education teachers are generally the only type of educator employed by correctional facilities. Whether the student has a learning disability, behavioral issues or a physical handicap, the special education teacher has been trained to deal with these difficulties.

Mental Health Facilities

Special needs students struggle with mental health issues as well as physical handicaps. With a new wave of attention for mental wellness in America, the expanding mental health industry requires special education graduates to fill some important roles. These facilities include shelters, mental health institutions and some minimum-security correctional facilities. Behavioral problems are a focus of many special education degree programs and many professionals find it rewarding to work with these students.

Certification and Licensure

In addition to a bachelor's or master's degree (depending on your state and school district), all special education teachers are required to hold a teaching license. Though private schools and other employers may elect to hire an unlicensed specialist, public schools may only hire from the pool of licensed candidates. Because the license normally specifies the area in which the teacher specializes, special education teachers receive that notation on their documents.

In order to apply for a license, recent graduates must prove their competency by passing a set of standardized tests. Competency tests vary from state to state. Many states use the Praxis tests, created by the same firm that runs the SAT. Since standards and requirements constantly change, special education majors should consult their local state education board for more information.

In addition to state testing and licensing, special education teachers may also apply for a national teaching accreditation from the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards. This license is recognized by all 50 states and in Washington, D.C., but is not a replacement for the state license. By obtaining this license, teachers can benefit in terms of salary and financial aid for continuing education. Applicants must provide a portfolio of their classroom ability and pass an exam demonstrating their general knowledge.

Many states honor reciprocity agreements that allow special education teachers to transfer licenses between locations. Currently, there is no national certification supplanting the state licenses for special education teachers.

Due to the need for special education teachers, many states offer alternative and emergency licenses. Alternative licenses bring qualified college graduates and mid-life career changers into teaching at an accelerated rate. Generally, requirements for the alternative license are less stringent than those for the normal license. In some areas of urgent need, individuals can begin teaching immediately with an alternative license, while earning their regular license by taking additional coursework and teaching under the supervision of licensed teachers. Emergency licenses are issued when the demand for special education teachers far outweighs the talent pool.

Other Special Education Associations & Organizations

General Education Associations & Organizations

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