The Growing Field of Special Education
The need for special educators is growing, and it's growing quickly. More and more children going through the school systems are being identified for special education interventions of all sorts--some for a short time, others for their entire schooling career. Diagnoses of autism and other conditions are increasing in frequency, and large numbers of teachers from the baby boom generation are reaching retirement age and leaving the profession. There's a high demand for new teachers in this challenging and richly rewarding line of work.
A Basic Guide to Certification
There are many positions in the field of special education for which certification is not required: part-time aides, teacher's assistants, and paraeducators, for example. These positions are entry-level, and are generally not very well-paid (often earning only half of a teacher's salary). However, all full-fledged special education teachers must be certified (licensed). This is true in every state. It's important for aspiring teachers to understand the basic requirements of certification, which changed in 2004 after the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). If you hope to teach elementary aged children, you must be certified in elementary education; if you hope to teach high school aged children, you must be certified in one of the core subjects (math, social studies, science, or English/language arts). Also, make sure that the certification program you're enrolled in is accredited by the National Council for Accreditation of Teachers Education (NCATE), or else you may be wasting your time.
Alternative Paths to Certification
The demand for special education teachers is often urgent, and the supply of certified teachers is often limited. Employers have a way around this problem, called "emergency certification." Emergency certification is a process by which teachers can earn their license while teaching. The specifics of this process vary by state, but typically involve taking night classes in an accredited certification program. The organizations who urgently need special educators will help you through this process, and will make sure you understand the steps required.
It's important to understand that the organizations who are willing to work towards your emergency certification are not likely to offer you a cushy, well-paid suburban position. These positions are highly competitive, and applicants typically hold master's degrees and are professionally licensed. On the contrary, emergency certification is generally an option for more challenging, lower-paid positions, such as those found in inner city public schools. These are the environments where special educators are in shortest supply, and are most urgently needed. There are exceptions to this rule, but it generally the case.
If you're willing to work hard and take night classes, and if you hold a bachelor's degree, you qualify for emergency certification. This can be an excellent way to break into the field without several years of additional schooling, and may very well open up doors to more comfortable positions down the road. After all, many emergency certification programs culminate in a master's degree, which can yield opportunities for advancement in the future. And make no mistake: while inner city schools can be more challenging, they can also be intensely rewarding.
There are many factors which affect how much a special education teacher gets paid. Which state do you live in? Is your school district unionized? If you do not join the union, do you need to pay a fair share fee for opting out? These are a few of the questions prospective teachers should ask themselves when considering job opportunities.
Comparing special education teachers' salaries across states is a difficult task, for several reasons (problems in calculating cost of living by area, for example, or limitations in the data collection methods). However, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for special education teachers nationwide is $53,220 per year.
Budgeting is a constant challenge for school districts across the nation. Cutbacks and layoffs are becoming more common, as are cuts in hours and pay rates. There are, however, many organizations and unions which are working to protect teachers from such administrative changes. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA), for example, are two prominent organizations who are working to raise the annual salary of new teachers. In addition, many states have passed tenure laws which grant experienced teachers job security and protect them from being replaced by less experienced and lower-paid teachers.
The cost of living varies by state, so salaries naturally vary as well. However, an important distinction (in terms of salary) is whether the state is a "Fair Share" state or a "Right to Work" state. Since school districts are generally unionized, the state's regulations regarding these unions affects the teachers' pay rates. In "Fair Share" states, teachers are not required to join a teachers' union, but must pay a fee to the union anyways to cover the union's bargaining costs. "Right to Work" states, on the other hand, do not require the teacher to be affiliated with the union at all. "Fair Share" states typically pay better than "Right to Work" states. Teachers are generally paid the least in southern states, but job opportunities are more abundant. South Dakota pays teachers the least, and California pays teachers the most (followed closely by Connecticut).
The Bottom Line
The field of special education is growing rapidly, and there is an abundance of opportunities for teachers who are willing to work hard. However, this is not a field for free rides, and jobs are not being handed out willy-nilly. It takes a particular kind of person to succeed as a special education teacher. This is a field which rewards patience, kindness, and resolve. It is field in need of teachers with open and sympathetic minds, and a sense of humor. It is especially a field for teachers with loving hearts, who have a sincere desire to help these children who so acutely need it.
If you are interested in special education as an easy way to get paid and take long vacations, you can forget about it. If, however, you are looking for a career with vivid challenges and rich emotional rewards, special education may be just what you're looking for.