What You Should Look For in a Special Education Teacher

Kelly Brouse
Kelly Brouse
Elementary school principal; M.A. in Curriculum and Instruction
A special education teacher helps her one of her students at a classroom table.

Hiring for any position is one of the most important things administrators do, as it will have lasting effects on so many students who come through a school. Special education is significant as these educators are responsible for the growth and development of students with disabilities that can make learning more challenging.

There are typical qualities a hiring committee would look for in an educator when it comes to special education, including dedication to their craft, open-mindedness to learning, and a kid-first approach to their instruction and decision making.

Starting with the Basics: The Referral Process & Documentation

To become a special education teacher, it is critical that a candidate understands the eligibility requirements and processes involved in mandating a child for special education and delivering services.

Special education candidates should be able to speak with confidence about the referral process, assessments one would use to evaluate a child with learning concerns, and qualifying a child for special education under one of the thirteen mandates identified under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Specifically, a hiring committee will be looking to hear special education teacher requirements such as familiarity with specific assessments, writing objectives, and the protocols that we are legally required to follow for a child in special education, including, but not limited to, annual review timelines, process logs, extended school year (ESY), and so on.

While these more structural components of the job may not feel like the heart of what the teachers do with children, candidates must be competent with these processes as schools are legally bound to them and can suffer severe consequences if not followed.

In special education teacher graduate coursework, candidates should have a class dedicated to the eligibility process and case management of special education. Within this class, they should ask to see the platform your state uses (IEP Direct or CT-SEDS, for example.) They should also be familiar with the unique data system your state uses to document Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) and legal documents for parents that they will be responsible for (i.e. invitations, amendments, progress notes, etc.)

In their practicum, candidates should have ensured that they can demonstrate understanding of the IEP writing process with their cooperating teacher, as it will be their responsibility as soon as they step into the role after being hired.

Specialized Instruction: Tools and Strategies

Special education gets its name because the instructional delivery model is supposed to be specialized to target the student’s specific needs relative to their disability. This should be the portion of the hiring process in most focus, as it is what the teacher does with students to advance their learning.

The hiring committee will likely be looking for a few key elements of specialized instruction that should be demonstrated in special education teacher resumes and interviews:

  • How you align learning activities to IEP goals and objectives
  • The specific structured literacy or math programs you are familiar with (i.e. Wilson, Orton- Gillingham, TouchMath)
  • How you collaborate with the classroom teacher to transfer specialized instruction into the classroom for student success with grade-level content
  • How you monitor student progress over time and modify your instruction based on data collected

Districts don’t have access to every program candidates are familiar with, but you should looking for experience with some structured program to assess how quickly they will be able to use the programs your school has available.

If there are training opportunities or professional development beyond the school day offered, suggest that the special education teacher take full advantage and attend to be trained in the types of programs that you will be expecting them to implement.

Working with More Intensive Needs

Districts have different approaches to servicing more intense disabilities, including autism, cerebral palsy, downs syndrome, and more. As a hiring team, you will be interested in a candidate’s experience, empathy, and creativity in supporting children with significant needs.

With the prevalence of autism and the spectrum of how it presents for children, candidates will undoubtedly be responsible for students living with autism. Be sure to prepare for special education teacher interview questions related to their more common needs and manifestations, while also noting that every child is unique.

While resource teacher candidates may be responsible for delivery of academic specialized instruction, the children a special education teacher works with may require behavioral intervention to access it. Therefore, being familiar to those strategies and open to collaboration with clinicians is critical to their success with these learners.

Parent Collaboration & PPTs

Finally, one of the key stakeholders in special education is the child’s parent or guardian. A parent of a child who requires special education is someone to be respected and supported, as hearing that your child has an impairment that requires them to work harder than others is no easy thing.

A trusting partnership between school and home is one of the most powerful elements of an effective special education plan. You and your hiring committee should be looking for someone who prioritizes this, setting an agenda, engaging parent voice, and sharing communication strategies and best practices for Planning & Placement Team meetings (PPTs) to support and collaborate with families. Inquire about what organizational structures they may use to keep on top of parent communication, as managing many students on a special education caseload can be an organizational challenge.

Looking for these typical qualities and skills will assure you find the special education teachers whom are the best fit for your school.

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