Why Schools Need More Special Education Teaching Leaders

June 27, 2022

A preschool teacher reads a book to her students.

For a teacher, there is no greater satisfaction than helping a student grow and reach their potential. Helping students succeed begins with the recognition that every child is unique, not just in terms of personality, but in terms of strengths and learning support needs. Success doesn't look the same for every student. As a teacher, being able to differentiate for each student's individual needs is important, particularly for children with diverse support needs.

Special education teachers play a critical and much-needed role in K-12 learning communities, providing modifications and accommodations to help all students succeed.

Some students may need help developing proper study skills and learning to highlight text and use flashcards to be successful with their schoolwork.

Some students may need support with communication or acquisition of social skills. Other students may have visual or hearing needs and require supports to access the curriculum. Students with physical support needs may benefit from accommodations that include use of adaptive equipment.

These students with diverse support needs benefit from specialized teachers trained to identify supports for them and focus on their skill development to achieve their academic goals and milestones. If you have a passion for working with students and want to enhance their strengths and support their learning and skill acquisition, the Master of Education in Special Education at the University of Arkansas ONLINE can put you on the career path to becoming a special education teaching leader.

"More special education teachers are needed because they have the experience in delivering instruction to every student – whether the student is receiving services associated with an IEP (individualized education program) or is a neuro-typical learner."

Renee Speight, Teaching assistant professor of special education

Why More Special Education (SPED) Leaders Are Needed

Since there is no one-size-fits-all teaching approach for students, K-12 schools need professionals who are trained to promote access, participation, learning, inclusivity and belonging for all types of students.

"More special education teachers are needed because they have the experience in delivering instruction to every student – whether the student is receiving services associated with an IEP (individualized education program) or is a neuro-typical learner," says Renee Speight, teaching assistant professor of special education at the University of Arkansas.

Special education teachers are leaders and practitioners with expertise in providing support and adaptations to meet the needs of all students, not solely students with disabilities. They promote positive outcomes across academics, social skills, and prosocial behaviors such as comforting, helping and sharing. They also work with young students to develop skills that are necessary to meet their goals as they transition into adulthood.

Special education teachers will tell you that working with students with disabilities is highly rewarding. Special education teachers appreciate diversity and have a strong desire to achieve inclusivity for all students.

Teaching special education also requires expertise in educational leadership skills, including a finely tuned ability to collaborate. Every student receiving special education services has an individualized education program that outlines the services they will receive, such as speech therapy, and milestones to achieve that mark their progress through the curriculum each year. That takes teamwork.

Photo of Renee Speight
Renee Speight

"One thing special educators understand is that we can't work alone," Speight says. "When our goal is to support learners, we need a team – and collaboration is one of those skills of an exceptional special educator."

In special education, demonstrating flexibility, being able to adapt learning approaches that better meet the needs of students, and building and maintaining mutually supportive relationships among colleagues contribute to everyone's success.

"It's critical that we have folks in the field advocating for flexibility in education and acknowledging that all learners don't acquire skills in the same way," says Speight. "We need to be flexible in our approach to support skill development and be flexible in our understanding of what are the critical skills for learners."

Another key quality of SPED leaders is a commitment to continuing education and growth.

"Special education and its practices continue to evolve and improve through research," Speight says, "so it's important as a special educator that you are determined to continue learning and growing in your practice."


Special Education: A Unique Level of Involvement with Students

For many educators, working in special education is truly a calling. Speight has been in the SPED field for 13 years, but it isn't the path she always intended to take. A political science major as an undergrad, she had plans to become a lobbyist and work in Washington, but an encounter with one young boy changed her future completely.

"I had the opportunity to work as a preschool teacher when I was working on my undergrad degree in poli-sci," she recalls. "And in that setting, I had a learner diagnosed with autism who needed some supports, and we developed a strong relationship. I learned about him, his strengths and his needs. The experience led to a recognition that all students have strengths, and I developed a passion to meet the needs of all students. It's critical that we teachers are there to help. I am grateful to have this role in special education."

Traditional general education classroom teachers acquire the content knowledge needed to teach children. Special education teachers add to that a foundation in instructional evidence-based practice expertise to support learners in acquiring necessary skills.

There is also a growing recognition in the field that education practices typically associated with special education create inclusive environments that benefit everyone.

"I think that as we better understand the importance of inclusion for all learners, there is needed expertise for educators, advocates, administrators and other stakeholders to better understand inclusive practices and supports to not just promote access for students – but also facilitate participation and belonging within the community," says Speight.


Two Paths to a Special Education Degree

The University of Arkansas ONLINE offers two special education paths within the master's in special education program to gain the knowledge and skills needed to teach students with disabilities.

"There is an initial licensure track for folks seeking a change where they are moving from another field into special education," Speight explains. "In order to teach in a K-12 learning environment, they need to have a license in special education under the Arkansas Department of Education Guidelines."

The licensure track gives candidates the master's level coursework needed to apply for their Arkansas SPED teaching license.

Teachers who already have the general education licensure, are practicing in the field and want to attain a graduate-level degree with a focus on special education, can pursue the course credit needed to apply for the endorsement in special education through the Arkansas Department of Education. By adding the special education endorsement to an existing licensure, teachers can use their expertise in inclusive practices and social-behavioral supports to teach in certified special education positions.


