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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.

Since 1984 CEC has honored members who currently provide instruction to students with exceptionalities and are outstanding members of the profession. The Teacher of the Year Award is given every year to a CEC member teacher whose work exemplifies the best in special education teaching and reflects significant, documented positive outcomes for students, continued professional development, and the highest standards of educational quality. 

Take a look at former CEC Teachers of the Year and see where they are now.

Gayle Zavala

Gayle Solis Zavala

What is your current role?

I am a recently retired educator of 35 years. I taught speech/language correction, intellectually disabled students and reading. In addition, I served as the Response to Intervention Coordinator and the Science Technology Engineering Art Math (STEAM) teacher K-6th. 


How has the CEC Teacher of the Year Award had an impact on your career and/or how has it built upon your leadership in CEC?

The CEC TOY Award was an amazing honor and recognition that touched not only my heart but also my family, my school, my county, my state and national response . I received additional recognition from USA Today Teacher All Star Team, Hispanic Teacher of the Year, a Proclamation Award from the State of Florida Legislation and a personal letter from the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan.

The award gave me confidence to take my experiences and those of my special education colleagues to become a leader in legislative advocacy and in pursuing grant opportunities for more inclusive educational practices. As the coordinator of the Florida Children’s Advocacy Network , I led fellow advocates in Tallahassee and Washington DC to meet with legislators and their staff to bring a “teacher’s viewpoint “ to legislative platforms. At the school based level, I used my grant writing skills to gain funds to promote literacy, provide community based instruction, social/ emotional skills, environmental education in an inclusive setting. 


What was most memorable to you about your experience in CEC and/or in education?

As I was honored to speak about at the recent CEC 100th Anniversary luncheon in Orlando, Florida, CEC offered me an escape from isolation, a great networking opportunity and the importance of knowing your worth.

I found fellowship with other teachers in the field of special education. Together we shared innovative  ideas and problem solving. This of course led to networking across an array of educational fields.

One of the biggest cross connections was with linking Project Based Learning to students at risk. One of my favorite experiences was linking more engagement in literacy to a butterfly garden project with students with reading disabilities. The students assisted in creating a school garden along with writing, reading and talking about their progress. To my delight and extreme pride, my students presented a Rap about Butterflies to an entire school assembly and included a question/ answer session. This and many more lessons that I would later do as the STEAM/STEM teacher would remind me that hands-on learning reinforces the concepts you teach and it can be done in an inclusive classroom.

And of course, CEC always leads the way in recognizing students and educators for their accomplishments. Whether it was at the national, state or local area, it was always important and inspiring  to hear about their success stories. If you ever were fortunate to see a Yes I Can! Awards ceremony and cheer for the recipients and their families, you always walked away with joy. Or if you received a thank you letter from a parent for funding the cost of summer camp for their child with a disability , you felt satisfied that your chapter’s fund raising was worth the needed opportunities it supported. And CEC provided numerous ways to show educators their self worth via professional development, leadership and grant opportunities, mentoring and life long friendships. Of course, my special day in Seattle will forever be etched in my mind and heart when I became the Clarissa Hug TOY. And each year, I’m in awe of the many nominees and award winners selected as TOY, especially so many from Florida! Thank you CEC for 100 years of all you have done and continue to do!


What advice do you have for early career teachers?

This is such a challenging time in education but looking back in history, it always seemed educators faced hurdles. I would advise to stay open to using the skills you gained in your training along with innovative ideas. And try to surround yourself with positive people. Negativity will burn you out quickly. When it comes to the students, don’t take everything personal. Each day is a new day. 

Posted:  26 May, 2022

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