All 50 States and the District of Columbia require special education teachers to be licensed. The State board of education or a licensure advisory committee usually grants licenses, and licensure varies by State. In some States, special education teachers receive a general education credential to teach kindergarten through grade 12. These teachers then train in a specialty, such as learning disabilities or behavioral disorders. Many States offer general special education licenses across a variety of disability categories, while others license several different specialties within special education.
For traditional licensing, all States require a bachelorís degree and the completion of an approved teacher preparation program with a prescribed number of subject and education credits and supervised practice teaching. However, many States require a masterís degree in special education, involving at least 1 year of additional course work, including a specialization, beyond the bachelorís degree. Often a prospective teacher must pass a professional assessment test as well. Some States have reciprocity agreements allowing special education teachers to transfer their licenses from one State to another, but many others still require that experienced teachers reapply and pass licensing requirements to work in the State.
Many states also offer alternative routes to licensing, since there are not enough graduates from education programs to meet the needs of most schools. Alternative licensure programs are intended to attract people into teaching who do not fulfill traditional licensing standards, including recent college graduates who did not complete education programs and those changing from another career to teaching. Requirements vary by State, but generally require holding a bachelorís degree, successfully accomplishing a period of supervised preparation and induction, and passing an assessment test. In some programs, individuals begin teaching quickly under a provisional license and can obtain a regular license after teaching under the supervision of licensed teachers for a period of 1 to 2 years and completing required education courses.
Many colleges and universities across the United States offer programs in special education at the undergraduate, masterís, and doctoral degree levels. Special education teachers usually undergo longer periods of training than do general education teachers. Most bachelorís degree programs are 4-year programs that include general and specialized courses in special education. However, an increasing number of institutions are requiring a 5th year or other graduate-level preparation. Among the courses offered are educational psychology, legal issues of special education, and child growth and development; programs also include courses imparting knowledge and skills needed for teaching students with disabilities. Some programs require specialization, while others offer generalized special education degrees or a course of study in several specialized areas. The last year of the program usually is spent student teaching in a classroom supervised by a certified teacher.
Special education teachers must be patient, able to motivate students, understanding of their studentsí special needs, and accepting of differences in others. Teachers must be creative and apply different types of teaching methods to reach students who are having difficulty learning. Communication and cooperation are essential skills, because special education teachers spend a great deal of time interacting with others, including students, parents, and school faculty and administrators.
Special education teachers can advance to become supervisors or administrators. They may also earn advanced degrees and become instructors in colleges that prepare others to teach special education. In some school systems, highly experienced teachers can become mentors to less experienced ones, providing guidance to those teachers while maintaining a light teaching load.