Inclusivity is incredibly important to education. It ensures everyone is afforded the same learning opportunities, regardless of their abilities. However, not everyone learns the same way. For this reason, special education teachers are critical to equal opportunity in education.

Here's an overview of who special education teachers are, what they do, and how to become one.

What is a special education teacher?

A special education teacher is responsible for educating students with learning differences. They primarily work in the education industry, working in public, private, or charter schools.

According to Priscilla Boerger, the program director of Regis College's Master's in Teaching Special Education, “A special education teacher is someone who is certified in that field. They identify students who are having challenges in the classroom and address these problems with a backpack full of strategies.”

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Special education teachers must be well-versed in a variety of teaching techniques, especially since there is no universal approach in meeting individual students’ needs. It is also crucial for them to establish fruitful relationships with their students' families.

They often work with teachers as well as other support-based professionals to provide the right resources for students, such as:

  • Speech therapists
  • Occupational therapists
  • School psychologists

Working with individuals with learning differences isn't easy. According to Boerger, it requires a great deal of patience and empathy. “A special education teacher is truly a special person," she explains. "Teaching itself is challenging, but the additional stresses and challenges they face on a daily basis are huge.”

However, despite the challenges, it's a rewarding career that can make a positive difference in students' lives.

What does a special education teacher do?

Special education teachers work with a wide range of students with diverse needs. However, a common denominator among these teaching positions is focusing on the individual needs of students who are struggling in the classroom. “The top priority is always the student," says Boerger. "Making sure students have what they need, and ensuring they’re successful with this support."

With that in mind, here’s an overview of what a special education teacher does and their three most common responsibilities.

1. Develop and Maintain Individual Education Programs

Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) are necessary for a child to receive special education services in school. They're created by a team of professionals—including a special education teacher, at least one of the student's regular classroom teachers, as well as other specialists and administrators when applicable—and the student’s parents to customize an educational plan that meets a child’s individual learning needs.

“An IEP is something that is specific for that child because it's an individualized plan that is inclusive of the classroom teacher, guidance counselor, the student, and their parents,” says Boerger.

IEPs are particularly important to the success of a special education teacher because they:

  • Ensure all members of a student's educational team work together in supporting their academic and social development
  • Identify the student's specific educational goals
  • Outline accommodations or modifications needed in the student's learning environment
  • Identify services a student may require, such as occupational or speech therapy

Since special education teachers are responsible for developing, implementing, and monitoring each student’s IEP, it’s important to have a deep understanding of this document if you hope to become successful in this field. “Our students in the Regis program are constantly exposed to this form,” Boerger continues. “They see what they look like and read redacted versions to ensure they are prepared when it comes time for them to create one.”

2. Assess Student Performance

An IEP isn't something that's completed and never touched again. IEPs need to be adjusted throughout the year. Therefore, special education teachers are responsible for conducting regular assessments of student performance to determine whether any adjustments need to be made.

This allows special education teachers to:

  • Monitor students' progress
  • Identify strengths and weaknesses
  • Determine whether they are meeting their IEP goals

These assessments can also be tailored to the specific needs of each student. For example, some students may hold their thumbs up or down to answer each question, whereas others may be assessed with some form of an exam.

Initial approaches to helping a student meet their educational goals might not be successful. If this is the case, special education teachers need to be willing to try different approaches to find the one that best helps their students. “Special education teachers can’t be afraid to utilize all their available resources—whether it's on or outside their school campus,” says Boerger.

3. Communicate with Parents and Teachers

Due to the collaborative nature of IEPs, special education teachers typically communicate with parents more regularly than the average general education teacher. This means that it's important for them to possess strong interpersonal communication skills.

Knowing how to work with parents instead of working against them is key to success in this role, especially since special education teachers may encounter families with different perceptions of their children's needs. “A lot of times, teachers don't realize that parents aren’t scary people," explains Boerger. "They can actually be helpful because they really know their kids."

As a result, special education teachers need to make a conscious effort to understand and consider the parents' viewpoint, while avoiding overconfidence. This will ensure all parties in the student’s life are on the same page throughout the academic year.

Become a Special Education Teacher

Teaching individuals with learning differences is challenging, but also rewarding. If this sounds like a career path you'd be interested in, it's important to ensure you're pursuing the right education for your career goals.

For example, Regis College's Master's in Teaching Special Education helps both current teachers and career changers obtain the relevant knowledge and skill set to succeed in special education.

“Here at Regis, we follow the state frameworks for all of our courses," says Boerger. "In addition, our teachers are well-versed in the content that they're teaching because they are, or have been, classroom teachers."

Regis's program allows students to obtain valuable experience in the course of their study, while preparing them for the MTEL. “The experiences our students get, both within the courses as well as in the classrooms, really help put all this information together and provide well-rounded knowledge,” says Boerger.

Ready to take the next steps in your special education teaching career? Check out our program page to learn more.

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