How To Be a Special Education Teacher (Definition, Duties and Salary)
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If you are patient and like working with children, you can consider a career as a special education teacher. A special education teacher helps children with special education needs to enhance and develop their potential fully. In addition, they provide each student with the tools and guidance required to help them maximise success. In this article, we can explore the role of a special education teacher, their average salary, the duties and skills required for this position and share a step-by-step guide on how to become a special education teacher.
What is a special education teacher?
Special education teachers work with children who have a wide range of special needs and learning difficulties, including cognitive, behavioural and physical challenges. These specially trained educators support their students' learning and development. To provide special needs students with the personalised care they need, special education teachers collaborate with class and subject teachers, parents and special education needs coordinators to develop individualised education programs (IEPs) for each student according to their specific needs.
An IEP outlines the needs, requirements and strengths of a student and provides measurable goals that they can attain through differentiated teaching strategies and specialised academic instruction. Apart from devising and implementing IEPs, special education teachers also keep track of the student's progress and update the program accordingly throughout the school year.
How to become a special education teacher?
Different schools have different criteria and requirements for special education teachers. In order to become a special education teacher at a school, you have to be a registered teacher, possessing teacher qualifications, such as a local teacher's certificate or a post-graduate certificate in education. The requirements to become an education teacher aren't that different from becoming any other type of teacher. Here are the steps to follow if you aspire to become a special education needs teacher:
1. Earn a bachelor's degree
One of the most basic requirements to begin a career as a special needs teacher is to gain the required education. For example, the special education and counselling department of the Education University of Hong Kong offers a 4-year full-time undergraduate programme called the Bachelor of Education Honours (Special Needs).
In these courses, you can learn about the types of assessment and intervention approaches, languages, social contexts and issues related to social inclusion, empowerment and quality of life of students with special needs. As graduates, you possess the know-how, skills, and values needed to contribute to the special education field.
2. Acquire practical experience
All bachelor's programmes in special education finish with a four-month student teaching internship in real work settings referred to as a practicum. During these internships, you can get hands-on experience working with special needs children under the mentorship of a special education coordinator or teacher. These opportunities give you the practical skills, know-how and values required to be an efficient special education teacher.
Apart from these internships, students may also need to complete a specific number of pre-student teaching field experiences, including observation or tutoring throughout their program.
3. Attend training programmes
The education bureau provides structured training courses at various levels, including basic, advanced and thematic courses to special education teachers. These training courses equip teachers to support their students with the skills and teaching strategies required to implement the IEPs. The education bureau also regularly organises workshops, seminars and other training programmes related to special education needs.
4. Earn a master's degree
Though not mandatory, you can also apply for postgraduate programmes to improve your career proposition and gain knowledge. Here are some postgraduate courses that you can consider:
Master of Arts in Educational Counselling: This programme offers extensive training in educational counselling with a focus on innovative approaches and strategies to address the needs of special needs students in kindergartens, primary and secondary schools and post-secondary institutions. The course offers 80 hours of supervised counselling practicum that you can complete in one to two years.
Master of Science in Educational Speech-Language Pathology and Learning Difficulties: This two-year full-time programme offers professional training for both speech-language pathology and learning disabilities. The programme is also fully endorsed by the Hong Kong Institute of Speech Therapists.
5. Earn certifications
In addition to the regular graduate and undergraduate programmes, you can also obtain special education teaching certifications from various accredited institutions to supplement a general education degree. While some jobs specifically refer to certain certifications, it may not be mandatory for several other jobs. Be sure to review the job description for the role you're interested in to learn if that employer requires anything specific.
Duties and responsibilities of a special education teacher
Working with special needs students can be slightly challenging, both physically and emotionally, but this job comes with a great sense of accomplishment. The duties of a special education teacher vary depending on the educational institution that they're associated with. Their typical duties include:
Provide instructions for children with learning needs and establish classroom routines
Devise specialised teaching strategies and resources for each child, such as visual aids, behaviour intervention plans and learning enhancement classes
Provide information to staff and parents regarding learning support for special needs students
Identify children with special needs through observing, monitoring and charting student behaviour in the classroom
Work alongside the class teachers and social worker for planning alternative assignments and assessments needed for an inclusive classroom
Liaise with other professionals, such as social workers, medical staff, speech and language therapists and school counsellors, for the overall development of the special needs student.
Involve students with special needs in academic and extra-curricular activities
Skills needed to be a special education teacher
Even though a special education teaching role may be strenuous and demanding, the results may be infinitely rewarding. Some important soft skills required for this position include:
Compassion: Special education teachers are compassionate and kind-hearted with a natural affection for children.
Patience: A special education teacher needs to be patient and understanding at all times. This skill is necessary to guide and encourage special needs students who may face challenges in the classroom.
Communication skills: These professionals also require strong communication skills to instruct SEN pupils who often have trouble conversing clearly. They also need this skill to effectively communicate with other relevant stakeholders, such as parents, class teachers, occupational and physical therapists, social workers and counsellors.
Organisation: Though organisation skills are key for all teachers, it's especially important for teachers who work with special needs students. Children often gain higher confidence when they're taught in an organised environment.
Creativity: A special education teacher has the ability to adapt lessons according to their student's learning styles. This requires creativity, especially when designing daily activities and tasks for the classroom. Special education teachers are also required to keep themselves up-to-date with the latest teaching techniques to cater to the different needs of their students.
Frequently asked questions about being a special education teacher
Here are some commonly asked questions about being a special education teacher:
What's the work environment for a special education teacher?
A special education teacher may work in special school classrooms or academic centres that include only special needs students. Sometimes they may also work in inclusive classrooms where they teach a mixed class or assist general teachers in providing individual attention and teaching approach tailored specially to the needs of these students. These teachers predominantly work in schools, including preschool, elementary, middle or secondary levels, in both public and private institutions.
In addition to classroom settings, a special education teacher can also work in different environments, such as health agencies, residential facilities, clinics and hospitals.
What is the average salary of a special education teacher?
The salary of a special education teacher varies depending on their level of experience, educational qualifications and employment type. On average, a special education teacher can earn about $396,221 per year. You may also earn a promotion to lead teacher with more experience and earn a higher salary.
Is being a special education teacher a good career option?
Being a special education teacher provides a lifetime of opportunities and learning experiences. These teachers are committed to working with their specially abled students in order to achieve their full potential. Though challenging, it's also a rewarding and high in-demand career path.
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Salaries may vary depending on the hiring organisation and a candidate's experience, academic background and location.