A special education teacher is someone who works with children and youths who have a variety of disabilities. Children with special needs require unique instruction by specially trained professionals to help them achieve their highest potential and strive to progress beyond their limitations. Special education teachers are patient, understanding educators dedicated to giving each individual student the tools and guidance needed to help them maximize success.
A small number of special education teachers work with students with severe cognitive, emotional, or physical disabilities. Their job is primarily teaching them life skills and basic literacy. However, the majority of special education teachers work with children with mild to moderate disabilities, modifying the general education curriculum to meet the child's individual needs and providing required instruction. Most special education teachers instruct students at the preschool, elementary, middle, and secondary school level, although some work with infants and toddlers.
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Special education teachers work with students who have a wide range of special needs and disabilities. These specially-trained educators create and apply appropriate curricula and assign activities that are specific to each student’s abilities and needs. Special education teachers also involve themselves in each student’s academic, social and behavioral development.
Special needs educators assist in developing Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) for each individual student. The Individualized Education Program is designed to develop individual goals for the student and is modified to the student’s abilities and needs. Special education teachers go over the IEP with the child’s parents, general education teachers, and school administrators. They work very closely with parents to keep them updated on progress and make recommendations to promote learning in the home.
A large part of a special education teacher's job involves communicating and coordinating with others involved in the child's well-being, including parents, social workers, school psychologists, occupational and physical therapists, school administrators, and other teachers.
As schools become more inclusive, special education teachers and general education teachers increasingly work together in general education classrooms. Special education teachers help general educators adapt curriculum materials and teaching techniques to meet the needs of students with disabilities. They coordinate the work of teachers, teacher assistants, and related personnel, such as therapists and social workers, to meet the individualized needs of the student within inclusive special education programs.
Special education teachers work in a variety of settings. Some have their own classrooms and teach only special education students; others work as special education resource teachers and offer individualized help to students in general education classrooms; still others teach together with general education teachers in classes including both general and special education students. Some teachers work with special education students for several hours a day in a resource room, separate from their general education classroom. Considerably fewer special education teachers work in residential facilities or tutor students in homebound or hospital environments.
The work also can be emotionally demanding and physically draining. Many special education teachers are under considerable stress due to heavy workloads and administrative tasks. They must produce a substantial amount of paperwork documenting each student's progress and work under the threat of litigation against the school or district by parents if correct procedures are not followed or if the parents feel that their child is not receiving an adequate education. Recently passed legislation, however, is intended to reduce the burden of paperwork and the threat of litigation.
As children with disabilities entered the public schools in the 1970s, they were taught in separate classrooms with their own teachers. Over the past 25 years, these students have slowly moved into the flow of the regular classroom, thus the use of the term "mainstreaming."
The attrition, or “burn-out,” rate for special education teachers is extremely high compared to most other professions. 50% of special education teachers leave their jobs within 5 years. Half of those who make it past 5 years will leave within 10 years. This equates to a 75% turnover rate every 10 years (Dage, 2006).
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