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How to Become a Special Education Teacher: A Resource


Special education instructors are vital. These knowledgeable and helpful professionals teach students with special needs, such as ADHD, learning disabilities, or other disorders. Because of their work, students with special educational needs may still enjoy a traditional school environment and may graduate from public school. Many even go on to acquire college degrees. This guide breaks down how to become a special education teacher step by step. It will also explain what you can expect once acquiring your teaching license.

The Steps to Become a Special Education Teacher

  1. Acquire a Degree
  2. Gain Experience Teaching Students
  3. Get State Certification
  4. Complete Continuing Education

Step 1 – Acquire a Degree

Like other teachers, special education instructors must have a degree to acquire a teaching position. Generally, bachelor’s degrees are enough to get a beginner special education instructor position. However, a master’s degree is more desirable for employers and may earn a higher salary.

Related Resource: How to Become a Teacher: A Comprehensive Guide

What Degree Do You Need?

When pursuing a degree to become a special education teacher, you’ll need to acquire one of several potential degree types:

  • General teaching or education degrees

These are versatile degrees that may allow you to pursue regular teaching jobs or a career as a special education instructor. Such degrees are ideal if you aren’t sure whether you want to be a special education instructor or may like being a general teacher better instead. However, they are a great choice if you know you want to be an education in some capacity.

  • Elementary or high school education degrees

These degrees prepare you for teaching at their appropriate grade levels. For example, a secondary education degree will allow you to teach subjects from grades 6 to 12.


Meanwhile, an elementary teaching degree typically covers teaching skills specifically for students in kindergarten through grade 5.

  • Special education degrees

  • Subject-based majors

This category includes math, biology, English, and so on. Note that you will usually teach the degree specialization.

Each of these degrees could potentially qualify you for a special education instructor position. However, different states and different employers may prefer one degree over another.

In general, you should investigate what degrees your prospective employer prefers before beginning your educational journey. For example, if you know that your state only hires special education teachers with specialty degrees, you’ll need to know which specialty degree to pursue.

Example degrees for special education teachers include:

  • Bachelor of Science in Early Childhood Administration
  • Bachelor of Arts in Special Education
  • Bachelor of Arts in Special Education and Elementary Education
  • Bachelor of Arts in Educational Studies
  • Bachelor of Arts in Early Childhood
  • Education Administration, which could be a reasonable degree if you plan to eventually move into an administrative role in a school (such as principal)
  • Master of Science in Education in Special Education
  • Master of Science in Communication Disorders
  • Special Education M. S.
  • Master of Arts in Special Education
  • MA in Special Education, Applied Behavior Analysis
  • EdD in Special Education
  • Doctorate in Education in Learning &
    Organizational Change
  • Ph.D. in General Education

As with any job industry with multiple specialties, the more specialized your degree is, the greater your chances of becoming hired quickly after graduation. In a nutshell, a candidate with a special education degree will be more desirable than a candidate with a general education degree.

However, a general education degree will keep other educational doors open if you decide special education isn’t for you.

Do You Always Need a Master’s Degree?

Higher degrees are often more preferred than bachelor’s-level degrees. While a bachelor’s degree could get you in the door, it won’t qualify you for positions that require different experiences.

So while you don’t always need a master’s degree, acquiring a master’s degree or higher is always a good idea.

If you don’t want to wait to begin your special education instructor career, you could get a bachelor’s degree to start. Later, once you’ve acquired a teaching position, you can complete your higher education over time. This course of action might be incredibly doable if you attend a part-time, online teaching program.

Should You Get a Doctoral Degree in Special Education?

You should only get a doctoral degree in special education if you don’t want to teach special ed students in person. Generally, postgraduate degrees prepare special educators for administrative work or for designing curricula for other teachers.

Becoming a Doctor in Special Education could be a good terminal position for the end of your career. But you don’t need to get a doctorate in education or a related subject just to become a special ed teacher. The more advanced degree could over-qualify you for positions and ironically make it harder to get hired.

Online vs. In-Person Degrees

When it comes to online degrees, remote and asynchronous programs could be superior for several reasons:

  • Online teaching degrees often include asynchronous coursework completion schedules. These allow you to complete coursework on your own time.
  • Online teaching degrees usually have flexible schedules. As a result, they are perfect for working teachers or students who have multiple responsibilities to juggle (such as family care).
  • Online teaching degrees are just as rigorous as in-person teaching programs.
  • Online teaching degrees may be desirable if you can’t physically attend campus for one reason or another. An example would be that your dream school is in another state.

Most online teaching degrees are entirely remote, not requiring in-person components. However, some degrees may require in-person practice hours or experience in classroom environments.

If your chosen online degree program requires in-person experiences, you can usually fulfill these hours at a local school. For example, you may shadow a special education teacher for a certain number of hours at the nearest elementary school.

