As we enter our 100th year of leading special education, the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) is recognizing exceptional educators from around the world who have shown a passion, dedication, and commitment to making a difference in the lives of the students who they teach. Hear from teachers about their personal experiences working in the field, and get inspired to make your own impact this year.
Eileen McCarthy is a Special Education Teacher at Riverside Magnet School in East Hartford, CT. She received her B.A. from Boston College; J.D. from New York University; and M.A. in Special Education from the University of Connecticut. Before teaching, she practiced law as a disability rights advocate. She has been teaching special education for 10 years, with a focus on students with significant reading disabilities, and culturally and linguistically diverse students. She is the mother of three children and lives in West Hartford, CT.
How did you come to teaching Special Education?
Teaching is a second career for me. Before I was a teacher, I was a lawyer and advocate for people with disabilities and people dealing with chronic homelessness. I have always been committed to work that creates a more equitable and just society. After I had my own children, one of whom has a developmental disability, I became more interested in the potential for making change through teaching. I have been teaching special education for 10 years now, in urban settings, and am still excited by the continual opportunities to build just and equitable educational communities.
What are you most passionate about in Special Education?
What excites me most about teaching special education is discovering the untapped potential in each student. Every day, I learn that students with disabilities are not less capable than others. They simply need different ways to show and express what they are capable of. This is the central and exciting challenge of special education: to unlock the potential for each student. This unlocking can occur in many ways. For some students, it consists of removing emotional barriers to learning; for some students, it may be identifying universal design accessibility features; for others, it may be acting as a personal brain trainer to develop and strengthen new brain pathways to support reading. Every child has enormous potential. My job as a special educator is to help students with learning differences, and others in the educational community, see that every child is gifted and talented.
What advice would you give to new teachers?
The real challenge for students with disabilities is not what they can’t do, but how they are seen as less capable by others and, therefore, treated differently from their peers. As a special education teacher, you will have a great impact on how your students are perceived by peers and by others in the school community. Your vision for your students and your confidence in their potential can greatly influence how they are treated and nurtured to develop their gifts and potential.