Special education teachers work with students who may have a variety of different disabilities—whether they be learning, mental, physical or emotional. Some special education teachers may focus on students that need assistance in specific subject areas like reading or math; others help students work on their study skills; and other teachers may focus on helping students with severe disabilities develop basic life skills like how to follow directions. Special education teachers typically work as part of a team of counselors, general education teachers, school administrators and parents to create individualized education programs (IEPs) that address each student’s specific needs.
If you pursue a career as a special education teacher, the exact daily responsibilities of vary depending on your employer, the level of disability of the students you’re teaching and your specialty.
However, special ed teachers typically perform the following duties:
Assess skills to determine the needs of students
Develop Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) for each student
Implement IEPs, track progress and update them throughout the year
Teach and mentor students in small groups and individually
Plan, organize and carry out activities specific to each student’s abilities
Discuss student progress with teachers, parents, counselors and administrators
Supervise and mentor special education teacher assistants
Help prepare students to transition to the next grade
Role of a Special Education Teacher
As you might imagine, special education teachers take on many roles as part of this critical job. The roles will differ depending on the educational setting and the needs of the students. To give you a sense of what some of these roles entail, below are five different hats that special education teachers may wear.
A teacher in a self-contained general education classroom: Involves working with specific group of disabled students in a general education school and creating lesson plans accordingly.
An education-evaluator on the Child Study Team (CST): Requires an understanding of testing and evaluation procedures in order to make recommendations for high-risk students.
An itinerant teacher: Employed by an agency to visit schools and provide each child with auxiliary services that help districts meet special education requirements without hosting their own programs.
A member of a multidisciplinary teaching team: Involves teaching departmentalized programs to disabled students in secondary schools, as part of a team.
A member of the IEP Committee: Involves interpreting test results, making recommendations and diagnosing pros and cons for Individual Educational Plans for every student.
Challenges of Working with Students with Disabilities
Pursuing a career in special education can be both rewarding and trying at times. In addition to the challenges that general education teachers face those in special education must prepare for the unique hurdles that come with working with students with disabilities.
Working with students with a wide variety of disabilities and learning needs
Special education teachers must be prepared to work with students with a wide variety of disabilities—and to create highly specialized lessons plans—IEPs—for each and every student. This is time-consuming and requires great attention to detail—teachers must focus on individual achievement, individual progress and individual learning to come up with these education plans. Special education teachers must also be wary of overwhelming students, which may cause them to become averse to learning, so they may need to work lessons into small segments, provide frequent breaks and incorporate a variety of different teaching methods within each lesson. These challenges intensify when teaching in multi-age special ed classrooms where students with different disabilities are at different levels in terms of ability and learn in different ways.
Some examples of the different types of disabilities teachers may encounter in the classroom include:
Specific learning disabilities
Traumatic brain injury
Speech or language impairment
Collaborating with many different professionals
As a special education teacher, you may be required to collaborate with a wide variety of general education teachers, teachers’ aides, administrators—and parents. For example, special education teachers may need to work together with general education teachers so that they are familiar with the curriculum (at multiple grade levels, in many cases) so they can support what is being taught in their own classroom. Special ed teachers are also often responsible for supervising and managing teacher’s aides on top of their many other duties. Understandably, working with so many different people can create scheduling nightmares and requires a high-level of organizational and time-management skills.
Data collection and paperwork
IEPs for each student can be 10-50 pages long, which means a lot of time and a lot of paperwork. That’s in addition to lesson planning, report cards, progress reports, Medicaid billing forms and much more. Data collection is also a huge part of the field of special education. Teachers need to be able to use data to show how students are progressing and validate the effectiveness of their IEPs—or adjust them accordingly. That involves a lot of tracking, monitoring—and again—time.