In-person degrees can also be advantageous or desirable if:

  • You prefer seeing your professors and fellow students in person
  • You learn better in a traditional classroom environment

Whatever degree program you choose, make sure it comes from an accredited university. Only an accredited teaching degree will give you maximum job opportunities and convince prospective employers of the value of your educational experience.

The Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation is the ideal organization to check for when considering a degree program. This organization grants accreditation to a variety of teaching programs. Accreditation is doubly important because some states require students to attend accredited programs if they wish to earn a state teaching license.

You can check the Department of Education’s database to determine whether a given school or program is accredited.

Classes in Special Education/Teaching Degrees

Depending on the teaching program you attend, you may complete a variety of classes in subjects including but not limited to:

  • Special education teaching techniques
  • ADHD management
  • Autism spectrum disorder
  • General teaching strategies
  • Lesson plan creation
  • Childhood development and psychology
  • And more

Your chosen teaching degree will influence the classes you will be required to complete. For example, a general education degree will include more courses about creating suitable classroom environments or drafting lesson plans. Special education degree studies focus on teaching and managing children with certain disorders, like ADHD.

How Long Does a Special Education Degree Take?

That depends on which degree you wish to acquire and if you will be working while achieving a higher degree. Most bachelor’s-level special education or teaching degrees take four years from start to finish. However, if you already have an associate-level degree in teaching, general education, or related subjects, this may only take two years or less.

Certain associate degrees may also allow you to transfer your credits into your bachelor’s program. For example, say that you completed a general education course during your associate program. Those credits may count for your bachelor’s degree program as well.

To acquire a master’s degree in special education or a related subject, expect that degree to take an additional two years. Certain schools, including some online universities, offer accelerated tracks. These enable you to complete your entire master’s degree from scratch in just five years. That’s faster compared to the six required for a traditional bachelor’s degree plus a master’s.

Accelerated tracks are great if you want to start your career ASAP. However, they are very rigorous and may require you to attend school full-time rather than part-time.

Doctorate-level degrees often take 10 years or more from start to finish. Plan to add four or so years from completing a master’s program.

Step 2 – Gain Experience Teaching Students

No educator can become a special Ed teacher without acquiring first-hand experience. State certification depends on this experience (see below).

In many cases, your chosen degree program may include practicums or practice hours as part of their curriculums. But this is not universal. Double-check to see what your degree program includes, so you know what you have to do after graduation.

If your degree program does not include a practicum component, you can acquire an internship after graduation. Education internships can occur at various schools, including elementary, middle, or high schools.

During these internships, you will serve as an assistant to a licensed special education teacher. The licensed teacher will show you the ropes of the profession and mark you accordingly on your progress.

In general, experience teaching non-special needs students is not enough to prepare you for state licensure. For example, if you are already an employed teacher, do not assume you can acquire state certification as a special ed teacher based on your prior experience alone.

Step 3 – Get State Certification

Board Certification in Special Education

Your next step is to acquire state certification for the state you wish to teach. Different states have different certification requirements and may need you to pass exams from other organizations.

The Board Certification in Special Education or BCSE is a voluntary certification you may acquire. BCSE certification displays competency in special education topics. It’s a perfect way to prove that you are a knowledgeable and committed special ed instructor to future employers.

You may pursue certification through the American Academy of Special Education Professionals or AASEP. For this certification:

  • You’ll need to earn a master’s degree from an accredited university. The degree field must be related to students with special needs like social work, special education, and more.
  • At least five certificates of Advanced Professional Development
  • You’ll need to complete a 50 question multiple-choice exam with a passing score.

Acquiring this certification should qualify you for most special education instructor positions across the country. Since you already have a master’s degree as well, you’ll be a desirable candidate relative to your competition.

Special Education Teacher Certification

Lastly, your state may require you to get special education teacher certification with American Board. To acquire a credential from this organization:

  • Acquire a bachelor’s degree in a relevant subject, like special education, or higher
  • Submit university transcripts to the American Board and pass a background check
  • Pass a Professional Teaching Knowledge exam or PTK. This multiple-choice exam includes 100 questions in addition to a writing component. Complete the PTK at a licensed Pearson VUE testing center.
  • Pass the American Board Special Education exam. You must complete this exam at a licensed Pearson VUE testing center.
  • Pass the American Board Elementary Education exam. Complete this exam at a licensed Pearson VUE testing center.

This certification is required if you wish to become a special ed teacher in the following states:

  • North Dakota
  • Florida
  • Wisconsin
  • Idaho
  • Pennsylvania

In addition, you will need a certification if you wish to be a special ed teacher in private schools or internationally. It has the most rigorous certification requirements, making you more attractive to potential employers.

Because the American Board’s exams are numerous, you should take practice exams before sitting for the real things. Practicing beforehand will maximize your chances of passing the exams on the first try.

