The field of special education is a relatively new one, and many individuals are wondering how to become a special ed teacher. For most of American history, little was done to assure physically, intellectually, developmentally and emotionally disabled children of a basic education. While their learning capacities may be limited, such schooling is necessary for these students to live productive – or at least semi-independent – lives. The 20th century gave rise parental agitation for the provision of public educational services for these challenged individuals. Presently, 91 percent of special education programs are publicly funded. Recent decades brought about standards for teacher education and certification.

Job Description

Special education teachers often work in classroom settings where they instruct students using curricula modified for each pupil’s needs. Thus, they alternate group learning with individual attention. Because learning disabilities can lead to frustration when confronted with new information, the teacher must also act as coach and motivator, presenting lessons that gently challenge, but never overwhelm. Yet the teacher does not work in isolation. In fact, special education teachers are in regular consultation with school system psychologists and outside professionals who are involved with the students. Due to the complex nature of the children – and often adults – in their charge, special education teachers spend many hours outside of class preparing lessons and evaluating student performance.


A prospective special education teacher is well advised to take a personal inventory of aptitudes and temperament. A classroom teacher, for example, may be responsible for a group of students with issues ranging from mild learning impairments – like dyslexia – to severe emotional and behavioral problems. Though their cognitive functioning may need assistance, their instincts are often finely tuned, sensing when a teacher likes them or not, or whether that teacher is competent or not. Approaching such young people requires a good sense of humor, meticulous organizational skills and a high tolerance threshold. Sincerity and compassion are important, but insufficient by themselves.

Teacher Training

Virtually every state requires a bachelor-level degree in special education to meet certification criteria. The first step for anyone considering a career teaching the disabled is to gain acceptance and matriculate at an accredited institution of higher education that offers this degree. Selecting the optimal school must take into account cost, location, institutional size and alumni job placement. Receiving input from local special ed teachers is one way to gather information beyond catalogs and web pages. Additional advice can be obtained through professional groups, like the National Association of Special Education Teachers. Above all, a suitable college or university will provide a solid grounding in the special education discipline, while affording the student academic and extra-curricular offerings that produce well-rounded individuals.


Each state has its own rules for teacher licensure and certification. Those studying special education benefit from coordinating their respective state requirements with their academic advisors. To this end, standards can be obtained by contacting the state department of education, the agency ordinarily responsible for issuing teaching credentials. Most states require a general K-12 teacher certification as a prerequisite for special ed. A few expect a master’s degree. Knowing the government criteria is central for those learning how to become a special ed teacher.