How to Become a Special Education Teacher in California
Maybe your current career isn’t as fulfilling as it once was. Perhaps you’re a servicemember transitioning to civilian life and looking for your next avenue to serve. Or, you might even already be an educator, seeking an online special education credential. Whatever your personal situation, if you’re interested in working with students who have a wide range of learning, mental, emotional, and physical disabilities and are looking into how to become a special education teacher in California, there are some things you may want to consider.
Your Job Prospects Are Excellent since Qualified Special Education Teachers Are in Great Demand
California already suffers from a teacher shortage, but the shortage of qualified special education teachers equipped to teach the estimated 740,000 students with disabilities is even more acute. According to a report from The Learning Policy Institute, the challenges of filling special education vacancies have forced schools to hire underqualified teachers — two in three new teachers haven’t completed their training. Special education is the only major teaching field that issues the majority of its teaching authorizations to underprepared candidates.
As if the current shortage wasn’t enough, it’s estimated that over 25 percent of the state’s special education teachers who were teaching in 2014 will retire by 2024. This will leave an even greater void in qualified teachers — which presents a tremendous opportunity for those considering a career in the field.
To address the ever-increasing need, California Governor Jerry Brown has proposed a budget that includes $100 million to increase and retain special education teachers through a variety of methods, including scholarship programs that cover aspiring teachers’ education in exchange for a commitment to teach in special education.
To Get into Special Education Credential Programs in California, You'll Need a Bachelor's Degree
Although you don’t necessarily need an education degree, you do need a bachelor’s degree before you can get your special ed teaching credentials in California. “California has a reputation for being among the most challenging and rigorous [special education] programs. Many, if not most, states actually build a teaching certificate into an undergraduate program. And California has always said that we expect you to get a bachelor's degree,” states Susan Porter, PhD, chair of the special education department at National University in La Jolla, California.
“Generally, the bachelor's is also showing that you're prepared in terms of subject matter knowledge. You have a well-rounded background before you're going to specialize as a teacher.”
When considering how to become a special education teacher in California, you should become familiar with the requirements. “California has a two-tiered system for special education credentials. You initially earn a Preliminary Education Specialist Authorization Credential, this is the first tier that you earn that qualifies you to teach in a classroom,” explains Dr. Porter. To receive this credential, you must:
- Have an undergraduate degree
- Satisfy the basic skills requirement
- Demonstrate subject-matter competency
- Pass the Reading Instruction Competence Assessment test
- Complete a course or pass an examination in the United States Constitution
- Finish a teacher preparation program
Students focus on four areas:
- Mild/moderate, which includes specific learning disabilities, mild/moderate mental retardation, other health impairments, serious emotional disturbance, and autism spectrum disorders
- Moderate/severe, which includes autism, deaf-blindness, moderate to severe mental retardation, multiple disabilities, and serious emotional disturbance
- Deaf and hard of hearing, which includes deafness, hearing impairment, and deaf-blindness
- Language and academic development, which includes speech and learning disabilities
National University provides a comprehensive program for students seeking the Preliminary Education Specialist Authorization Credential. The program requires completion of 19-21 courses, including a clinical practice path to supervised teaching (student teaching or an internship). Dr. Porter clarifies, “An intern is someone who is working on their credential and they're enrolled in a program such as ours, but they are employed by a school district and are teachers of record of special education in this case.” You can choose to pursue special education credential programs online, on-campus, or opt for a hybrid of both.
After this first tier of preparation, the emphasis shifts to completing your practicum. “Within generally five years, you need to then clear your credential,” explains Dr. Porter. “That means earning the Clear Education Specialist Teaching Credential, and the clear credential program is heavily based in practicum. It presumes that you're a teacher in practice, working in schools and in classrooms and settings for special needs students. You're doing activities and taking advantage of learning opportunities, whether it's formal education at a college or whether it's some professional development activities as part of work as a teacher. You're advancing your knowledge and skills in various aspects of teaching, especially as they pertain to children with disabilities.”
