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Special education teachers work with studentsfrom toddlers to those in their early 20swho have a variety of disabilities. Most special education teachers are found at the elementary, middle, and secondary school level. Special education teachers design and modify instruction to meet a student's special needs. Teachers also work with students who have other special instructional needs, including those who are gifted and talented.
The various types of disabilities delineated in federal special education programs include specific learning disabilities, mental retardation, speech or language impairment, serious emotional disturbance, visual and hearing impairment, orthopedic impairment, autism, traumatic brain injury, and other health impairments. Students are classified under one of the categories, and special education teachers are prepared to work with specific groups.
Special education teachers use various teaching techniques to promote learning. Depending on the disability, teaching methods can include individualized instruction, problem-solving assignments, and group or individual work. Since special education students often progress at slower rates than their peers in certain areas, teachers tailor a program to meet a student's specific needs.
Special education teachers are legally required to participate in the development of an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for each special education student. The IEP sets personalized goals for each student and is tailored to a student's individual learning style and ability. This program includes a transition plan which outlines specific steps and procedures to prepare special education students for a job or for postsecondary study. Teachers review the IEP with the student's parents, school administrators, and often the student's general education teacher. Teachers work closely with parents to inform them of their child's progress and suggest techniques to promote learning at home.
Teachers design curricula, assign work geared toward each student's ability, and grade papers and homework assignments. Special education teachers are involved in a student's behavioral as well as academic development. They help special education students develop emotionally, be comfortable in social situations, and be aware of socially acceptable behavior. Preparing special education students for daily life after graduation is an important aspect of the job. Teachers may help students with routine skills, such as balancing a check book, or provide them with career counseling.
As schools become more inclusive, special education teachers and general education teachers are working together in general education classrooms. Special education teachers help general educators adapt curriculum materials and teaching techniques to meet the needs of students with disabilities.
Special education teachers work in a variety of settings. Some have their own classrooms and teach classes comprised entirely of special education students; others work as special education resource teachers and offer individualized help to students in general education classrooms; others teach along with general education teachers in classes composed of both general and special education students. Some teachers work in a resource room, where special education students work several hours a day, separate from their general education classroom. A significantly smaller proportion of special education teachers work in residential facilities or tutor students in homebound or hospital environments.
A large part of a special education teacher's job involves interacting with others. They communicate frequently with social workers, school psychologists, ccupational and physical therapists, parents, school administrators, and other teachers.
Early identification of children with special needs is another important part of a special education teacher's job. Early intervention is recognized as essential to educating children with special needs.
Technology is playing an increasingly important role in special education. Special education teachers may use specialized equipment such as computers with synthesized speech, interactive educational software programs, and audio tapes in the classroom.
Helping students with disabilities achieve goals and making a difference in their lives can be highly rewarding. Special education teachers enjoy the challenge of working with these students and the opportunity to establish meaningful elationships. However, the work can also be intensely demanding, and attending to physical needs of students can be draining. These demands, coupled with relatively low wages and lack of prestige, result in a high "burnout" rate among special education teachers.
Special education teachers are under considerable stress due to heavy workloads and tedious administrative tasks. They must produce a substantial amount of paperwork and records documenting each student's progress. Exacerbating this stress is the threat of litigation by students' parents if correct procedure is not followed or if the parent feels their child is not receiving an adequate education. Some special educators feel that they are not adequately supported by school administrators, and feel isolated from general education teachers. Lack of support can lead to frustration.
Many schools offer year-round education for special education students, but most special education teachers work the traditional 10-month school year with a 2-month vacation during the summer. Including school duties performed outside the classroom, most special education teachers work more than 40 hours a week.
Special education teachers held about 388,000 jobs in 1994 in elementary, middle, and secondary schools. The majority of special education teachers were employed in public schools. The rest worked in separate educational facilities-public or private-residential facilities, or in homebound or hospital environments. Employment is distributed geographically, much the same as the population.
All 50 States and the District of Columbia require special education teachers to be licensed. Special education licensure varies by State. In many States, special education teachers receive a general education credential to teach kindergarten through grade 12. These teachers train in a specialty, such as teaching children with learning disabilities or behavioral disorders. Some States offer general special education licensure, others license several different specialties within special education, while others require teachers to first obtain general education licensure and then additional licensure in special education. Usually licensure is granted by the State board of education or a licensure advisory committee.
All States require a bachelor's degree and completion of an approved teacher preparation program with a prescribed number of subject and education credits and supervised practice teaching. Many States require special education teachers to obtain a master's degree in special education, involving at least one year of additional coursework, including a specialization, beyond the bachelor's degree.
