There's a growing demand for special education teachers in the U.S.
-- but there aren't nearly enough of them to go around.
Special education teachers work with children and young adults who have
physical or mental disabilities. They use a variety of different teaching
methods to help their students learn.
Qualified special education teachers must devote a lot of time and energy
to their students. Most of these teachers do it because they love the work.
But there aren't enough of them to meet the demand.
"The U.S. is suffering from a shortage of special education teachers who
are licensed to teach in their field," says Dr. K. Lynn Boyer.
Boyer is the director of the National Clearinghouse for Professions in
Special Education at the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC). The CEC,
based in Virginia, is an international organization focused on improving special
"For over a decade, approximately 10 percent of special education teachers
have not had the required license to teach," says Boyer. To meet the need
for teachers, many states authorize temporary licenses to teach, with the
condition that the teachers acquire full licenses within a few years.
"The demand for special educators is expected to grow at about a 35 percent
rate over the next 10 years," says Boyer. That growth rate is based on estimated
increases in the number of students receiving services as well as the number
of teachers leaving their jobs and retiring.
Boyer says there are around 380,000 special education teachers in the U.S.
And about 13 percent of them leave their jobs each year.
So what training is required to become a special education teacher?
"The preferred entry-level standard is at least a bachelor's degree and
a license to teach special education," says Boyer. "A state will only authorize
a license when the training and experience within a state-approved preparation
program have covered certain state requirements."
Boyer also says that a regular teacher who wants to switch to special education
has to go back to university. To get a special educator's license, a teacher
needs to take courses that cover the knowledge and skills required in their
Lynda Van Kuren is the communications director for the CEC. "In the U.S.,
more than 30,000 teachers without appropriate licenses teach students with
disabilities," she says. "In some urban and rural schools, close to half
of the teachers in special education are unqualified.
Van Kuren adds that universities prepare about 22,000 special education
teachers each year, but that's only about half the number required. Plus,
special education teachers are more likely than mainstream teachers to leave
the profession, she says.
Van Kuren adds that special education teachers often feel undervalued.
"The factors that cause special education teachers to feel unsupported
include overwhelming paperwork, high case loads with no regard to the students'
disabilities, lack of resources, lack of administrative support and few professional
However, she also says that many special education teachers feel like they
have the greatest job on earth. "The appreciation from parents and seeing
students with disabilities progress gives one a feeling that just can't be
Van Kuren agrees that the demand for special education teachers will continue
to grow. "The number of students with disabilities increases each year. We
need qualified professionals to work with these children."
Phyllis Norman-McIntyre is a learning disabilities teacher. "In our county,
there is not one special education certified teacher available for a position
we have currently open in our district," she says. "We searched for over one
month to get another special ed aide for my classroom.
"My husband recently considered a transfer within his company and I did
a Web search of the county we'd move to in another part of the country. I
would not have had a problem getting more than one job. There were several
Norman-McIntyre is also aware of the increased need for special education
professionals. "There has been an increase in the number of autistic children
currently being diagnosed, so the demand for those teachers should also increase.
Since I have been teaching in my district, the demand has increased yearly."
In addition to her teaching degree, Norman-McIntyre has a master's degree
in special education. She believes continued professional development is
very important. "I have continued my education beyond the MA and hold 30-plus
additional credits, mostly in special education courses," she says.
"I believe that not everyone can or should teach special education. Many
regular educators simply do not understand children who are different from
the norm and should not be working with special needs students."
She also believes that what is most important in a special education teacher
is patience and compassion. "Without those two, you will have a difficult
time with these children."
On average, special education teachers in elementary schools in the U.S.
earned $47,360 in 2004. This figure is from the Occupational
The demand is real and will continue to increase. If special education
appeals to you, all you need is the right training and a big heart.
Council for Exceptional ChildrenA nonprofit organization that works to improve special education
National Clearinghouse for Professions in Special Education (NCPSE)An organization formed to help train, recruit and retain special
Special Education BoardAn online gathering place for special education teachers