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Nature of the Work
(D.O.T. 094.107, .224, .227, .267; 099.227-042; 195.227-018)
* A bachelor's degree, completion of an approved teacher preparation program, and a license are required; many States require a master's degree.
* Many States offer alternative licensure programs to attract people into special education teaching jobs.
* Job openings arising from rapid employment growth and job turnover, coupled with a declining number of graduates from special education teaching programs, mean excellent job prospects; many school districts report shortages of qualified teachers.
Special education teachers work with children and youth who have a variety of disabilities. Most special education teachers instruct students at the elementary, middle, and secondary school level, although some teachers work with infants and toddlers. 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 Government 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 multiple disabilities. Students are classified under one of the categories, and special education teachers are prepared to work with specific groups.
Special education teachers use various techniques to promote learning. Depending on the disability, teaching methods can include individualized instruction, problem-solving assignments, and group or individual work. Special education teachers are legally required to help develop 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 outlining specific steps to prepare special education students for middle school or high school, or in the case of older students, a job or 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 have become more inclusive, special education teachers and general education teachers increasingly work 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; and 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. Special education teachers who work with infants usually travel to the child's home to work with the child and his or her parents.
A large part of a special education teacher's job involves interacting with others. They communicate frequently with parents, social workers, school psychologists, occupational and physical therapists, school administrators, and other teachers.
Early identification of a child with special needs is another important part of a special education teacher's job. Early intervention is essential in educating these children.
Technology is playing an increasingly important role in special education. Special education teachers use specialized equipment such as computers with synthesized speech, interactive educational software programs, and audio tapes.
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 relationships. However, the work can also be emotionally and physically draining. Special education teachers are under considerable stress due to heavy workloads and tedious administrative tasks. They must produce a substantial amount of paperwork documenting each student's progress. Exacerbating this stress is the threat of litigation by students' parents if correct procedures are not followed, or if the parent feels their child is not receiving an adequate education. Some special educators feel they are not adequately supported by school administrators, and feel isolated from general education teachers. The physical and emotional demands of the job result in a high "burnout" rate.
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.
Special education teachers held about 407,000 jobs in 1996. The majority of special education teachers were employed in elementary, middle, and secondary public schools. The rest worked in separate educational facilitiespublic or privateresidential facilities, or in homebound or hospital environments.
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 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 allowing 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 currently being developed by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.
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 including 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. 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 1 to 2 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 patient, able to motivate students, understanding of their students' special needs, and 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 essential traits because 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 others for special education teaching. 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 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 specialtiessuch as speech or language impairments, and learning disabilitiesdue to the considerable shortages of teachers in these fields. Recent legislation encouraging early intervention and special education for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers has created a need for early childhood special education teachers. 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 2006, 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. The high "burnout" rate will lead to many additional job openings as special education teachers switch to general education or change careers altogether. Rapid employment growth and job turnover, coupled with a declining number of graduates from special education teaching programs, should result in a very favorable job market.
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 legislation which expanded the age range of children receiving special education services to include those from birth to age 21; medical advances resulting 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 growth in the general population.
The growing use of inclusive school settings, which integrate special education students into general education settings, will also lead to more reliance on special education teachers. The role of these 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 follow the same scale as those for general education teachers. According to the National Education Association, the estimated average salary of all public elementary and secondary school teachers in the 1995-96 school year was $37,900. Public secondary school teachers averaged about $38,600 a year, while public elementary school teachers averaged $37,300. Private school teachers generally earn less than public school teachers.
In 1996, over half of all public school teachers belonged to unionsmainly the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Associationthat bargain with school systems over wages, hours, and the terms and conditions of employment.
In some schools, teachers receive extra pay for coaching sports and working with students in extracurricular activities. Some teachers earn extra income during the summer, working in the school system or in other jobs.
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, special education technology specialists, and occupational, physical, creative arts, and recreational therapists.
For information on a career as a special education teacher, a list of accredited schools, 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 20191. Homepage: http://www.cec.sped.org
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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