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The Ultimate Guide to Becoming a Special Education Teacher

The Ultimate Guide to Becoming a Special Education Teacher

Thu, 11/10/2022 - 4:22pm

Special education teachers are some of the most inspiring professionals in modern society. Passionate and empathetic, these remarkable individuals love working with special needs students. Long before entering the classroom, they must dedicate several years to high-level training through college coursework and field experience.

Not just anybody is cut out for special education — but with passion, grit, and excellent training, it's possible to make a difference in the lives of students and their families.

Are you interested in pursuing a career in special education? In this guide, we explain how to get a special education certification — and how this credential preps you for success as you navigate a demanding but gratifying career path.

Special Education Teacher Requirements

Special education requirements vary significantly from one state to the next. If you hope to work in this field, it helps to get an idea of where you want to train, complete field experiences, and, ultimately, seek employment.

If you want to work as a special education teacher in Kentucky, you're in luck: Kentucky provides numerous paths to certification for aspiring special education teachers.

This career path generally begins with obtaining a bachelor's degree from a college with accreditation from the state's Educational Professional Standards Board (EPSB).

Beyond this, critical requirements for working in special education include the following:

General and Special Education Courses

As you progress toward graduation, targeted coursework will expose you to many essential concepts encompassing everything from childhood development to classroom management. Additionally, several courses will focus on topics relevant to special education teachers, such as:

  • Special education delivery models, including itinerant, inclusion, self-contained, and resource
  • Documentation, such as Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) and Individualized Family Service Plans (IFSPs)
  • Administering and interpreting formal and informal tests to determine student strengths and weaknesses
  • Adaptive recreation and physical education
  • Behavior management plans for both individuals and classrooms

Passing the Praxis Exams

Praxis Core Academic Skills for Educators are required exams that allow aspiring teachers to demonstrate proficiency in several important areas. The Praxis I exam consists of three main categories: reading, writing, and math. Beyond this, the mastery of content areas can be ascertained with the Praxis II. Relevant Praxis II exams for aspiring special education teachers include: 

  • Special Education Core Knowledge & Mild to Moderate Applications
  • Special Education: Teaching Students with Behavioral Disorders/Emotional Disturbances
  • Education of Exceptional Students with Learning Disabilities
  • Education of Exceptional Students with Mild to Moderate Disabilities
  • Education of Exceptional Students with Severe to Profound Disabilities

Field Experience

Field experience is built into a variety of special education courses. This is your opportunity to connect practice and theory as you work closely with real students in a supervised setting.
Along the way, you'll develop the confidence needed to succeed in student teaching and, eventually, take on leadership roles in special education.

Student Teaching

As a student teacher, you will get an entire semester to apply the theoretical knowledge you've gained through college coursework in the real world. Meanwhile, you'll benefit from the dedicated support of experienced professionals who have seen and done it all.
Do you plan on completing your student teaching in Kentucky? Before becoming a student teacher, you must agree to follow the Professional Code of Ethics for Kentucky School Personnel. Additionally, you are required to complete 200 hours of field experience in a wide array of educational settings before you begin student teaching.

Do I Need a Special Education Degree?

Some special education teachers seek specialized degrees such as a Bachelor of Science in Special Education. Others don't pursue special education until they reach the master's level. Targeted bachelor's and master's degrees can be helpful, but they aren't essential for becoming a special education teacher.

Many aspiring special education teachers prefer to get their degrees in more general areas, such as elementary education or middle school education. These degrees can be supplemented with special education teacher certification.

Under this approach, special education is a specialty or area of emphasis, with 21 credits committed exclusively to teaching and assessments for students with disabilities.

This path provides transferable skills so graduates can work in both conventional classrooms and special education. This is a common solution in Kentucky, where it's possible to become a special education teacher without having a dedicated special education degree.

Experience and Skills that Help With this Job

There is no one path to becoming — or thriving as — a special education teacher. Given the sheer range of challenges these teachers encounter, there truly is no such thing as too much preparation.

This goes beyond college coursework and student teaching and can include many kinds of prep work outside of a formal college program. The more intentional you are, the better.

Top options for gaining vital skills include: 

Working as a special education paraprofessional

  • Few forms of experience are more relevant to aspiring special education teachers than working in the classroom as a paraprofessional. Paras work closely with students to provide personalized learning solutions. This also provides an abundance of valuable networking opportunities.

Working in general education

  • Many inspiring special education teachers began with general education. This experience within a 'traditional' classroom should provide ample preparation for the special education environment, particularly given the current emphasis on inclusive classrooms.

Coaching sports or leading other extracurricular activities

  • While enrolled in college, many aspiring teachers work part-time as coaches. This is an excellent opportunity to develop competencies such as classroom management and differentiated instruction. You may enjoy coaching so much that you opt to continue even after you become a special education teacher.

Reading relevant journals

Other skills don't necessarily rely on working in education or education-adjacent roles. Soft skills, for example, help special education teachers interact more effectively with students and their families. Meanwhile, leadership skills help these teachers deal with paraprofessionals, students, parents, and others. The following skills are particularly important:


  • Arguably the number one quality that any special education teacher should possess, empathy determines whether teachers can genuinely walk a mile in their students' shoes. This common cliche is highly relevant in special education, where it can be challenging to understand why students think and behave the way they do.


  • Special education teachers can't do it all. They rely on highly skilled teams of paraprofessionals, specialists, parent volunteers, and plenty of other adults to keep their classrooms running smoothly. Their lives are much less stressful when they acknowledge the need for such assistance and learn which tasks are best delegated — and which they can handle on their own.


  • Lesson planning is vital, but the best special education teachers understand that things often won't go according to plan. There are simply too many other factors at play. What's more, teachers may need to change their approach to reflect new research or technologies. Research suggests that adaptability improves not only student outcomes but also teacher well-being.

Attention to detail

  • From IEPs to instructional planning, detail-oriented procedures are crucial. Of course, special education teachers must understand the big picture, but they must also recognize how seemingly minor details contribute to that big picture. Attention to detail is vital for lesson delivery, as this critical skill must be passed on to students.

Show and Share Your Passion

As an aspiring special education teacher, you're passionate about making life easier for people with various physical, cognitive, and emotional challenges. You understand that these individuals deserve to feel loved and respected — and you're determined to provide the services and genuine care needed to make that happen. The effort you take to prepare (both academically and professionally) for a special education career will prove more than worthwhile when you get the unique opportunity to make a difference in your community.

Your dream career could begin with special education teacher certification. Available as an emphasis with our elementary education program or a specialty for our middle school education program, our special education certification provides high-quality training for those who hope to work with neurodiverse populations. Contact us today to learn about this opportunity and the other excellent education programs offered by University of the Cumberlands.