Information compiled by the GradSchools.com team - last updated August 2010
Special education is one of the most rewarding careers out there, but you should go into it with the understanding that it is not easy. Educators focusing on special education have a whole host of issues beyond the traditional classroom teachers' daily trials of unruly students, demanding parents, and the politics of the teacher-administrator relationship. And while special education is not a monolith, there are as many avenues to pursue in it as there are in other aspects of teaching, some of the issues facing special education professionals run the gamut of specific areas of expertise.
This is due primarily to the nature of special education. Essentially, it consists of "educational programs designed to support students whose singular needs or disabilities require special teaching approaches, equipment or care within or outside a regular classroom" (wikipedia). And while the specific nature of those students who require a special education may vary, the rigors of the training and the supreme importance of the competence of its practitioners does not.
Special education teachers deal with students who, for a variety of reasons, require extra help and care in their educational endeavors. The majority of special education programs are geared to meet the academic needs of students with mild to moderate disabilities that require a specialized learning environment; other programs may help students with "severe cognitive, emotional, or physical disabilities" acquire more basic life skills (bls.gov). As such, special education teachers must not only be able to work with these students, but also identify issues facing them, as well as understand their unique needs; educational, psychological, and otherwise.
Studying In the Field
Because of those extra considerations, studying for a degree in special education is a rigorous process, and certification or licensing beyond earning your degree-whether bachelor's or graduate-is required. "For traditional licensing, all States require a bachelor's degree and the completion of an approved teacher preparation program with a prescribed number of subject and education credits and supervised practice teaching. However, many States require a master's degree in special education, involving at least one year of additional course work, including a specialization, beyond the bachelor's degree. Often a prospective teacher must pass a professional assessment test as well" (bls.gov). But as most accredited programs adhere to the requirements of the state issuing the license, completion of a special education program is generally enough to ensure that you are able to pass the exams that lead to the license.
Coursework is wide-ranging and demanding, though because of the many areas of specialization within the field, you will ultimately have to choose one specific aspect in which you would like to specialize. And while there are standard courses that students have to take-in general, those dealing with both traditional pedagogy and special education-there are also a myriad of others that are generally taken based on what area of the field you choose to go into. These include, but are certainly not limited to, the following: "Curriculum design, motivating exceptional learners... working with families and professionals in special education, curriculum for students with special needs in math and reading, intervention for students with severe disabilities, instruction for students with mild disabilities, orientation to human variation and special education services, assessment for instruction," and many, many others (psu.edu).
Job Opportunities In the Field
As we have mentioned, working in the field of special education is not easy: Teachers face a number of issues in the classroom that more traditional teachers do not. But, as the training for special education teachers is so rigorous, graduating from a program in it and earning your state certification is more than enough preparation to ensure success in the field.
As far as getting a job in special education, the outlook is rather positive: "Employment of special education teachers is expected to increase faster than the average for all occupations through 2014. Although student enrollments are expected to grow only slowly, additional positions for these workers will be created by continued increases in the number of special education students needing services, by legislation emphasizing training and employment for individuals with disabilities and by educational reforms requiring higher standards for graduation. In addition to job openings resulting from growth, a large number of openings will result from the need to replace special education teachers who switch to teaching general education, change careers altogether or retire. At the same time, many school districts report difficulty finding sufficient numbers of qualified teachers. As a result, special education teachers should have excellent job prospects" (www.bls.gov).
As far as earnings go, well that depends on where you choose to make your living in the field. Pay garnered from employment by school districts will be dependent upon the area or municipality in which you work, and whether or not it is a public or private school. Working for a hospital or in-patient facility will offer you a different pay-structure. Then there is the issue of what aspect of the field you choose to pursue: Administrators make a different salary than teachers, and teacher's aide incomes differ still. Make sure you research all of these career paths before you begin applying for jobs as you near graduation.
Photo by John Trainor