Are you passionate about a career working with exceptional children? Educational requirements for special education jobs typically include a bachelor’s degree and a state-issued certification or master’s in special education. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary of a special education teacher in 2016 was $57,910. Academic and monetary aspects aside, how do you know if you’re cut out for this type of work? One of the best ways to gain insights is asking someone who already works in the profession.
We recently spoke with Lois Shell, a pre-K special education teacher from Hillsborough County Public Schools in Tampa, Florida. Lois has worked with elementary-age students with special needs for more than 16 years, focusing on the pre-K population for the past 12 years.
What inspired you to go into special education?
I babysat for a two-year-old girl with cerebral palsy. She was my little inspiration for teaching special-needs kids. I also volunteered at a hospital when I was younger, which developed my interest in medical issues related to special-needs children as well.
What steps did you take to attain the position you have today?
I received my degree in special education with a concentration in early childhood from the University of South Florida. While working on my undergraduate degree I worked at a preschool to get toddler and early childhood experience. I also did internships and had practicum experience where I assisted a teacher in a classroom. I completed my graduate degree through an online learning program. I was working full-time so I took one class per semester. Eleven classes later, I had a master’s degree!
What does a typical day in your classroom look like?
In my class I have a paraprofessional and a “unique needs assistant” who helps students with physical disabilities. After the kids arrive we have breakfast together and work on feeding skills. Back in the classroom we do a greeting and circle time. Then we move into center time, small groups and table time, working with students one on one if needed. Later we play outside, have story time, lunch time, music and movement, and rest time. Math, science and social studies are covered within circle time and small groups. Table time is where we do manipulative activities – handwriting if they’re ready for it and pre-handwriting skills if they’re not.
Describe the specific skills a special-needs teacher should have?
Patience. Patience. Patience! You also need to be able to think quickly on your feet. Every child, whether they have special needs or not, is different. You need to be ready to adapt, modify and think outside the box to accommodate each’s child’s specific needs. For example, I had a little girl who would always throw her spoon. The occupational therapist came up with the idea to put a cotton glove on her hand with Velcro that attached to her spoon handle. The next time she tried to throw her spoon it didn’t move, and her reaction was priceless!
What are your biggest challenges?
Meeting all the students’ varying needs. They are all on different levels with different challenges. To handle them all, first and foremost, you need to love and have a passion for the child. No matter what the disability is, you embrace it and move forward without feeling sorry or having a pity party for them. My goal is to keep them safe, care about them and provide them with the best education I can.
What are the most rewarding parts of your job?
Seeing the children’s reactions to their successes and the smiles I’m able to put on their faces. I’ve always loved all the kids. I still keep in contact with one of my former students who is now 31 years old!
Do you have any tips or advice for anyone considering becoming a special education teacher?
Get as much hands-on exposure as you can with the special-needs population. Volunteer with organizations like the Special Olympics. Another valuable thing you can do is to talk with the parents of a child with special needs. They are one of the best sources of information.
Lois got her master’s degree online, on her own time, and you can too! Learn more about some of our favorite online degree programs for advanced degrees in special education.