What Is a Special Education Teacher?

by Carrie Hall, PhD

What Is a Special Education Teacher, and What Do They Do?

A special education teacher is a teacher who supports students with disabilities in accessing the general education curriculum by working collaboratively with a team to design individual education plans (IEPs), actively implementing the plans by providing individualized instruction, and monitoring learning progress.

Special education teachers are trained to work with students with the classifications of mild/moderate and moderate/severe disabilities. They are responsible for legal compliance with the individual education plans, ensuring that students receive what is described in the plan and that paperwork is completed within the timeframe required by law.

The work of special education teachers also includes:

A special education teacher is compassionate, organized, and has a heart for working with students who need help accessing the general education curriculum without scaffolding, accommodations and/or modifications.

Ultimately, they are advocates for students who often struggle to advocate for themselves. They think outside the box and often find creative ways to meet students’ needs. Special education teachers are excellent communicators who look for ways to support general education teachers in best serving their students with academic, learning, social, behavioral and emotional needs.

Which Students Do Special Education Teachers Work With?

Special education teachers only work with students who have an individual education plan (IEP), a written legal document mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). 

An IEP serves as a road map that specifically identifies the special education instruction, support and services a learner needs to access the general education curriculum. It is designed to be tailored to the individual learner and their needs.

IEPs are given to eligible learners, ages 3 and up, who attend public or charter schools. Eligibility for an IEP is evaluated when a learner needs additional services to access and learn the general education curriculum.

To be eligible for an IEP, a learner must need specialized instruction to make progress in school and have one or more of the 13 identified conditions that are covered under IDEA eligibility. These include:

IEPs are created, reviewed and evaluated by a team that includes:

IEPs are reviewed by the team once a year, and the learner is reevaluated every three years to determine whether the services are still needed. 

special education teacher with student

Why Become a Special Education Teacher?

Knowing you were a part of the growth, progress and success of students is incredibly rewarding. By becoming a special education teacher, you will be equipped with the knowledge and expertise to meet the needs of students with disabilities and advocate for them.

The joys of being a special education teacher include witnessing successes such as:

Is There Demand for Special Education Teachers?  

There is a severe shortage of special education teachers, both in Oregon and nationally. The Oregonian reported that in the 2022-23 school year, there were 131 emergency teaching licenses issued in Oregon for people teaching special education.

School districts hiring individuals on emergency teaching licenses must show that they struggled to hire someone fully qualified. People filling the role of a special education teacher on an emergency license have not had the training to be adequately prepared to meet the needs of students with disabilities.

How Do I Become a Special Education Teacher in Oregon?

In Oregon, the route to becoming a special education teacher depends on your prior education. Each path will include testing requirements through the Teachers Standards and Practices Commission (TSPC) that are required components for the completion of your teaching program.

Here are some scenarios and the pathway to becoming a special education teacher for each:

I Have No College Credits, Some College Credits, or an Associate’s Degree

If you haven’t earned a bachelor’s degree yet, your options are:

George Fox University offers both a traditional on-campus bachelor’s in elementary education as well as an online accelerated bachelor’s degree in education.

I Have a Bachelor’s Degree, But Need a Preliminary Teaching License

To earn a preliminary teaching license, you need to complete a teacher preparation program. Since you already have a bachelor’s degree, a master of arts in teaching (MAT) is your best next step. You can earn your MAT and then get a special education endorsement afterward, but it’s generally faster to complete an MAT program that combines both.

George Fox University's online Masters in Special Education program is your fastest route to becoming a special education teacher, though it does not prepare you to teach in general education settings.

George Fox University’s MAT Plus Special Education program enables you to earn your MAT degree and special education endorsement together, preparing you to be licensed and endorsed to teach in both general and special education settings.

I Have a Bachelor’s Degree and a Preliminary Teaching License

If you’re already a licensed teacher with a bachelor’s degree, then you just need the additional training for special education to become a special education teacher. You can either complete a stand-alone special education endorsement program (recommended if you already have a master’s degree) or a masters in education (MEd) program with a built-in special education endorsement.

George Fox University offers both a special education endorsement-only program and a masters in education with a special education endorsement.