Special Education Teacher Salary and Career Outlook


Updated October 11, 2023

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A special education teacher is responsible for teaching students with learning, mental, physical, and/or emotional disabilities.

Essential Career Information
Median Annual Salary $59,780
Employment Growth Forecast from 2018-2028 3%
Number of New Jobs from 2018-2028 437,200
Average Entry-Level Education Requirements Bachelor's Degree
Annual Salary of the Highest 10% $97,070
Annual Salary of the Lowest 10% $39,680

Source: BLS

What Is a Special Education Teacher?

A special education teacher is responsible for teaching students with learning, mental, physical, and/or emotional disabilities. Most special education teachers work in public schools, though some work in private schools. Public school special education teachers need a bachelor's degree and a state-issued license, while private school teachers typically just need a bachelor's degree. This guide covers special education teaching careers, including degree options, licensure requirements, and career advancement opportunities.

What Does a Special Education Teacher Do?

Special education teachers adapt and develop new general education lessons for students with disabilities. Teachers in this specialty also help students with disabilities to incorporate skills into their daily activities. Special education teachers primarily teach students from preschool through high school, though some work with adults in college or vocational programs. Special education teachers regularly collaborate with other specialists, educators, administrators, and parents.

Common duties for special education teachers include:

  • Assessing a students' skills and needs
  • Adapting lessons to students' learning needs
  • Implementing and monitoring the progress of individualized education plans
  • Updating parents and support staff on students' progress
  • Preparing students to transition into life after graduation

Special education teachers may specialize in working with students with mild, moderate, or severe disabilities. They may also focus on a particular physical, sensory, or emotional disability. For instance, some special education teachers work exclusively with autistic children. Most special education teachers work in elementary schools, followed by secondary schools. Some of these professionals teach in exclusively special education environments, while others work in general classrooms.

Characteristics of a Special Education Teacher

Special education teachers provide students with basic skills training and mentorship. Successful special education teachers possess the following characteristics:

  • Resourcefulness
  • Communication skills
  • Patience
  • Critical thinking abilities
  • Interpersonal skills

Special education teachers must also understand new and emerging technology, such as assistive learning support technology.

Become a Special Education Teacher

All special education teachers need a bachelor's degree. Public school special education teachers also need a state-issued license. Private schools do not typically require teachers to hold licensure. Some states require students to hold a bachelor's degree in special education, while others allow candidates with a degree in education and a minor in special education to apply for licensure.

Bachelor's Degree Programs

A bachelor's degree is the minimum education requirement for special education teachers. Prospective students should look for programs with accreditation through the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP), which ensures that program content and training meet teaching and licensure standards.

Most bachelor's degrees in special education comprise about 120 credits and include a teacher-training field component, similar to a practicum or internship. Students can typically complete a bachelor's degree in four years of full-time study, though some programs, particularly online options, offer accelerated timelines.

Students take courses on topics like pedagogy, teacher education diversity, and foundations of teaching in special education. Many programs offer dual degrees leading to licensure in both special education and a teaching class, such as elementary education.

Master's Degree Programs

A master's degree prepares special education teachers for leadership roles. Additionally, some states require candidates with a bachelor's degree and an initial teaching license to complete a master's in special education to become fully certified. Students should look for master's programs with CAEP accreditation to ensure they meet certification requirements.

Some schools offer majors in subspecialties of special education, such as autism, learning disabilities and behavioral disorders, or early childhood special education. Most master's degrees comprise around 60 credits and take two years of full-time study to complete, though accelerated options exist.

Learners pursuing a master's in special education study topics like assessment and planning, instruction, and adaptive teaching and learning for special education, usually culminating in a capstone course. Many programs require students to complete a student-teaching experience in their specialty.

Doctoral Degree Programs

A doctoral degree prepares special education teachers for top positions in the field as well as research and postsecondary teaching positions. Students may pursue a Ph.D. or Ed.D. in special education or in a subspecialty such as autism spectrum disorders or assistive technologies. Both types of degrees include interdisciplinary coursework rooted in special education theory and research, but Ph.D. programs typically focus on research, while Ed.D. programs focus more on practice.

Doctoral students can typically tailor the degree to their interests through independent study projects and dissertations. Most Ph.D. and Ed.D. candidates complete their degree in 3-6 years, with Ph.D. programs often taking longer to complete than Ed.D. programs. Graduates qualify for leadership roles, like superintendent and principal, as well as research and postsecondary teaching opportunities.

Professional Licensure and Certifications

All public school teachers need a state-issued license to practice. Requirements for a standard teaching license vary by state but typically include the completion of a bachelor's degree and teacher-training program and passing scores on general and subject tests. Candidates must also pass a background check.

Candidates can often take the Praxis I test to meet general test requirements for licensure. Students must also take a subject test in the subject they plan to teach, this test is commonly offered at the end of a state-approved teacher-training program. Some states require additional education, experience, and/or credentialing exams for special education teacher certification. Students should check their state board for individual licensing requirements.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do you become a special education teacher?

Special education teachers in private and public schools need at least a bachelor's degree. Public school educators also need a state-issued license.

What colleges offer special education degrees?

Many colleges and universities offer special education programs at all levels of study, though a bachelor's degree is the entry-level education requirement for special education teachers.

Is special education a major?

Many schools offer special education as a standalone major, often with a focus on a particular school level, such as elementary education.

How long does it take to get a bachelor's degree in special education?

Most bachelor's degrees take four years of full-time study to complete, though some schools offer accelerated timelines.

Do special education teachers get paid more than other teachers?

Special education teachers earn slightly more than non-special-education teachers in a comparable age group. For example, kindergarten and elementary school teachers earn $57,980, on average, compared to the average kindergarten and elementary special educator's salary of $59,390 per year.

Can you get a special education degree online?

Yes, many schools offer online special education degrees. The flexibility of an online degree particularly appeals to students with work and family obligations.


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