How to become a Special Education Needs Teacher

Working as a teacher can be hugely rewarding and for people who choose to teach as a career. Educating young people is more than just a job. Most people are drawn to teaching because they want the chance to make a difference in the lives of their students, and special needs teachers are usually dedicated to improving the chances for students who need additional support to access educational opportunities.

One of the most important things anyone who wants to pursue a career as a special needs teacher will need to consider is whether they are suited to the role. The most successful special needs teachers are well organised and have limitless reserves of patience, creativity and resourcefulness, as well as having excellent communication skills. They will need to be able to take on a significant level of training in order to qualify, which will require dedication and time management skills as some of it will take place once they are already working in a school.

The term ‘special educational needs’ covers a vast array of conditions, from supporting students to manage conditions such as dyslexia to helping those with complex physical, mental and behavioural difficulties to learn in whatever way is best for them.

The first step to becoming a special educational needs teacher is to gain a teaching qualification and there are a number of routes to achieving that which can be tailored towards special educational needs.

  1. Gaining qualifications

For most teachers, the route into their chosen career involves completing either a first degree in teaching, usually for primary teachers, or a post-graduate conversion course that allows them to use their subject knowledge to become a teacher, which is usually for secondary teachers.

Teachers who specialise in special educational needs can choose to focus on primary, secondary or even further education, although the routes into each vary slightly.

  1. Undergraduate courses

Undergraduate teaching courses, Bachelor of Education degrees, are usually aimed at those who wish to teach at primary level, although there are some secondary level courses which focus on specific specialisms. These courses usually take the form of an initial year studying the core subjects of Maths, English and Science before moving on to a more in-depth look at teaching practice and other specific subjects.

This training format is popular amongst those who wish to become primary teachers and includes the chance to train in at least two different schools to gain practical as well as theoretical experience.

It is also possible to do an undergraduate course comprising either a Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Sciences degree which includes a specific focus on teaching that subject and includes everything needed for the student to gain Qualified Teacher Status, also known as QTS.

This type of degree is most popular as a route into secondary teaching although some providers do offer options for those who want to become primary teachers. The course usually takes the format of a year spent gaining a deeper understanding of their specialist subject with the second and third years focussing more on teaching and preparing to work in the classroom.

  1. Postgraduate courses

For those who are interested in training to become a teacher and already have a degree, a Post Graduate Certificates of Education (PGCE) or Post Graduate Diploma of Education (PGDE) are run at a variety of colleges and universities throughout the UK. These both provide a route into teaching for those who wish to work in both primary and secondary, and offer hands-on experience of working within a school which must comprise at least 120 days alongside studying with a registered provider.

There are alternatives for those who have a degree and want to move into teaching, one of which is called ‘School Direct’. This can be undertaken as an unpaid programme which is run by a school (or sometimes a group of schools) which works closely with either a university or a dedicated School-Centred Initial Teacher Training (SCITT) consortium which is able to certify trainees who pass the course successfully. Although the training takes place in a school, the school do not actually employ the trainees and students will have to pay fees to the training provider.

This is one of the most popular routes for those wishing to pursue a career as a teacher as it provides hands-on training in a school which may well choose to take on a successful student once they are qualified.

Another option for the School Direct scheme is a salaried training programme whereby a student is actually employed by the school as an untrained teacher while they complete their qualification. This route is available to primary and secondary teachers and is run in much the same way as the unpaid option.

Because the school employs these teachers, the entry requirements are slightly higher and applicants must have at least three years’ work experience, although this can be in any field and doesn’t have to be specifically relevant to teaching.

The format of the course means that students will earn a salary while they are training and will not be expected to pay any fees. Some courses also include a PGCE qualification, but this will depend on the provider.

Applicants for a salaried School Direct training programme will need to provide at least one reference from an employer. For self-employed individuals who have not had an employer, a referee who has worked with the applicant in a working capacity, and is able to comment on the quality of their work and suitability for a post, will suffice.

  1. Special Needs Teaching

Any of these options will provide a teaching qualification which will allow successful candidates to work in schools, but will need to be enhanced to include additional training in Special Educational Needs. Although all courses will involve studying some elements of special needs, further training will be needed to augment any teaching degree which will focus on different aspects of special educational needs.

These are usually organised through the school and local education authority and will enable students to learn about a range of different conditions and the format of the course will depend on the needs of the students they wish to teach.

For example, there are specific courses designed to provide students with the wherewithal to teach visually impaired and/or hearing impaired students specifically, as well as a range of other specific conditions which require specialist support. Those who wish to work in this area will also need to complete a mandatory qualification, provided by the National College for Teaching and Leadership, which must be completed within three years of starting in a post that requires it.

Some course providers offer post graduate courses which include modules which focus on special educational needs, including teaching those with profound and multiple learning difficulties (PMLD), severe learning difficulties (SLD) and those with autistic spectrum disorders.

  1. Experience

For most teachers, gaining experience in the classroom before specialising in special needs teaching is vital as they will need all the basics of classroom management and subject knowledge covered before they develop their knowledge of special needs.

However, the on-the-job aspects of the routes into teacher training can be tailored to provide some experience of teaching children and adults with special needs for those who are already keen to specialise. Depending on the course provider and the schools involved, it is possible to tailor  training to suit any specific long-term career goals.

Prospective teachers who wish to specialise in special needs can really benefit from doing some voluntary work in the sector in order to gain some experience of the realities of teaching those with special needs.

Anyone who wants to embark on a career as a special educational needs teacher should research the courses available and ascertain which will provide them with opportunities to specialise in the areas that interest them most. There are a number of providers all over the country and it is usually possible to see which lecturers will be leading each module. Learning from someone who specialises in the elements of special educational needs that most appeal is an ideal way for a student to embark on their career and give themselves a good grounding in the skills they will need to make a success of it.

Becoming a special educational needs teacher can present a range of challenges, but it is a path to a hugely rewarding career which offers significant job satisfaction.

Please note if you require a different teaching challenge, you also have the option to train as a teacher specialising in PRU schools (Pupil Referral unit).

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