According to the Schwab Foundation for Learning, as many as one of every
five students in the U.S. may struggle with schoolwork because of learning
disabilities. The job of a special education teacher is to understand what
the difficulties are, and understand the tools and techniques that can help
Not all students require the same tools for learning. Special education
teachers design and modify instruction to meet a student's special needs --
traditionally for children who have mental or physical challenges.
Mental challenges can range from mild to severe learning impairments. Physical
challenges include speech, hearing, vision limitations and students with orthopedic
Special education teachers also work with gifted students and with students
with emotional and behavioral difficulties.
"Over a long period of time, these students have difficulty forming relationships
with peers or adults, and their behavior is severe enough that it disrupts
their learning," explains Larry Cantlin. He teaches emotionally impaired students
in Jackson, Michigan.
In some areas, special education teachers are itinerant teachers. That
means they offer individualized help to children in general classrooms. In
other areas, special education teachers work with special needs students in
a separate classroom.
"Where we can, we integrate them," says Nancy Mendonca. She is a special
education teacher. She works with trainable mentally impaired people in Fennville,
Since special education students often learn less quickly, their teachers
have to tailor a program to meet their individual needs. In fact, 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 their
individual learning style and ability. "They will get it," says Mendonca.
"It just takes longer. And some are never going to learn as much as other
Depending on the disability, teaching methods can include individualized
instruction, problem-solving assignments and group or individual work.
Special education teachers are also more involved with a student's behavioral
development than general education teachers. For example, they help their
students develop emotionally, be comfortable in group situations and be aware
of socially acceptable behavior.
Preparing special education students for daily life after graduation is
another important aspect of the job.
Special education is often a team effort involving the student, parents,
principal, general education teachers and other professionals. Obviously,
special education teachers need to have good communication skills and an ability
to work well in this environment. They also need to be patient and accepting
of differences in others.
Special education teachers must be creative and apply different types of
teaching methods to reach and motivate students who are having difficulty.
Special education teachers work a 10-month-on, two-month-off schedule like
general classroom teachers. Most say they work more than 40 hours a week,
taking into account homework and class preparation.
Special education teachers suffer a high burnout rate. "By the end of the
year, I say, 'I don't know if I'll do this next year.' But I do," says Cantlin.
Like many special education teachers, Cantlin finds the emotional and physical
needs of students very demanding. It's also hard to keep up with the substantial
amount of paperwork and records needed to document each student's progress.