In a classroom, students are sitting in desks. One has their hand raised. They are facing two teachers, one - a student teacher - sitting on a desk and one - the mentor teacher - standing, leaning on a desk.
Betsy Manning

"At Temple, you can be who you want to be, do what you want to do. Strive toward goals irrespective of challenges you're confronted with. Everybody has the potential to learn, to have impact. Every life has meaning and value to some person, some people, some community. As educators, it's our responsibility to ensure every individual reaches their potential and can achieve their goals and experience the good life that they imagine for themselves."

This, says Jason Travers, professor and program coordinator of the special education program at Temple University's College of Education and Human Development, is what comes to mind when he thinks about the phrase "Owls of all abilities."

Access to education, and to educators that are properly equipped, increases the opportunity for people with disabilities to maximize their own impact on their communities and the world around them.

At the College of Education and Human Development (CEHD), there is a great sense of responsibility to meet this need, and a variety of pathways available. Students may meet PA requirements for teaching certification by pursuing a bachelor's degrees in special education (PreK to 12) or through a special education concentration as an early childhood education major. Graduate students may pursue a master's degree in early childhood and special education, or a master's degree in special education. There is also a special education concentration in the education doctorate program. Additionally, the Temple Teacher Residency program recruits individuals with bachelor's degrees in the Philadelphia community who want to change their career or advance from a related role, such as paraprofessionals, and need the appropriate certification.

"I've been thrilled to work with the School District of Philadelphia to recruit and train folks interested in becoming special education teachers through the TTR program," Travers says. "Residents are immediately placed in schools with a teacher that has an excellent reputation as a special education teacher." TTR participants receive a tuition stipend from the School District of Philadelphia and are hired as salaried employees in the district during their residency experience.

As a non-traditional student himself, Travers recognizes the additional barriers adult learners face returning to the classroom and persisting through to their degree. His experience motivates him to find ways to knock down barriers for aspiring teachers who want to serve kids.

The master of special education is also available in an online format for individuals able to complete their student teaching in Pennsylvania. Julie Kessler, associate professor of instruction and program coordinator for the online master's program explains this enables Temple to meet graduate students where they are, which then allows them to serve their communities in a similar way. The end goal, she says, is to "support students in reaching their potential, whatever that looks like."

"All kids benefit from explicit and systematic instruction," Travers says. "We're talking about the rights and dignity of individuals who are at a disadvantage." Recognizing historical and systemic marginalization of people with special needs, Travers emphasizes the power of people with disabilities to contribute to society just as much as anyone else. "Every life has value. Everyone has the potential to influence the future of society."

To that end, the coursework at Temple emphasizes the value and application of evidence-based interventions and supports for students with and without disabilities. The instructional strategies, interventions, and approaches our students implement in their classrooms have been proven effective through research and empirical evidence. The theoretical framework aligns with experiences students have in their classrooms, whether it be during fieldwork or other professional experiences.

"Our approach integrates the importance of understanding various contextual factors that influence a student's performance in schools, such as family and community experiences, and how they may manifest in school," Travers says. Culturally significant factors are also considered when making strategic decisions about how to best support students.

Yet another pathway to a degree and PA certification in special education includes a plus-one accelerated program, which affords undergraduate students the opportunity to earn their bachelor's and master's degrees in just five years. Emily Davis, who served as the 2023 CEHD graduation ceremony undergraduate student speaker, was excited to take advantage of the opportunity provided by the plus-one program.

Currently working for the School District of Philadelphia as an autistic support teacher in a general education classroom, Davis says she wants to support students with special needs appropriately and effectively. Davis, who has Auditory Processing Disorder, grew up with an individualized education plan (IEP) of her own, and says she knows firsthand the importance of ensuring successful experiences for her students.

"I am completely capable of doing everything that was expected of my peers," she says. "The only difference is that I needed a little bit of extra support." With the right support, Davis adds, everyone can succeed.

"Our program provides relevant information from people who are currently in the education field serving or having recently served as principals, coaches, teachers and more," Davis says. "All of the content we learned, I have already applied during my first-year teaching."

In addition to the numerous degree pathways, there are a variety of opportunities for field experiences. Kessler shares this "allows students to see many different ways and roles in which special educators operate," such as observing, co-teaching the whole class, small group instruction, and one-to-one intensive teaching. Temple students experience an array of special education service models from highly specialized settings to fully inclusive classrooms, across all grades.

"In Philadelphia," Kessler notes, "we're really a city of neighborhoods. You get to see the different school climates and how they influence different school settings. Students have a chance to find their niche and where they fit in."

Faculty and students work to combat stereotyping and break down stigmas. "A lot of what we're doing is myth-busting," says Kessler.

"A real challenge for a lot of people is that it's difficult to individualize instruction," Travers says. "But when you know your learners, it's much easier to serve kids with evidence-based practices."

Davis agrees, noting that "Temple does a great job of teaching inclusion versus integration. That's a great first step to mending the barrier that exists between general education and special education."

The key, Kessler says, is collaboration - with families, and with others in the school that support students with disabilities. When there is strong collaboration, Kessler says it benefits the student. Therefore, not only do Temple students gain theoretical knowledge and get hands-on practice implementing what they've learned, but there is a focus on the importance of collaborating with colleagues and families of students with disabilities.

"Temple's College of Education and Human Development creates teachers that are ready to go into the classroom with skills and knowledge to properly include all students through modifications and accommodations," Davis says. "Teachers who are mindful, compassionate, resourceful and understanding. Our classes make us think outside the box to support each student. I've been given all the tools I need to be successful as a teacher."

That is exactly what Travers hopes students graduate with - the tools to effectively educate students with disabilities.

"Those tools will vary," Travers says, so the faculty "pack in as many resources, strategies, and techniques into [the students'] pockets so they have lots to pull from." As educators, graduates can "recognize the need, identify appropriate interventions or supports, apply them in ways that are consistent with evidence that demonstrates effectiveness, and they can collect data to determine if their efforts are bearing fruit."

"That thread ties through all of our coursework," Kessler adds. "Everything we teach about - building that toolkit - is data-based decision-making."

"Our students are working in schools in Philly with teachers, many of whom are alumni, and that fosters a connection that reinforces their passion," Kessler says. "We're finding that our students make connections through their field experiences and student teaching, and often they find that they love what they're doing. They have the passion and then they get the practice, experience, and knowledge base, and they're excited."

That combination is critical.

"You can have all the passion in the world," Travers says, "but if you don't have the tools you need to be effective, passion doesn't matter. People become teachers to have an impact on kids, families, and communities—they have the passion. But when you have the tools to be effective and see kids improve, then you can sustain your passion throughout a career. That's why I became a teacher."