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How to Become a Special Education Teacher

Public school teachers are required to have a least a bachelor’s degree and a state-issued certification or license. Private schools typically require teachers to have a bachelor’s degree. Teachers in private schools are not required to be licensed or certified, but private schools may prefer to hire teachers who have a license. For information about teacher preparation programs and certification requirements in your state, contact the U.S. Department of Education.


All states require public special education teachers to have at least a bachelor’s degree. Some of these teachers major in elementary education or a content area, such as math or chemistry, and minor in special education. Others get a degree specifically in special education.

In a program leading to a bachelor's degree in special education, prospective teachers learn about the different types of disabilities and how to present information so that special education students will understand. These programs typically include fieldwork, such as student teaching. Some states require special education teachers to earn a master’s degree in special education after earning their teaching certification.

Teachers in private schools do not need to meet state requirements. However, private schools typically seek teachers who have at least a bachelor’s degree in special education.


All states require teachers in public schools to be licensed. A license is frequently referred to as a certification. Those who teach in private schools are not required to be licensed.

Requirements for certification vary by state. However, all states require at least a bachelor’s degree. They also require completing a teacher preparation program and supervised experience in teaching, which is typically gained through student teaching. Some states require a minimum grade point average.

Many states offer general special education licenses that allow teachers to work with students across a variety of disability categories. Others license different specialties within special education.

Teachers are often required to complete annual professional development classes to keep their license. Most states require teachers to pass a background check. Some states require teachers to complete a master’s degree after receiving their certification.

Some states allow special education teachers to transfer their licenses from another state. However, some states require even an experienced teacher to pass their own licensing requirements.

All states offer an alternative route to certification for people who already have a bachelor’s degree but lack the education courses required for certification. Some alternative certification programs allow candidates to begin teaching immediately, under the close supervision of an experienced teacher.

These alternative programs cover teaching methods and child development. When they finish the program, candidates are awarded full certification. Other programs require students to take classes in education before they can start to teach. Students may be awarded a master’s degree after completing either type of program. For more information about alternative certification programs, contact the National Center for Alternative Certification.


Experienced teachers can advance to become mentor or lead teachers. Mentors and lead teachers often work with less experienced teachers to help them improve their teaching skills.

With additional education or certification, teachers may become school counselors, school librarians, or instructional coordinators. Some become assistant principals or principals. Both positions generally require additional degrees in education administration or leadership. For more information, see the profiles on school and career counselors, librarians, instructional coordinators and elementary, middle, and high school principals.

Important Qualities

Communication skills. Special education teachers must collaborate with teacher assistants and general education teachers. In addition, they must discuss students’ needs with parents and administrators.

Creativity. Special education teachers need to think creatively to develop new ways to present information in a manner that meets the learning styles of the students they serve.

Critical-thinking skills. Special education teachers review and analyze data about students’ progress, strengths, and weaknesses and use that information to develop strategies to help students learn.

Instructional skills. Special education teachers need to be able to explain difficult concepts in terms that students with learning disabilities can understand. In addition, they need to be able to get students engaged in learning and help other teachers adapt their content to special education students’ needs.

Patience. Working with students of different abilities and backgrounds can be difficult. Special education teachers must be patient when students struggle with material.

People skills. Special education teachers must work with general education teachers, school counselors, administrators, and parents to develop Individualized Education Plans that are in the students’ best interests. Managing the priorities of these different groups can be difficult, so special education teachers need to be able to build good working relationships.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012-13 Edition