Becoming a special education teacher is a fulfilling career path that offers many opportunities to make a difference in the lives of children with diverse learning needs. However, while the rewards of this profession are abundant, there is a pressing concern around the growing need for special education teachers.

According to Priscilla Boerger, the program director of Regis College's master's in teaching special education, “There's a teacher shortage in general, but we really need to make sure that special education classrooms have the extra support that they need.” Even the National Coalition on Personnel Shortages in Special Education and Related Services found that over 90 percent of districts across the United States are currently experiencing a critical shortage of qualified special education teachers. As a result, schools are “looking for creative ways to get people certified for special education,” Boerger continues.

If you want to be part of the solution to special education accessibility in the U.S., here’s an overview of how you can become a special education teacher and how to start working toward this incredibly rewarding career.

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Five Steps to Becoming a Special Education Teacher

Becoming a special education teacher requires training and experience to ensure that you are well-prepared and qualified to work with students with diverse learning needs. Here are five essential steps to becoming a special education teacher.

1. Earn a Bachelor's Degree

If you aspire to become a teacher, earning a bachelor's degree is an essential step that will significantly contribute to your success in the field. Not only does it provide you with a deep understanding of what you will be teaching, but it also equips you with skills necessary for effective instruction.

Pursuing a bachelor's degree can also open doors to various professional opportunities through your network. Therefore, since this degree can act as a stepping stone to career advancement and specialization, it’s a crucial first step in becoming a special education teacher.

2. Obtain a Teaching Certificate

Earning a teaching certificate is crucial to becoming a special education teacher for a number of reasons. As a formal recognition of your qualifications and expertise as an educator, it demonstrates critical requirements you have fulfilled, including:

  • Legal requirements: Holding a teaching certificate is a legal requirement for individuals who wish to work as teachers in public schools.
  • Professional competence: Earning a teaching certificate validates your knowledge and competence in the field of special education.
  • Specialization and focus: Completing a certification with a specialization option demonstrates your expertise in specific areas, such as special education.

By obtaining a teaching certificate, you solidify your foundation as a qualified and dedicated special education teacher, ready to make a positive impact on the lives of students with various learning challenges.

3. Gain Teaching Experience

To become an effective special education teacher, it's important to gain practical experience in a classroom setting. This provides invaluable hands-on opportunities to apply theoretical knowledge, develop practical skills, and understand the unique dynamics of working with students with unique learning challenges.

There are several ways to gain classroom experience as a prospective special education teacher, including:

  • Shadowing a professional: Pursuing shadowing opportunities during your bachelor’s degree allows you to work directly with students under the guidance of a mentor teacher and gain exposure to the daily responsibilities of a special education teacher
  • Volunteering: Finding volunteer work or internships at local schools, community centers, or educational organizations is another excellent avenue to gaining relevant experience.
  • Earning a master's degree: Gaining extensive classroom experience through required master’s degree student-teaching placements is often the best option because it offers substantial time working closely with students, families, and educators

4. Earn a Master's Degree

Earning a master's degree is becoming very significant in the field, especially considering the changing requirements for teachers in states like Massachusetts. Now that many states are mandating or strongly encouraging a master's degree as part of the licensure process, earning a master's degree in special education ensures you meet these evolving standards and gain employment as fast as possible.

In addition, pursuing a master's degree in this field provides specialized knowledge and advanced training that goes beyond the foundational skills acquired at the bachelor's level. For example, a master's degree in special education allows you to explore the intricacies of working with students with unique learning challenges such as:

  • Dyslexia
  • Articulation disorders
  • Orthopedic impairments

These programs focus on getting prospective special education teachers more comfortable with the learning strategies, assistive technologies, and research-based interventions that are required to support these challenges.

5. Pass Special Education Licensure Exam

Each state has specific licensure or certification requirements for special education teachers. It is crucial to research and understand the requirements in the state where you plan to teach. Generally, these requirements include:

  • Passing a licensure exam
  • Submitting an application
  • Completing a background check

In Massachusetts, one of the essential steps to becoming a special education teacher is taking the Massachusetts Tests for Educator Licensure (MTEL) exam. Successfully passing the MTEL exam demonstrates your proficiency in the specific competencies required to work in special education settings. It ensures that you have the expertise needed to support students with unique learning challenges effectively and efficiently.

While the MTEL exam is a common obstacle for some prospective educators according to Boerger, it is an essential part of the process to become a special education teacher in Massachusetts. As a result, it’s important to find a school that helps you prepare for this important examination.

Start Working Toward Your Career in Special Education

The field of special education is in need of a revitalization in terms of the selection and preparation of educators. “I think there needs to be some sort of refresh of who we're putting in the classroom and how we're getting them there,” says Boerger.

Regis College understands that high test scores are not the only component of becoming an effective educator. “I think it's time to let go and really look at what we need for the future of education,” Boerger concludes. “In many cases, I don't think that it's always going to be about passing a test.”

As a result, Regis College’s master’s in teaching special education offers a comprehensive program that combines theoretical knowledge with practical experiences, equipping prospective teachers with the skills and expertise needed to excel both on the licensure exam and in the classroom.

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