Some States have reciprocity agreements which allow special education teachers to transfer their licensure from one State to another, but many still require special education teachers to pass licensure requirements for that State. National certification standards for special education teachers are being developed by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Voluntary national certification should be available in 1998.
About 700 colleges and universities across the United States offer programs in special education, including undergraduate, master's, and doctoral programs. Special education teachers usually undergo longer periods of training than general education teachers. Most bachelor's degree programs are 4-year programs that include general and specialized courses in special education. However, an increasing number of institutions require a fifth year or other postbaccalaureate preparation. Courses include educational psychology, legal issues of special education, child growth and development, and knowledge and skills needed for teaching students with disabilities. Some programs require a specialization, such as teaching students with specific learning disabilities. Others offer generalized special education degrees, or study in several specialized areas. The last year of the program is usually spent student teaching in a classroom supervised by a certified teacher.
Alternative and emergency licensure is available in many States due to the need to fill special education teaching positions. Alternative licensure is designed to bring college graduates and those changing careers into teaching more quickly. Requirements for alternative licensure may be less stringent than for regular licensure and vary by State. In some programs, individuals begin teaching quickly under provisional licensure. They can obtain regular licensure by teaching under the supervision of licensed teachers for a period of one to two years while taking education courses. Emergency licensure is enacted when States are having difficulty finding licensed special education teachers to fill positions.
Special education teachers must be able to motivate students, understand their students' special needs, and be accepting of differences in others. Teachers must be creative and apply different types of teaching methods to reach students who are having difficulty. Communication and cooperation are also essential traits since special education teachers spend a great deal of time interacting with others, including students, parents, and school faculty and administrators.
Special education teachers can advance to become supervisors or administrators. They may also earn advanced degrees and become instructors in colleges that prepare other special education teachers. In some school systems, highly experienced teachers can become mentor teachers to less experienced ones. They provide guidance to these teachers while maintaining a light teaching load.
Special education teachers have excellent job prospects, as many school districts report shortages of qualified teachers. Job outlook varies by geographic area and subject specialty. Positions in rural areas and inner cities are more plentiful than job openings in suburban or wealthy urban areas. Also, job opportunities may be better in certain specialties-such as multiple disabilities, mental retardation, visual impairment, learning disabilities, and preschool special education-due to the considerable shortages of teachers in these fields. Special education teachers who are bilingual or have multicultural experience are also needed to work with an increasingly diverse student population.
Employment of special education teachers is expected to increase much faster than the average for all occupations through the year 2005, spurred by continued growth in the number of special education students needing services, legislation emphasizing training and employment for individuals with disabilities, growing public interest in individuals with special needs, and educational reform. Many job openings also arise when special education teachers switch to general education or change careers altogether. Job openings stemming from rapid employment growth and job turnover, coupled with a declining number of graduates from special education teaching programs, are expected to result in a favorable job market for special education teachers.
The number of students requiring special education services has been steadily increasing, as indicated by the accompanying chart. This trend is expected to continue due to Federal legislation which expanded the age range of special education students to include those ages 3 to 21; medical advances which result in more survivors of accidents and illness; the postponement of childbirth by more women, resulting in a greater number of premature births and children born with birth defects; and the increase in the general population.
The growing use of inclusive school settings, where special education students are integrated into general education settings, will also necessitate more reliance on special education teachers. The role of special education teachers is expanding to include acting as a consultant to general education teachers, in addition to teaching special education students in resource rooms, general education classrooms, and separate classrooms made up entirely of special education students.
Salaries of special education teachers generally follow the same scale as those for general education teachers. According to the National Education Association, the estimated average salary of all teachers was $36,900 in 1995. The estimated average salary for public secondary school teachers was $37,800; public elementary school teachers averaged $36,400. Starting salaries for teachers were in the $20,000 to $25,000 range. Earnings in private schools generally are lower than in public schools.
Special education teachers work with students who have disabilities and special needs. Other occupations involved with the identification, evaluation, and development of students with disabilities include school psychologists, social workers, speech pathologists, rehabilitation counselors, adapted physical education teachers, and occupational, physical, creative arts, and recreational therapists.
For information on a career as a special education teacher, a list of accredited schools and financial aid information, and general information on special education-related personnel issues, contact:
National Clearinghouse for Professions in Special Education, Council for Exceptional Children, 1920 Association Dr., Reston, VA 22091.
To learn more about the special education teacher certification and licensing requirements in your State, contact your State's department of education.
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