The path to becoming a special education teacher varies for every educator. Take Troy University’s Dr. Joseph Johnson, for example. Even though he holds master’s and doctorate degrees in special education, how to become a special education teacher wasn’t on his mind when he applied to Appalachian State University as an undergraduate.
“I wanted to coach basketball, and I loved history,” says Dr. Johnson, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Teacher Education at TROY.
With that goal in mind, he earned a bachelor’s degree in secondary education (social studies). For the first seven years, he worked in his dream career of teaching social studies and coaching basketball. But through what he calls a “weird confluence of circumstances,” driven by a desire to get out of coaching, Dr. Johnson was offered a job teaching special education by a former teacher who had become a principal.
“He said I could come and teach special education for a year and then switch back to teaching social studies. I never did switch back,” Dr. Johnson says.
That was in 2002. He was so inspired to excel in the field that he went on to earn an M.S. and a Ph.D. in special education from the University of Nebraska-Omaha and University of Nebraska-Lincoln, respectively. He taught at the secondary level before moving into higher education in 2010. Dr. Johnson, who came to TROY in 2014, is focused on preparing future special education teachers for successful careers. It’s a role he relishes.
Wondering How to Become a Special Education Teacher? The Answer: TROY
If your goal is to become a special education teacher, TROY offers two collaborative degree programs — one for those who want to teach kindergarten through sixth grade (K-6) and one for those who want to teach grades 6-12.
Education majors start in general courses and then move into coursework specific to special education, Dr. Johnson explains. Among others, they take classes on special education law, policies and procedures, and on how to use evidence-based practices to support students with high-incidence disabilities, which are disabilities commonly seen in the general student population.
What makes TROY stand out from other collaborative degree programs is its blend of highly relevant coursework along with field experience before students intern in special education classrooms. TROY takes field experiences “very seriously,” Dr. Johnson says.
“We send our special education majors out into the K-12 schools in the region. We are very adamant that they have to spend time with special education teachers or with students with disabilities. To me, that is a very important part of the puzzle.”
While lectures, class discussions and textbook learning are all important, Dr. Johnson says, “it’s valuable for students to get out in the field and see some of these things in person.”
Experiencing Special Education Programs in Action
TROY students, for example, have attended Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings during which school staff work with parents, mental health professionals, and others to develop an academic and behavioral plan for children who are eligible for special education services.
“I’ve received very positive feedback from our students who have had the opportunity to attend an IEP meeting and get to really see that interplay between the teachers, the administration, and the parents for creating that guiding document for students with disabilities.”
That type of collaboration — which is a key part of working in special education — is one of the main reasons TROY renamed its special education bachelor’s degree “collaborative education.”
Keighan Spann, who earned her special education bachelor’s degree in 2019, says she is grateful for the preparation she received at TROY.
“They make every moment a learning opportunity, and they genuinely want you to succeed,” she says. “They don’t sugarcoat the field. It is a difficult field to go into. They do, however, prepare you to go into that field being the best version of yourself.”
Despite the preparation TROY provides, Dr. Johnson says some students still report feeling unprepared for the reality of the job during their internships in special education classrooms.
“They’re not insulting us,” Dr. Johnson says. “What they mean is we weren’t able to simulate them being in a classroom in a lead position from 7:30 to 3:30, five days a week. For the bulk of students, that’s an eye-opening experience because they see how wide the array of disabilities can be — and how those disabilities can affect students in so many different ways.”
Having this experience before they take on their own classrooms is imperative, Dr. Johnson says.
What Do You Need to Be a Special Education Teacher? Empathy and Compassion
Collaborative education majors at TROY are empathetic and compassionate individuals, Dr. Johnson observes.
“All teachers have to have a high level of empathy, a high level of compassion, but it goes up a notch for special educators,” he believes. “Those who want to be special education teachers also understand they have to help instill self-determination in students with disabilities. I see them practicing it themselves because it’s easier to teach something if you have a degree of competence in it yourself.”
In Dr. Johnson’s experience, those who pursue collaborative degree programs often have a personal experience with individuals with disabilities, whether that’s a family member or someone they worked with and supported in their high school or community.
“That experience put something into their heart,” he believes. “They wanted to continue to be a support and a source of inspiration and guidance for those with disabilities who need that extra level of commitment and energy to get through public education in America.”
For those who are wondering how to become a special education teacher, Dr. Johnson advises finding a seasoned educator to job shadow as soon as possible.
“When students come to me and say they are considering this career, I encourage them to get out into the field, into the K-12 classrooms, and spend a couple of days over a couple of weeks or even months to see what the day-to-day job is like. The truth is the paperwork is heavy. They have to keep up on those IEPs and make sure they’re monitoring them. They need to see that side of it, and they really need to see what a special education teacher’s job is, day to day.”