At National University, if you’re employed as a special education teacher and hold the Preliminary Education Specialist Credential in M/M (Mild/Moderate), M/S (Moderate Severe), or DHH (Deaf and Hard of Hearing), you can then earn the Clear Education Specialist Teaching Credential. You’ll continue your education with four courses, one of which is an elective you select yourself. You then develop an Individual Induction Plan (IIP) focused on the California Standards for the Teaching Profession (CSTP) and receive support from a district support provider.
You Don't Have to Sacrifice Your Lifestyle to Get a Quality Education
National University is all about accessible higher education, offering more than 100 online and on-campus programs at over 20 campuses in California and Nevada in a four-week class format. That means if you’re wondering how to become a special education teacher in California while you’re working or parenting, you can easily fit your special education training into your life.
“We have that National signature way of delivering instruction — the one time/one course a month and also the combination of online and on-site and hybrid. We also expect and understand that an overwhelming number of our candidates are going to be in the classroom as interns, says Dr. Porter. “We recognize that and we allow for it and we encourage it. We create our classes in our program to kind of wrap around the intern experiences. For the adult learner, for people who are returning to school and changing careers, we really cater to that audience and we do a great job of that.”
Anja Jones, an MS in special education candidate and National University Scholar, agrees. She herself was once struggling with the question of how to become a special education teacher in California. “National supported me through the flexibility of the program. As a parent, juggling daily life tasks can be challenging. I'm working. I have two boys. I have a life. So the schedule really made it possible for me to fulfill my responsibilities as a parent and pursue my education at the same time. I don't have to do it at a certain time. I had one hybrid class in which I actually had to go to campus, and that was the only time. All I need is a stable internet connection.”
Anja, like many adult students, had doubts about whether she could succeed. “I thought about going to school for a long time. But I was like, ‘I'm 52. How can I do this?’ I was scared, especially with the technology,” she admits, “but I learned so much and I felt that everyone was very supportive. It was always very welcoming for me, from the first initial phone call. Everyone supported me each step of the way and I kind of took it a day at a time. Now here I am, almost a year later. I’m getting a well-rounded education, and I can use my skills in my field right away.”
Flexibility is a huge part of making special education at National University accessible — affordability is another. National University provides a wide array of financial aid resources, from grants and loans to scholarships like the National University Scholars Program that rewards exceptional students with a full scholarship and a monthly book stipend.
As a veteran-founded school, National University offers military tuition discounts and scholarships for military personnel and their dependents. A designated Yellow Ribbon school, National University accepts the post 9/11 GI Bill, so veteran and active-duty students pay virtually no out-of-pocket costs for their education.
The Caliber of Your Education Relies to a Large Degree on the Instruction
National University is recognized by Money magazine as a “best college” and their commitment to preparing students for careers in the education field stands out front and center. “The college of education here at National far and away prepares more special ed teachers and more teachers in general than any other university, by a long shot,” says Dr. Porter. “We are serious about preparing teachers here.”
That commitment originates with the faculty. “My faculty are incredible in their depth of knowledge and that they truly are passionate about preparing teachers,” says Dr. Porter. “Our faculty members — full-time faculty and our adjuncts — really enjoy teaching, and they love preparing teachers. We only hire full-time professors and full-time instructors that have a rich background actually teaching. You don’t get that at all universities.”
As Dr. Porter explains, National looks for certain qualities when they interview teaching faculty for the program.“How much have you taught in the classroom? How much of your teaching experiences in K-12 can you bring with you to actually work with candidates who themselves are teaching in classrooms? How can you share your experiences and your theoretical knowledge? It's just a great combination. I'm very proud of our faculty because they are good researchers, they are great passionate teachers, and it's a noble profession to them.”
Anja Jones also appreciates the quality of the faculty. “I love my professors. They all know what they're talking about. Most of them are in the field, so what you learn is really so applicable and transferable to the classroom directly.”
