According to the National Education Association, over the past ten years there has been a significant increase of students entering special education programs. In fact, there are 30 percent more students enrolled in special education programs then there were a decade prior. Today, three out of four students who have a disability spend at least part of their day in a general education classroom. This means that most general classrooms in the United States include students with disabilities and special needs. Also, there are many adults who make a special education classroom run. This includes graduates of associates degree programs in special education who are there to support the licensed teachers throughout the course of the school day.
Special Education teachers wear so many hats. There are boundless attributes that go into the disposition of somebody who chooses this rewarding life path. The type of person you will see facilitating a special education classroom is patient, very organized, adaptable to different environments, and flexible enough to make the necessary lesson changes on the fly. Special education teachers are also known for having a creativity that often leads them to this field. This works in tandem with their love for people and often children in particular. Loving children often goes hand in hand with a drive to make the world a better place.
There are many advances in technology that make this field even more innovative. In fact, it is the special education teachers who are on the front lines of utilizing adaptive technology to make classrooms even more accessible to all students. This ultimately affects the workforce, and ensures that there will be more options for students who emerge from special education classrooms and are ready to work. The use of assistive technologies will expand their options greatly and ultimately allow for a much more diverse workforce.
There is a lot to know about the disciplines associated with special education, and in this article, we aim to address many of them, giving you a foundation in the various aspects of a special education teachers job description. There are also many resources that are useful for educators in the field that we will touch upon, as well as important information regarding the career outlook.
Special Education Teaching Jobs and Job Descriptions
Remember that the label special education is expansive and includes so many different learners. Some students in special education classrooms have more serious needs that include the requirement of medical attention, and others move between special education classrooms and are part of general classroom immersion as well. Many students in this situation are extremely high functioning and may struggle with a learning disability such as dyslexia. This is to say, a special education teacher works with students who have a huge variance in needs and abilities.
For whatever reason, most students in a special education classroom environment would struggle to learn in a traditional classroom. Some students may have issues with behavioral disorders or social, cognitive, or physical disabilities. Some students are actually in need of gifted and talented services and there is some crossover within special education programming, as IEP might be employed.
K-12 Special Education Teacher
Just like traditional classroom teachers, special education educators must do regular classroom preparation and organizational tasks. They build curriculum that is tailored to their students and they provide subject matter instruction. Much of their work is based on regular assessments and progress evaluation for each student. Their jobs are much more extensive, however, because in addition to these regular tasks, they have many other responsibilities. One big part of their job descriptions that we will get into a little later is managing IEPS, which also document the requirements for the teacher that ultimately work with students in special education programs. There are different kinds of special education teachers. They include:
Resource teachers: These are the educators largely charged with working with students who are primarily immersed in traditional classrooms. They are the ones that ensure the students are getting what they need from the direct instruction that comes from outside the special education classroom. Oftentimes, they spend much less time in these environments. The majority of the time a resource teacher is working with students to ensure they understand what they are learning in the traditional classroom. This job also requires assessment of adaptive needs.
Center-Based Teachers: They are often referred to as center-based resource (CBR) teachers. The bulk of their time is spent directly instructing students in the special education classroom environment. Most of these students, however, do integrate into traditional classrooms for some of their general education classes. Each student has an IEP that outlines the students specific plan, and how much time they spend in which classroom setting. This may mean that a student takes all of their general education classes in the special education classroom and toggles to the traditional classrooms for their electives. In many cases it is the center-based teachers that work with the medically fragile student population. This includes students who have additional physical needs including feeding tube attention, administration of medications, diapering, and some who have specific challenges that can make it hard to communicate. Many students in situations like those aforementioned will remain in the center-based teachers’ care throughout the course of the day, rather then integrating into the traditional classroom environment.
Autism Spectrum Disorder Specialist
The diagnosis of autism as a developmental disorder has evolved quite a bit since the 1980s when it was considered a psychiatric condition. Our understanding of this condition continues to evolve considerably, but at the end of the last millennia it was discovered that autism is a spectrum rather than a one-size-fits-all diagnosis. There are specialists who work exclusively with people on the autism spectrum and they are called behavior analysts. They must be nationally board certified in order to hold this position. Also, you will find what are called autism center based teachers that work exclusively with students who are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Students with this diagnosis also work with someone called a service provider. This person is a critical member of the interdisciplinary team assigned to the student, and will play a big role in ensuring their IEP is being followed, while also attending to their 504. They also work in tandem with the special education teacher.
Applied Behavioral Analyst
Applied Behavior analysts are the experts in behavior, and the way it relates to various disorders, including the autism spectrum. They are often called in to support special education teachers to develop curriculum accordingly.