Spann says “every day looks different” in her role as a special education teacher and second grade case manager at Brookwood Forest Elementary in Mountain Brook, AL. That’s important for future educators to know, she says.
“Special education looks different from school to school and child to child,” she says. “My students have a range of needs from specific learning disabilities, dyslexia, autism spectrum disorder, intellectual disabilities and other health impairments. I push into the general education classroom to assist my students in social skills, reading, and math. I also pull students into my room in a small group setting to use multi-sensory, research-based intervention programs for math, reading, and behavior.”
Spann also conducts referral and eligibility meetings, special education testing and oversees IEPs and other documents that protect student rights.
“It is also my responsibility to collect data on my students and monitor their progress towards the goals I write for them and outline in their IEP as well as provide the services and minutes of services outlined in their IEP,” she continues. “I’m there to advocate for them and ensure they’re getting what they need to help them succeed. I also provide different coping skills and a ‘calm down’ corner to help students emotionally regulate.”
Flexibility, she says, is crucial in her work.
TROY’s Collaborative Degree Programs Help Graduates Make a Difference
Dr. Johnson says the main reason he continued teaching in special education rather than going back into general education classrooms was because he could have a more direct impact on students. With general education classes sometimes exceeding 30 students, “It’s hard to meet the learning needs of all students,” Dr. Johnson maintains.
“With the opportunity to teach small groups in special education classrooms, I could even do one-on-one interventions. It was also easier to have a better collaborative relationship with parents. Knowing my students needed that extra level of support and that I was in a position to provide the support made a huge difference for me.”
He also knows the importance of special education teachers getting the support they need for what can be a challenging and demanding career.
In May 2021, the median annual wage for special education teachers was $61,820, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Through 2031, overall employment of special education teachers is projected to grow 4%, the BLS reports. Additionally, about 37,600 openings for special education jobs are expected, due to teachers changing careers or otherwise leaving the labor force, say, to retire.
“I’ve seen some numbers of teacher retention in special education that are frankly disturbing,” Dr. Johnson says. “But that’s why I tell students all the time that their attitude and their dispositions matter. If they develop good resources to re-energize themselves and maintain that empathy and compassion, their long-term success is going to be so much greater.”
Special Education Bachelor’s Degree Leads to Rewarding Careers
Over the years, he’s had students interview veteran special education teachers who have been teaching for 10 to 25 years or more “so they can get that gift of wisdom.”
“What I see when they write up those interviews is there’s just this powerful reward in the profession,” Dr. Johnson says. “The teachers know the difference they’re making in those students’ lives. And it’s a little easier for them to track that powerful effect because, again, they’re not tracking large numbers of students. They’re looking at 10 or 15 students a year that they work with over a period of a few years. So, they’re just able to get that personal satisfaction that all teachers need to be successful. Special education teachers can get that personal satisfaction at a much higher level, in my opinion.”
Dr. Johnson believes in being transparent about the reality of the special education teaching profession so that students who pursue TROY’s special education bachelor’s degree do so with their eyes wide open.
“There are so many positives about working with kids and having the opportunity to teach and see how those kids grow,” he says. “But I’ll also be a realist. You’re going to be answering to the parents, the administration, the school board and the superintendent. You’re going to be answering to the general public when they publish school report cards.
“To me, it’s important to have open and honest conversations about the entirety of the experience. And that is absolutely necessary for preparing special education teachers because they need to know. You have amazing opportunities to be such a powerful influence on these students’ lives, but you’re going to have challenges. You’re going to have rough days, and your ability to navigate those is so important — and coming back strong is going to go a long way toward your success in this field.”
Spann says she appreciated that transparency and being treated as a professional even while she was a student.
“The expectations were high, but so was the encouragement,” she says. “I was offered multiple classes, professional development courses and opportunities to hear from people in my field.”
Now as one of those working in special education, she has this advice for future educators: “Perfection does not exist.”
“There will be moments when you feel overwhelmed,” she says. “In those moments, remember for some students, you may be the only good part of their day. You may be the only person who makes them feel heard, safe and worthy of success. If you don’t do your best the first time, try again. Give yourself grace but give these kids your all. Your best. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t be afraid to fail.”
Collaborative/special education “isn’t a field for the faint of heart,” she says.
“It’s a true calling,” Spann believes. “It is the most rewarding job you will ever have. There will be times you feel swamped with paperwork and testing and expectations. It is all worth it when your students look at you and say, ‘Thank you for helping me learn to read’ or ‘Thank you for always listening.’ It’s an indescribable joy.”
Learn More About TROY’s Special Education Bachelor’s Degree
Do you want to learn more about how to become a special education teacher? Explore TROY’s special education bachelor’s degree program now.