Becoming a Bilingual Special Education Specialist

The profession of bilingual special education specialist is one that takes a unique personality—one with endless patience, compassion, empathy, creativity, a great sense of humor, and a desire to both serve and encourage—in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

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There are almost 950,000 children in the United States who have at least one type of learning or physical disability and who need bilingual education services. The U.S. has the fifth-highest Spanish-speaking population in the world, and thus Spanish-speaking special education teachers are most in demand. However, in other geographical pockets of the country, that second language could be Chinese, German, Tagalog, Vietnamese, or one of several Native American languages such as Navajo.

When a student facing both language and educational challenges makes progress and learns a new skill, it can be extraordinarily rewarding. These moments are cherished by special education teachers, but progress can sometimes be slow and hard won. A bilingual special education teacher faces the dual challenges of being both a bilingual teacher and a special education teacher. This is a hard road for a teacher to choose, but for those who love a challenge, and love kids facing these kinds of challenges, it can be a highly rewarding career path.

What is it like?

Special education teachers must have a very broad understanding of a great many disabilities. Students in resource classrooms can have physical impairments, emotional and behavioral disabilities, many types of learning disabilities, and/or various degrees of developmental disability—and there are a multitude of variations within these types of disabilities. You might be dealing with a child who experiences seizures, has impulse control issues, and is hearing impaired. And, doesn’t come from an English-speaking home. It’s a great deal of responsibility that requires a lot of flexibility.

Autism

Autism now affects one in 88 children, and one in 54 boys. Boys are four times more likely to be diagnosed with autism than girls. Autism Spectrum Disorder is fraught with communication challenges and repetitive behaviors. Every autistic child has different symptoms; thus, every student will have their own therapy and intervention plans.

One unique aspect of autism is that these children can be exceptionally bright in one specific area, such as math or science. It’s possible that autistic children can grow up to achieve social independence and even become leaders in their fields of study, due to their intense focus in that one area.

Small things can be enormous obstacles in a special education classroom. Nothing is taken for granted. Much of what you will be teaching will be life skills. Can your student tie his or her own shoes? Speak simple sentences? Use American Sign Language to communicate? Control his or her behavior adequately? Sometimes disabilities are so severe that you can work months with a student before even receiving a yes or no response. But, once that student is able to communicate something as fundamental as telling you that he or she wants a drink of water, it will feel miraculous. Indeed, it will be a miracle, and both you and your student will be excited and proud at seeing such a huge leap forward.

At the same time, you’ll be working with students to help them achieve their highest capacity for academic knowledge and skill. If a child is capable of reading, the special education teacher works with the student to make sure he or she becomes skilled at it. If a child is capable of higher levels of mathematics, the special education teacher ensures that he or she is being adequately challenged in this area.

More and more special educators are also assisting “normal” teachers in their classrooms, as children with all different kinds of disabilities are being mainstreamed into the classroom environment. There is an ongoing debate regarding the effectiveness of this technique, but it’s an aspect of the job that you’ll likely have to deal with. If so, your responsibilities will then also include helping teachers tailor modifications to their teaching plans, in order to accommodate students with a variety of disabilities and needs.

Perhaps the largest down side of being a bilingual special education teacher is the enormous amount of paperwork involved with each student. Sometimes it might seem that all the assessments, parent/teacher/specialist meetings, referrals, education plans, required modifications, and progress reports are never-ending.

On the positive side, the special education field is so broad in scope that you can move around if you find yourself burning out in one area. For instance, if you’re working with children who have behavioral disorders and you find your patience running out, you might consider moving to a classroom or area of teaching that deals more with children with physical disabilities. This type of change can provide new challenges and a fresh enthusiasm.

Can I get a job?

Because of its demanding nature and high stress level, the field of special education has a very high turnover rate. After only five years, 50 percent of teachers will leave special education and either transition into regular classrooms or leave the teaching profession altogether; by the time 10 years has passed, that figure rises to 75 percent. Thus, there will always be an ongoing need for special education teachers.

At the same time, there are more frequent diagnoses than there were before, which means the need for special education teachers is growing. Diagnoses of autism and attention deficit disorder are growing far more rapidly than existing systems can keep up with. Because of their dual specialization, there is an even more desperate need for bilingual special education teachers.

There is a need for dedicated professionals who embrace change and a new challenge every day. The National Association of Special Education Teachers is an invaluable resource for special ed teachers. Their website has mentoring, teaching resources, and job listings.

Attention Deficit Disorder

Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) affects 7.5 percent of all school-aged kids. This has become a huge issue in the school system, especially because students with ADD can be disruptive and restless in the classroom, thus disrupting other students’ learning experience and distracting the teacher. With behavior modification, and sometimes medication, students with ADD or ADHD can have a quality educational experience.

In addition, many kids with ADD or ADHD are often highly creative, with a million ideas running through their heads. If directed appropriately, they can become high achieving students and adults.

As with all teaching positions, there is a greater need in rural areas and in areas suffering from economic disparity. For bilingual special education specialists, this is especially true. There are more minority students in agricultural communities, large cities, and border states such as New Mexico, Texas, and Arizona.

One way to determine whether this is the right career choice for you is to spend time with bilingual special education students if you already know their language, or with English speaking special education students if you don’t. Most schools will invite volunteers into the classroom and be grateful for the assistance. You could also try to get a job as a part-time teacher’s aide or paraprofessional in a resource classroom. This type of experience will be priceless in the discovery process of your career path. You really want to investigate whether teaching bilingual special education is the door you want to walk through, because it is an enormous challenge.

However, if you discover, after all your training and education, that this career isn’t for you, it’s still possible that you can transition from the special education classroom to a more typical classroom, depending on what other certifications you have.

What salary can I expect?

The median salary of a special education teacher is almost $55,000 for high school and a little over $52,000 for elementary levels. Of course, if you achieve specialized certifications such as National Orientation and Mobility Certification (NOMC), National Certification in Literary Braille (NCLB), National Blindness Certification (NBPCB), or others, you will likely make a higher salary. Bilingual teachers are also sometimes given additional compensation. You can also achieve Board Certification in Special Education (BCSE) from the National Association of Special Education Teachers, which not every state requires, but which makes you more marketable and could increase your salary.

Do not forget that there is compensation aside from salary as well. You should be careful to look at the whole package, including health insurance, retirement benefits, sick leave, and vacation days.

How do I become a Bilingual Special Education Teacher?

To become a bilingual special education teacher you will need a bachelor’s degree in special education, plus fluency in a second language. As mentioned above, there are specializations within the special education field that you can also be certified in, depending on your passion.

In addition to your degrees and specializations you will have to complete a teaching certification program. Each state has different requirements for certification. Visit teaching-certification.com to find out what your state requires. This will likely include some student teaching time in the classroom, which provides useful experience to a new teacher. Finding a mentor teacher who can help you learn specific tips on how to handle the realities of being a special education specialist will be invaluable.

Some people just have the heart for teaching bilingual kids with special needs, and finding joy in helping struggling students reach their highest potential. Are you one of them?

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