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Who's Teaching Our Children with Disabilities?



National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities



Why do People Become Special Educators?

Who Are Special Education Teachers?

What Kind of Training Do Special Educators Receive?

State Licensure and Its Role in the Education and Practice of Special Educators

What do Special Education Teachers Do?

Where do Special Education Teachers Work?

Are There Shortages of Special Educators?

What Do Special Education Teachers Like About Teaching?


Parent Tips for Working With Teachers


Learning and Other Disabilities

Education and Kids

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Each day in the United States millions of children go off to school, all with different strengths and weaknesses, abilities and disabilities. Over five million of these children have been identified as having a specific disability such as autism, mental retardation, cerebral palsy, or a learning disability that necessitates some type of special instruction. In order to address the special needs of these children, schools rely upon people who have been specially trained to help them-- special education teachers. In the daily lives of children and youth with disabilities, and in their long-term achievements in learning, special educators play a vital and indispensable role.

NICHCY and the National Clearinghouse for Professions in Special Education (NCPSE) would like general educators, parents, administrators, those interested in becoming special educators, and others to have an opportunity to learn more about special education teachers. This joint publication of NICHCY and NCPSE is intended to open a window into the world of the special educator and answer the questions: who are special educators, why have they chosen this profession, what kind of training do they have, what do they do each day, what do they enjoy about their jobs, and why do some of them leave special education? Also discussed in this publication are the people who support special educators, namely paraeducators, often known as "teacher's aides." The role of parents is addressed as well, and suggestions are provided for supporting the valuable work that special educators do on behalf of our children with special needs.

Why do People Become Special Educators?

There are as many reasons for choosing special education teaching as a career as there are special education teachers. However, research (Brownell, Smith, McNellis, & Lenk, 1995; Siegel, Taylor, & Greene, 1996) has shown some common threads in many of these stories. Some potential teachers knew from an early age that this was what they wanted to do; some have said they felt they had a mission to work with children and specifically wanted to help children with disabilities. Not surprisingly, many special education teachers had some meaningful contact with a person (or persons) with a disability as they were growing up-- maybe a sibling, or a neighbor, or a family friend-- or maybe they worked in a summer camp for children with disabilities. These experiences helped them see the value of each person and the challenges and rewards that come from working with children with special needs. There is also a growing number of career changers-- adults who decide to become special education teachers after retiring from their original profession or after finding that their first career did not have the significance and meaning they wanted.

Whatever their path to this career, almost all special education teachers begin their career with a desire to help others, by doing something such as working with children, and feel they can have an impact on how children with disabilities learn. They choose this career because they want to make a positive difference in the lives of children with disabilities.

Who Are Special Education Teachers?

In the 1993-1994 school year, there were over 350,000 full-time special education teachers in the United States (U.S. Department of Education, 1996). A recent analysis of data from 1990-91 (Cook & Boe, 1995) provides an interesting profile of special educators and how they are similar to, and different from, general educators.


Special educators make up about 10% of all teachers in the public sector. In general they tend to be younger than general educators. This is noteworthy because younger teachers are more likely to leave teaching than older teachers. Therefore, this difference in age can be one factor in the higher percentage of special educators who leave special education than general educators who leave the classroom.


Teaching has been, and continues to be, a female profession. Almost 90% of special education teachers at the elementary level are female, compared with 87% of general education teachers. There are interesting differences at the secondary level: 77% of secondary special education teachers are female, while only 53% of general education teachers at this level are female.


The ethnic composition of special education and general education teachers is quite similar. Approximately eighty-six percent of the teachers, in both groups, are white. Ten percent are African-American, 2% are Hispanic, and 2% are other. However, these numbers do not match well with the makeup of the students in special education. Among special education students, 68% are white; 16%, African-American; 12%, Hispanic; and 4% other. These discrepancies have led to increased efforts to recruit minorities into special education careers. There are also very few data on the number of special education teachers with disabilities; the best estimate is 4%.

Certification in Main Teaching Field

Sometimes, usually because a school district cannot find certified applicants, teachers are employed or assigned to teach in a field where they are not fully certified. Ten percent of our special education teachers, compared with 6% of general education teachers, are not fully certified for their main teaching assignment. However, in areas where it is particularly difficult to secure special educators, such as rural areas, the percentage of noncertified teachers may be higher.

Highest Degree

A higher percentage of special education teachers (57%) than general education teachers (47%) have attained master's or doctorate degrees.

Teaching Experience

Special education teachers have, on the average, fewer years of teaching experience than general education teachers. Twelve percent of special education teachers have less than four years of teaching experience, while only 10% of general education teachers have less than four years.

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A publication of....

National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities
P.O. Box 1492
Washington, DC 20013
1-800-695-0285 (Voice/TTY)
(202) 884-8200 (Voice/TTY)
E-mail: nichcy@aed.org
Url: http://www.nichcy.org


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