Once you acquire certification, you may apply to your state’s Board of Education. You will receive your special education teacher license, authorizing your employment in special education classrooms.

Step 4 – Complete Continuing Education

Even after becoming an official special education instructor, your work will continue. You’ll need to complete continuing education credits from time to time. These courses usually take between 10 and 20 hours every few years and ensure that your special ed teaching tactics and knowledge is up-to-date.

Many states require you to complete CE credits and acquire certificates to show that you attended the classes. The exact continuing education requirements vary from state to state.

Who Should Become a Special Education Instructor?

Becoming a special education instructor is a big responsibility. It’s certainly not a position for everyone. That said, you might consider becoming a special ed instructor if:

  • You are an organized professional. Because your students will require extra assistance, it is critical to have an organized classroom and daily routine. If you already live your life in this manner, you’ll find the professional role of a special ed instructor to be a compatible one.
  • You’re accepting of students and differences. Many of your students will be vastly different from one another. Each student-teacher relationship will also be unique. You may need to tailor your teaching methods or strategies to the requirements specific to kids.
  • You’re creative with your teaching methods. Many students with special needs are not responsive to traditional teaching techniques. To ensure they learn correctly, you may need to explain or demonstrate subject matter in novel ways.
  • You’re even-tempered. Being a special education teacher can be frustrating and tiring. But no matter what, you’re responsible for creating a calm, operable classroom environment for your students.
  • You love to teach and give knowledge to kids. Above all else, special education teachers need to love teaching. While the salary is decent, it’s not incredible. The only reason to jump into this profession is if you’ll love it for its own sake, not the money.

Special Ed Teacher Salaries and Job Outlook

Compared to many teaching positions, special ed teachers receive reasonable salaries. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports special education instructors to receive an average annual salary of $61,500. However, the highest-paid special ed instructors receive over $100,000, while the lowest-paid receive less than $41,000.

Ultimately, your special education teacher salary will depend on:

  • Your location. Some states pay higher teacher salaries than others. In addition, school districts may have varying teacher salary rates even if they are “next door” to one another.
  • Your experience. Teachers typically make more money the longer they stick with their profession and school. You’ll make more money staying at the same school than you will be jumping from school to school in many cases.
  • Your degree. Teachers with master’s degrees make more than teachers with bachelor’s degrees.

The time is ripe for new special education teachers as well. According to the BLS, employment for special ed instructors is likely to grow by about 8% up until 2030. This growth will result in approximately 38,600 new job openings for special ed teachers.

If you acquire a degree and certification now, you could find a special ed teacher job waiting for you right after graduation.

Career Development for Special Ed Teachers

Many special ed teachers begin teaching at the pre-K or elementary school levels. Meaning they teach young students with special educational needs. They may teach students up to middle school or around the fifth grade.

Next, special ed teachers may teach older students with special educational needs. These are similar to traditional high school teachers. But they may exclusively focus on older students with special needs.

Alternatively, some special ed high school teachers will teach mixed classrooms. They use their considerable experience to ensure that the classroom environment is comfortable and efficient for all students.

Later in their careers, many special education teachers may become administrators or curriculum developers. Such professionals handle responsibilities such as:

  • Administrators organize special ed teachers and classrooms. They help to ensure that no special ed instructor is overwhelmed by a classroom size that is too large.
  • Administrators hire new special ed instructors for schools.
  • Curriculum developers design special ed curricula or lesson plans that special ed teachers can use.
  • Administrators and curriculum developers create new policies for special education as an industry. These professionals help special educators chart new, more effective paths forward.

However, you don’t have to become an administrator. If your heart lies in teaching special needs students, you can remain a “front line” teacher for your entire career.

Related Resource: 17 Best Alternative Jobs for Teachers

Is it Best to Be a Regular Teacher First?

For many, yes. Teaching special needs students is different from teaching students without special needs. However, many teaching concepts or strategies carry over between the environments.

For example, being a regular teacher will teach you how to:

  • Manage a classroom environment
  • Put together lesson plans
  • Handle rowdy students
  • Organize your daily schedule so you can complete grading and other work outside classroom hours
  • And more

If you already have experience as a standard teacher, you should have a smooth transition to becoming a special ed teacher. However, special education does have its challenges and unique activities. That’s why getting a degree in special education may be wise, even if you already have extensive teaching experience.

Become a Special Education Teacher Today!

Becoming a special education teacher takes many years of dedicated effort. Even after graduating from college and acquiring a teaching license, there’s always something new to learn about teaching students with special educational needs.

But if you complete this journey, you’ll have an emotionally and spiritually rewarding career. You’ll be making a difference in the lives of students who could not learn without you. Fortunately, you can start on the path to becoming a special ed teacher today with the right online degree program.

GetEducated has an extensive catalog of high-quality teaching degrees and certificate programs you can complete entirely or partly online. Get started becoming a special ed instructor with an online degree today!

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