Online Master's in Education Format Makes Things Easier for Students

Most students entering the Master of Education in Special Education program already have an undergraduate degree, and it's not always in education. Some candidates are shifting their career fields entirely to become special education teaching leaders. The majority of candidates pursuing a graduate degree are working full-time jobs, and many are balancing family and other responsibilities. The online format makes the degree accessible to everyone, allowing adult learners to fit the coursework into already full work and life schedules.

Courses within the program are purposely kept small, generally less than 30 students, and some have a cap of 25, according to Speight.

"This makes the program and classwork conducive to easier collaboration among students and having the full attention of faculty, mentors and supervisors," she says.

The faculty in the University of Arkansas ONLINE program has long experience in using innovative technologies and tools to support online learning experiences, both synchronous and asynchronous. The online degree program offers flexibility in preparation pathways without compromising knowledge building or skill development.

"Our program has done a nice job leveraging the enhancements of online virtual learning through innovative technology," Speight says.


The Special Education Practicum

Field experience is a critical component of the special education teacher program; it's where candidates apply theory to real-world practice and gain invaluable experience.

"The special education practicum is basically the culminating experience where candidates have the opportunity to apply their knowledge, with the support of a practicing, licensed, mentor-teacher already in the field of special education, and also with the support of the university supervisor," Speight says.

The goal of the special education practicum is to enhance and assess the candidate's skills in effective collaboration, use of assessment tools, providing social and behavioral supports, and delivering instruction that is aligned with the needs of learners.

"Students in the master's program must take two practica – K-6 (elementary) and 7-12 (secondary) – across their experience because their Arkansas licensure upon finishing the program is K-12," says Speight.

The special education practicum content is also delivered online.

"The university uses innovative technology in the classes as well as within the practicum to deliver the remote supervision and support," Speight says.

Students use video coding and analysis software to code effective practices while they are teaching; the university supervisors observe and also code their videos on those effective practices. Each student has a mentor-teacher in their local area to support them in skill development. Technology means that there are no geographic boundaries to skill development.

"We've had candidates in this practicum from across the world," Speight says.


Boost Your Teaching Career or Open New Doors With an Online M.Ed.

Pursuing and completing an online master's in special education enhances skill development related to effective practices to meet the needs of all students. As you build that expertise, there is the potential to take on much-needed special educational leadership roles within the school community related to committee work and exceptional practices for behavior supports.

"Depending on your school district, you could become eligible for an instructor-facilitator role, which is an advanced type of support provided to teachers practicing in the field. It opens doors and ultimately enables that practitioner to continually develop skills and learn. And as an educator, I think that is one of our responsibilities."

Renee Speight, Teaching assistant professor of special education

Demand for special education teachers is generally driven by school enrollments and the need for special education services. The demand is expected to rise as disabilities are being identified earlier by special education teaching leaders, special education advocates, and other educational stakeholders.

The U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects an employment growth rate of 8% for special education teachers through 2030, with an addition of more than 37,000 new jobs in the field.

While the special education licensing is strictly for Arkansas, students outside the state can use the coursework to apply for licensure in their location. Out-of-state students should carefully research licensure requirements for the state in which they intend to practice.


Special Education Master's Offers Endorsements

The online Master of Education in Special Education leads to special education licensure. Special education endorsements can be pursued after the M.Ed. in elementary or secondary education is attained.

Endorsements are additional types of instruction that teachers can obtain and add to their teaching licenses to enhance their professional career opportunities. Teachers licensed in K-12 general instruction can complete additional graduate-level courses with a specialized focus and then submit their transcripts to the Arkansas Department of Education to apply for a particular endorsement.

University of Arkansas ONLINE currently offers special-education-related endorsements in dyslexia, resource teacher and educational examiner.

  • The Dyslexia endorsement builds a foundational competency related to literacy acquisition and reading intervention instruction and supports — a strong initiative in Arkansas.
  • The SPED Educational Examiner endorsement leads candidates to develop competencies needed to be special educational examiners.
  • The Education Resource endorsement focuses on building expertise in resource content to better serve students through the best-fitting options.

Teachers in classrooms outside of Arkansas need to review their particular state's requirements and reciprocity agreements pertaining to endorsements.


New Special Education Teaching Endorsement Added

Early this year, after a lot of organization and development, the University of Arkansas ONLINE received funding from the Arkansas Department of Education for a new special education teaching endorsement, the Resource Teacher Academy.

This funded endorsement provides full scholarships for 25 already-licensed teachers in Arkansas who are serving in this classroom role.

Speight says, "I am the director of the Resource Teacher Academy, which is a four-course, 12-credit-hour pathway for Arkansas teachers to add an endorsement to their teaching license to enhance their knowledge related to inclusive practices."

The application period ended in April, with orientation in June. The first offering launches in July with one course, and then candidates will take two classes in the fall and one course the following spring.

"There's potential for the program to be fully funded again next year for another 25 students," Speight says. "This opportunity also enables those who are interested to use the 12 credit hours toward the Master of Education in Special Education once they've completed the endorsement."

If you are interested in pursuing a career that helps fill the need for more special education teaching leaders, visit the program page on our website to learn more about the Master of Education in Special Education at the University of Arkansas ONLINE.

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Master of Education in Special Education

Earn a master’s degree and gain the skills and knowledge needed to teach students with disabilities. This Special Education (SPED) master’s program offers two paths.

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