The high-quality instruction revolves around a combination of new ways of thinking and a challenging program. “We embrace innovative ways of teaching and preparing teachers. When we look at creating new classes, the discussion around the table is passionate about rigor,” comments Dr. Porter.
You Learn by Doing, Especially at National University
Special education training is so much more than what you learn in the classroom. “You're doing activities and taking advantage of learning opportunities, whether it's formal education at a college or whether it's some professional development activities as part of work as a teacher. You're advancing your knowledge and skills in various aspects of teaching, especially as they pertain to children with disabilities. It could be in behavior management, or in technology, or it could be in curriculum development and so on,” says Dr. Porter.
When discussing how to become a special education teacher in California, the emphasis must be on both the theoretical and the practical. “We talk a lot about theory to practice in teacher education. You know, you learn a theory in a class about how kids learn and how to teach them. Or you know how to teach a student with autism and what's the best research-based methods for teaching kids with dyslexia and other reading difficulties. What we've immersed ourselves in as a teacher ed program and as a department is that we know our students will be putting that theory into practical application immediately. It's not just something in the future — we know that you're bringing this in action with you tomorrow. So our conversations and the curriculum materials that we design and use and the theory-practice are almost simultaneous. We recognize that and we proceed accordingly as we teach our students,” says Dr. Porter.
Anja Jones observes, “With field work, you go deeper into the learning. You learn what it’s really all about because you want to work in your field. The field experiences help you succeed and to be employable right away. Special education, in general, is highly employable.”
Anja Jones thinks there’s another benefit to fieldwork. “The professors already have connections. Because you have to do student teaching, you will make connections right there. And you know you might be employed right after you finish student teaching.”
“It’s not easy, by any means. But it seems to be just a really good fit for me. Things are moving toward a different type of learning, it’s going to be more project-based learning. It’s not as much memorization anymore. National encourages you to find your own philosophy — and that is just exciting,” remarks Anja.
The Most Important Thing You Can Bring to Special Education Is Passion
Anja was already teaching when she caught the bug for special education and furthering her training has only strengthened her commitment to the profession. “The more I learn, the more I love it,” she enthuses.
Dr. Porter also entered the field through education, although that’s not necessarily the norm. An educational background isn’t required, as long as you have your bachelor’s degree. Dr. Porter notes, “They (special education students) come from all walks of life. I have prepared people who were stockbrokers, who were chefs, and who had law degrees. They were artists or stay-at-home moms. And they're all great. They are excellent teachers.”
According to Dr. Porter, despite their disparate backgrounds, all these students do have one thing in common. “In the very first lecture when students start the program, I look around the room and ask, ‘How many of you knew that you'd be here and pursuing a special education credential and you knew this from the time you were in high school?’ Maybe one person out of the 30 raises his or her hand, she says. “Then I say, ‘Yeah, you are all here because you were walking down the road of life and something tapped you on the shoulder and said you're going to be a special ed teacher. You didn't decide it. It called you. You had a kid with a disability. You had a friend whose child had a disability. You saw an article, you read something in the paper, you were substitute teaching and you found yourself attracted to the kid at the back of the class who was showing behavioral or learning challenges and thought, ‘I think I want to be a special ed teacher.’”
She goes on, “The ideal person is just someone who is open to that, who realizes again that it's a calling and is an eager learner. They got tapped on the shoulder. The behavioral traits I see for success are disposition, curiosity, humility — the willingness to learn.”
“We welcome anyone with the willingness to learn, with the willingness to be a special education teacher. I think we accommodate more learning styles and more people from diverse backgrounds, which is what we need in special education. I think that's where National recognizes the capability of lots of people that are maybe outside of the bell curve, those that we don't really think of as a typical college student.”
Is that you? Now that you’ve read about the urgent need in special education and how to become a special education teacher in California through National University’s flexible special education credential programs, are you ready to take on the challenge? Learn more about the National University online clear credential program, special education credential programs, and online degrees now.