Rapidly Growing Job Opportunities
Special Education teaching jobs will continue to grow in the next decade. Not only will there be record retirements as baby boomers hit their 60's, there will continue to be an increase in the number of children who will be identified for some special education interventions, if only for part of their educational career.
In all states a teacher of special education is required to be licensed, (or certified) as a special education teacher. Since the 2004 reauthorization of IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) teachers who teach special education are required to have certification in another area of education. Teachers working with elementary school aged children are required to be certified in elementary education. Teachers working with high school children are required to be certified in a core subject: social studies, math or English/language arts. Teacher certification programs are approved by the NCATE (National Council for Accreditation of Teachers Education). If you are pursuing a job in teaching, be sure the program that you in is accredited, or you'll be out of luck.
Because of a shortage of special education teachers, and the challenges and low pay associated with either inner city school districts or private state approved schools, most states have created alternative tracks to teaching. People pursuing alternative tracks need to realize that emergency certification is not awarded to teach in wealthy suburbs. They hire teachers with multiple certificates and master's degrees. Emergency certification is issued to people willing to teach in difficult and underpaid situations.
Once you have found an organization that needs you as a special education teacher, they will walk you through the steps required by your state for emergency certification. You will need a bachelor's degree from a recognized university, a willingness to work hard, and the willingness to pursue the college credits you will need while you are teaching. A Master's Degree is not required, but it only makes sense to get into a certification program that terminates with a Masters of Education. Once you are certified, you will have opportunities in suburban public schools, which pay much better than inner city schools or private schools.
Special Education Salaries
Special education teachers are paid by school districts according to teachers' contracts negotiated by the teachers association (union) and the school district. Most states have tenure laws to protect teachers from political pressure or a school board that wishes to save money by hiring new, inexperienced teachers. Salaries usually reflect the cost of living in a state, but states which are "Right to Work" states (not requiring all teachers in a unionized district to belong to the union) usually pay 6.5 to 11% less than "Fair Share" states (where people who do not join the union still pay for representation in negotiations.) Southern states tend to pay poorly (all except for Georgia and Virginia are in the bottom half for pay) but there are plenty of jobs.
The American Federation of Teachers provides a great salary survey (from 2007) that reflects each state’s pay ranges.
You and Special Education
A shortage of teachers does not guarantee you a job with a school district. Some districts will value other experience, such as a stay at home parent, as a business person, or as a military professional. Other districts have never outgrown the paradigm that you hire young teachers right out of college with really white teeth.
Compensation is clearly not the most important reason to teach special education. In fact, if compensation is the most important consideration for you, or your summer vacations, please consider something else. Teaching special education requires a love for kids, empathy for parents dealing with difficult kids, the ability to multi-task, a willingness to go beyond the call of duty, and a good sense of humor. Becoming a special education teacher without any one of these, and you might as well be someone who faints at the sight of blood pursuing a career in surgical nursing. But if your heart is truly in it, Special Education can provide a professional life of challenge and reward.