Transition Program/ Special Education Vocational Teacher
Vocational education is a critical component to the special education classroom and trajectory. The reason being so many special education students want to actively enter the workforce upon completion of high school, but they need to be trained accordingly. Some of this work includes finding appropriate adaptive equipment and/ or technology that will enable them to participate in certain positions. Students who receive special education services are able to benefit from such opportunities until they are 21, as per section 1412 of the Individuals with Disabilities Act. This includes free and appropriate public education. The goal of vocational education for students with disabilities is not just to give them low wage job experience, but to offer employment skills that are competitive. Ultimately, the goal is to give students what they need to participate in culture, society, and the workforce along with their peers.
Early Childhood Special Education Teacher
There has been quite a bit of research conducted about early childhood education and its importance especially for young people with special needs. Early childhood special educators teach young people how to adapt at the beginning of their educational careers, and these skills will set them up for a future of successful learning. They are part of a team of people who offer early intervention services, for young people, that could really support a successful academic career with the proper tools. There are two kinds of early childhood educators which include those who work with students ages birth to three and three to age eight. Early childhood special education teachers are skilled at classroom adaptation that tailors coursework to the child’s unique and specific needs.
Teachers for the Visually or Hearing Impaired
These are not positions assigned to the same person, as they each need their own unique certification. A teacher for the visually impaired and a teacher for the hearing impaired both need to follow a similar trajectory as those who become special education instructors. They must earn a license in general education and then achieve an endorsement for their particular specialization. Every child is entitled to an equal and free education that is not based on their particular need. However, there are many schools that just cater to deaf or blind students, and offer the specialized instruction that the students need in this context. However, teachers that work with blind or deaf students know how to teach specialized skills like using sign language or reading braille. Many times blind and deaf students integrate into traditional classroom environments once they learn the basic skills that will enable them to be successful.
Gifted and Talented Students
This is a group of students who are high achieving academically, and in many cases much more advanced than their peers. Oftentimes, this group of people struggle with boredom in the classroom, because they are not being challenged enough, which often results in behavioral issues. Some states require gifted and talented students to have an IEP, and others do not. In many cases this group of students has to engage with special programming to meet their academic needs.
College/Postsecondary Disability Specialists
These are the professionals that support students in higher education to get their needs met as they advance their academic careers. In college there is less embedded support that comes with an IEP or 504 plan, so students have to develop self advocacy skills. These specialists work with students to get their own needs met and help them understand their options while supporting them through the process.
Special Education Administrator
Special education teachers often choose to advance their careers to administrator positions. These are the positions that facilitate and organize the special education programming at the district, school, and even at the state level. Administrators take a macro look at the discipline and they are the ones that advocate for special education teachers. They have their finger on the pulse of policy and management of programming.
The term it takes a village definitely applies to the field of special education. Each student has their own interdisciplinary team that comes together to support their success. This includes clarifying and implementing IEP goals, working with general education teachers, and also bringing parents into the process. Special ed teachers depend on teaching assistants as well. There are many specialists who are often a part of this team. Some of these professionals include:
Paraprofessionals: These are people who are employed by the schools themselves. They work alongside special education teachers in a variety of capacities, including classroom aids.
Speech and Language Pathologists: They are often critical members of a student’s IEP team. Contrary to what many people think, they don’t exclusively work with speech issues, but also communication challenges in general. This can include expertise in auditory processing disorder, nonverbal disabilities, dyslexia, among other disabilities that include nonverbal traits. Many students have IEPs that prescribe intervention techniques and strategies from speech and language pathologists. This includes reading and vocabulary comprehension as well as working with students to express complex thoughts and ideas.
Occupational Therapists: These are professionals that work with students to accomplish daily tasks with more ease. This can include a variety of skills including basic self care, sensory issues, and social skills.
Physical Therapists: These professionals work one-on-one with learners on fine and gross motor skills. They support students to physically move more freely. Their role is also to work with the rest of the team to understand the physical challenges of the student.
Arts Music and Drama Therapists
These professionals are often referred to as creative and expressive art therapists. They are experts in using different forms of art and music to support students to express themselves. They are often working with participants to meet therapeutic goals including improving social skills.
There are many “levels” associated with special education as far as salary and career outlook are concerned. We covered the fact that one could have a successful career at the associate’s degree level. In fact, associate’s degree holders are generally the people in the paraprofessional category. There are many people in the field of special education with a bachelor’s degree that have successful careers. In fact, a bachelors is the first step to be a licensed special education teacher. They also have many opportunities to have a specialization that can give them a leg up in the field. The average salary for a special education bachelors degree holder is $52,000 per year. Those who have a masters degree in special education degree make an average of $55,000. People in director positions can make an average of $77,000.