[ Skip Main Nav ]

Career articles

What it takes to become a special education teacher

Special education teacher

Working in special education requires more than a bachelor’s degree and state certification and licensing. You’ll also need creativity, flexibility and a kind of patience that’s rare even among the most professional teachers, according to Yinka Dallas, an educational specialist and online instructor in the special education program for University of Phoenix.

Here, Dallas offers four tips on what to do to enter the field:


Examine your motivation.

First, Dallas says, consider why you want to teach special education students. “You’ve got to really look at the list of qualities that are right for this job,” she emphasizes. “Special ed teachers have to be able to think fast on their feet. They have to be willing to think outside the box. And they must have realistic expectations of what students with limited skills will be able to achieve.”

Most important are strong communication abilities. “You have to be able to communicate not only with special needs students, but also with their concerned parents,” Dallas says.

Eye contact, body language and knowing the best way to say what you really mean, for example, are key, she says. If you want to hone these skills, you can get help through seminars from organizations like Toastmasters International, which teaches public speaking and leadership skills, or by using tips and exercises from websites such as Mind Tools™ management and leadership training.

Get educated.

Your best plan is to earn a degree in special education, Dallas says. “When you’re studying special education,” she explains, “you’re learning very specific things, like the different kinds of disabilities your students may have and how to teach most effectively to students with those disabilities. A general elementary education program won’t prepare you for [that].”

All 50 states require that special education teachers in public schools have at least a bachelor’s degree and a state certification or license, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Teachers in private schools typically are not required to be certified or licensed.

Research licensing criteria.

Requirements for certification and licensing can vary, so check what you’ll need in the state in which you want to teach.

“Some states want a general special education license,” Dallas says. “Other states are going to ask you to get certified to deal with specific categories of disability within special education. Find out what’s true for you before you complete your degree and go for that license.”

Secure an internship.

“An internship will allow you to experience, firsthand, the value of teaching special education students,” Dallas emphasizes, noting that many colleges post internships with advisors in their schools of education, and some even post them on their websites.

“You’ll find out what your strengths and weaknesses are before you enter the job market, and can start to work refining the talents you have and going after the ones you need.”

Mind Tools is a trademark of Mind Tools Ltd.