What Can You Do with a Special Education Degree?

Whitney P. Gordon
Whitney P. Gordon
Special Education and English Teacher; Ed.S. in Teacher Leadership, Thomas University, GA

If you are considering or committed to pursuing a degree in special education, a sincere “thank you” is in order. Being a special educator is one of the most rewarding yet challenging jobs in existence. A special education degree will train you to be flexible yet prepared: ready and willing to coach students with disabilities (SWD) toward their full potential. In preparing for a career in special education, you earn valuable skills that will prepare you for a plethora of positions within the field of education. A degree in this field can carry you to the classroom and beyond. Below are some positions that your degree in special education can prepare you to fulfill.

Special Education Teacher

The first and most natural career choice when seeking a degree in special education is the classroom teacher. While this may seem like a given that needs little explanation, it is important to understand the different types of special education teachers. Their equally important roles are each unique.

First, a prospective educator must understand that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which is the law that mandates rights for students with disabilities, states that all special education students must be educated in the least restrictive environment (LRE). As such, special education teachers typically serve students using one of three modes: self-contained classrooms, inclusion classrooms, and consultation.

In self-contained classrooms, also known as resource classrooms, special education students are in a classroom with other SWDs and taught by one or more special educators. On the contrary, SWDs attend classes with general education students in both inclusion and consultative settings. In the former, there is a general education teacher and a special education teacher present in the class, while in the latter, a special education teacher consults with the student concerning the classwork. Your work as a special education teacher could include any of these models or others.

While it is important to be prepared for any type of student, there are some general categories that can help guide the kind of special education teacher you want to be. Students with severe and profound intellectual disabilities will typically be in a self-contained classroom and will often be learning basic life skills. Students who are mild and moderately intellectually disabled, on the other hand, may learn more advanced skills and may spend a part of their day amongst the general student population. There are also other students who have high incidence disabilities and spend most or all of their time in general education. These are interrelated students. As a special education teacher, there are many paths to choose from.

Special Education Specialist

A special education specialist is a great way to leverage the skills earned through a special education degree to fulfill a position outside of the classroom. A specialist collaborates with school faculty to ensure that the curriculum, assessments, and strategies in place meet the needs of SWDs. They may also be called an instructional support teacher or instructional coach. This person may take part in evaluating a school’s curriculum, coaching teachers, or facilitating the development of curriculum. This is an important role, as a Special Education Specialist serves as an advocate for a curriculum that meets the needs of special education students.

Behavior Intervention Specialist

Many special education students present behaviors that impede their learning. When a student’s behaviors are not ameliorated by measures taken at the school level, a behavior intervention specialist may come in to assist. The behavior intervention specialist works with administrators, teachers, counselors, and other faculty members to help students receive an adequate education despite behavior challenges. These specialists may also perform observations, provide and model teaching strategies, and assist with writing a behavior intervention plan or positive support plan. Due to the nature of their work, they often serve multiple schools.

Special Education Diagnostician/Tester

For students to become eligible for special education and maintain that eligibility, a faculty member must administer assessments that yield eligibility data. Many districts have a diagnostician or tester who is responsible for this. The diagnostician typically administers a battery of tests that provide a full picture of the students’ strengths, weaknesses, and deficits. This person may meet with students individually or in small groups to administer assessments and will be responsible for writing reports to interpret the data.

Special Education Advocate

When it is time for parents to attend their student’s Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) meeting, they sometimes involve an advocate to help them understand and/or contend for their student’s rights. This person needs to be knowledgeable of special education and the IEP process. As such, individuals with a degree in special education are a perfect fit for this position. An advocate will become familiar with the student’s IEP and evaluate how the IEP is implemented. The advocate must also attend the IEP meeting and express the student’s needs and parents’ concerns.

Pursuit of a career in special education is an honorable endeavor. It requires much patience and a willingness to be a lifelong learner. Despite its challenges, a degree in special education provides a unique and valuable skillset. Finding the position where your passion and skills meet is the goal, and with the myriad of possibilities, that goal is achievable.

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