Know Your Teaching Team: The Role of Special Education Directors

Special education teachers, supported by special education directors, work with students who have different needs and ways of functioning. These educators work in their own classrooms while also supporting general education teachers to create the least restrictive environments for students. They meet with parents and review individualized education programs (IEPs) to make sure each student receives the right accommodations. 

The experts within the school district who support these teachers are special education directors. Special education directors take on leadership roles and ensure schools offer the right services. This is often a thankless job because these professionals work behind the scenes to support teachers. 

Learn more about the work of special education directors and why they are so important.   

What Are Special Education Directors?

Special education directors oversee a school or district to ensure it offers enough accommodations for students with learning disabilities. They need to keep up with state and federal regulations to provide services to students while also managing their budgets. Special education directors are often former teachers or administrators. 

“They will provide leadership and guidance in the development and implementation of a comprehensive special education program that supports the educational needs of all students,” writes the team at Hiring People. “They will ensure all students, regardless of ability level, receive a quality education that is tailored to their individual needs.” 

Additionally, special education directors collaborate with other schools and districts to share best practices and potential resources. 

These professionals support a substantial number of students. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 6.4 million students received special education services for the 2010-11 school year. This increased to 7.3 million for the 2021-22 school year. That means special education directors serve between 13 percent to 15 percent of the public school student population nationwide. If a special education director leads an entire district, they could be responsible for hundreds of students. 

To see this position in action, get to know Dr. Bill Roland, who recently took over the special education director role for Brookfield Public Schools in Brookfield, Connecticut. His job will be to address complaints about the district’s special education programs while developing strategic plans that all schools and teachers can follow. 

Roland says he’s “ready to work with the superintendent, the assistant superintendent and the central office team and the district team to move special education forward in Brookfield.”

Man studies in library; special education directors concept

Why Are Special Education Directors Important?

Districts increasingly rely on special education directors to meet the rising demand for learning accommodations and student services. Better research into disabilities means more students are receiving key diagnoses. Early intervention prevents them from falling behind in school, but it also means schools need more resources to accommodate learners. Autism is a good example of this.  

“As awareness of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has increased in recent years, the number of children diagnosed with the condition has risen dramatically,” says Alexander Lopez, associate professor of occupational therapy at the New York Institute of Technology. 

In 2002, one in every 150 children received an autism diagnosis. In 2020, one in every 36 eight-year-old is diagnosed with the condition, Lopez adds. This is a 300 percent increase in nearly two decades.

Some researchers are trying to improve testing so more students can receive accurate diagnoses. Jeremy Miciak, research associate professor of psychology at the University of Houston, received a $1.7 million grant to better identify specific learning disabilities (SLD) in students.  

“Ultimately, this study aims to provide a more systematic understanding of the decisions schools make to identify children at risk for SLD,” says Miciak. “I hope the findings will help schools improve their identification processes so more students can find success, no matter the challenges they face.”

In the past few years, schools have seen an increase in demand for special education and counseling services in the wake of the pandemic.

“Schools contending with soaring student mental health needs and other challenges have been struggling to determine just how much the pandemic is to blame,” writes reporter Heather Hollingsworth at the Associated Press. “Are the challenges the sign of a disability that will impair a student’s learning long term, or something more temporary?” 

More testing and insight are needed than ever. Right now, however, the best thing districts can do is work with special education directors to accommodate students in the best way possible.

Pupil in wheelchair smiling at camera in classroom at the elementary school; special education directors concept

Special Education Directors: Qualifications and Certifications

A special education director is an advanced role, which means it requires multiple years of teaching experience and working in an education setting.

“In addition to a master’s degree, candidates should possess specialized knowledge in the field of special education,” writes the team at Parallel Learning. “This includes a comprehensive understanding of individualized education plans (IEPs), instructional strategies for students with disabilities and learning differences, behavior management techniques, and relevant laws and regulations.” 

Along with experience and updated licensing, you also might decide to advance your education further with a director of special education certificate. These certificate programs are designed for educators who are working full-time, so they can juggle their advanced education with their jobs. Advanced certificates can show your dedication to the field and prove that you have the skills to take on a director role. As an example, you can see what the Loyola University Chicago program looks like and compare it to others with similar credentials.  

If you are preparing to apply for a special education director role, read some of the most commonly asked interview questions published by ZipRecruiter. This will prepare you to enter the interview with confidence so you can speak clearly about your expertise. 

For example, your interviewers might ask how you handle conflict resolution or address limited resources within your department. They will want to know how you keep up with state and federal regulations along with best practices for supporting students with special needs.   

Special Education Director Income

Educators who step into this directorial position can expect to earn around $80,000 per year, according to Zippia. There has been a four percent increase in demand for special education directors over the past few years as more schools try to allocate resources to this department.

Plus, there are opportunities to grow your income as a special education director. The Economic Research Institute reports that special education directors earn close to $117,000 because they are in executive positions. Naturally, pay rates will vary by district, state, and responsibilities. 

You might earn more as a special education director if you oversee a large school or an entire district. Similarly, you might earn more if you work in a state with a high cost of living, but that means your salary will go toward your basic expenses.   

There are several career paths you can take once you have your master’s in education and special education certifications if you don’t think working as a special education director is right for you. The team at Point Loma Nazarene University listed nine careers you can enter with your current education and experience. While you can stay within public school districts as a special education director, you can also become an independent consultant or work in a clinical setting. 

Two people using sign language; special education directors concept

Demand for Special Education Directors

Demand for both special education directors and teachers is high. Not only do more students than ever need accommodations, but it is incredibly hard to hire and retain special education instructions. 

“It’s a tougher road [to become a special education instructor],” says Mayme Hostetter, president of the Relay Graduate School of Education. “It’s a longer, harder and generally more expensive certification process. You’re not better paid. There’s no recompense.” 

Special education instructors have extra certifications and skills that general education teachers lack. This means it’s not possible for schools to reassign general education teachers or expect them to step in to fill special education gaps. 

“You can’t just put a non-special education teacher in a special education classroom, or ask them to provide a special education instruction,” says Virginia Fogg, supervising attorney of the special education team at Disability Rights North Carolina. “It has to be done by a special education teacher.”

Special education directors will likely be challenged with keeping current teachers on staff and recruiting additional special education teachers. They typically work with limited budgets and will often ask educators to stretch the few resources they have.

If you currently work in the field of special education, you could step into this directorial role in the future. It often helps that special education directors have teaching experience because they understand the limits and opportunities of their districts. This is a hard job but it can be incredibly rewarding and beneficial to the students in your area. 

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