Wanted: People with a love for children and youth. Reward: Knowing
you've made a difference in a child's life.
This is what special education teachers do. They make a difference every
day in the classroom, working with children and young adults who have physical
or mental disabilities. They use a variety of teaching methods to help their
The demand for special education teachers is "tremendous," says Richard
Mainzer with the Council for Exceptional Children. "It has been for as many
years as I've been in the business, which is over 40. And it's widespread."
Mainzer points to research from the American Association for Employment
in Education: "They do an annual survey, and every year they come up with
every state and every region of every state needing... special education teachers,"
"It's one of those areas that has just suffered continual shortages. We're
identified often with the math and science [teacher] shortage, but we don't
get the money that math and science get, [even] though our shortages are at
least as severe."
Special education teachers devote a lot of time and energy to their students.
It's hard work, but it offers many rewards.
"Anybody in the teaching profession is not in it for the money," says special
education teacher Susan McPhail. "They have to be in it because they want
to do it."
McPhail started out studying regular education. She was required to take
an introductory special education class.
"I took that class and I just really thought that I would be more comfortable
serving kids with special needs," says McPhail. "I didn't have kids yet, I
wasn't married yet, but I just went and changed my major to special ed because
that class so affected me.
"Maybe it was the instructor, maybe it was the fieldwork. We did go out
into facilities and into schools and spent some time with kids in special
ed and I just had more of an affinity, I guess, to teach those kids than what
I was thinking regular elementary ed teaching would be like."
There are a couple of key reasons that special education teachers are in
"On the positive side... with the better identification of children or
individuals with disabilities, the demand continues to grow," says Mainzer.
"The number of students that we're serving in special education continues
to grow and therefore the need for personnel.
"On the negative side," Mainzer adds, "we suffer from significant deficits
in workplace conditions, in terms of other teachers and administrators not
understanding the role of the special educator -- sometimes not fully embracing
the idea that students or individuals with exceptionalities really belong
in the general ed classroom and in the general ed curriculum."
In addition to the misunderstandings around the role of special educators,
there are problems with the number of students that special education teachers
are expected to manage, Mainzer says. The educational management of special
needs students and communication with the other teachers and parents can be
"It's a very, very demanding role, it's a very complex role, and one that
we continue to have to struggle to help everyone understand," says Mainzer.
General education teachers typically have a bachelor's degree in education.
Teachers who already have general teaching qualifications can attend what's
called a post-baccalaureate endorsement program to qualify to teach special
For those who know from the start that they want to teach special ed, most
states have bachelor's degree programs in special education, says Mainzer.
Dean Jonasson is a teacher and case manager with nearly 20
years of experience teaching special education. He has a bachelor's of education
and a certificate in special ed. Jonasson says special education teachers
should be intelligent and should enjoy working with kids. Being able to work
in a team is also important.
"Certainly collaboration is key because in the special ed field students
are supported by a variety of supports, whether they're paraprofessionals,
speech and language clinicians, psychologists, physiotherapists, or other
divisional supports," says Jonasson.
"So there's a lot of that -- a lot of being able to work cooperatively
in that role."
Jonasson recommends that aspiring special ed teachers get some hands-on
"It would be very helpful for them if they pursued either volunteering
or work in a related field before they got into teaching," says Jonasson.
"For example, they might work at a daycare, or they might work...with students
with a handicap, or they might work in a hospital setting or whatever. That
would give them sort of the depth of experience that they wouldn't necessarily
receive at the university level."
McPhail says special education teachers need patience above all. "Patience
and the ability to perhaps see improvement, but not very rapid improvement,
and be okay with that. That was one of the hardest things for me," she says.
"You might see improvements, but it might take a year to see a little bit
of improvement," McPhail adds.
"You're not going to see overnight results like you might in regular education.
But once you get used to it, you do see those milestones come. They might
not be gigantic milestones, but when they do come it's very rewarding."
National Association of Special Education Teachers
Helps teachers prepare for the special education field
Council for Exceptional Children
A nonprofit organization that works to improve special education