Lisa Ownby finds rewarding career in Special Education

A Career in Demand - Special Education

Reprinted with permission from:
Williamsburg's Next Door Neighbors Vol. 5, Issue 11

Lisa W. Cumming PhotographyThe College of William and Mary's Special Education program offers prospective students flexibility, creativity, and most importantly, a solid job market. Lisa Ownby helps teachers discover the potential in special education.

"I am a social worker in the field of developmental disabilities," Lisa explains. Development disabilities are diagnosed disabilities in cognitive, learning or emotional aspects that someone is born with or acquires before the age of 18 – during a person's developmental years.  

"This includes cerebral palsy, intellectual disabilities, autism, the whole gamut of developmental disabilities," she says.  "After the age of 18, if someone is in a car accident that causes a brain injury, for example, those are called traumatic brain injuries."

She concentrates on the developmental disabilities field because she has a personal connection to it.

"My brother was born with severe and profound disabilities," Lisa says. "He had mental retardation, cerebral palsy and epilepsy. So, as a child, I started volunteering with Special Olympics back in the 1970s and worked closely with his occupational therapist, physical therapist and speech language therapist. I always wanted to be in the field."

At the age of 18, Lisa began working in a training center located in Northern Virginia.

"It was a state institution where individuals with intellectual disabilities lived. Then I went to college where I realized I wanted to do advocacy," she says. "I worked in Washington, D.C. for my internship with a national disability advocacy organization. In graduate school, I worked with a state-wide advocacy organization."

In her early social work career, Lisa helped people with disabilities to live in an inclusive environment. "By job training and assisting with the support needed for them to live independently," she explains.

In Williamsburg, Lisa worked with Child Development Resources. "I managed a program funded by the U.S. Department of Education. That program was designed to assist parents in training caregivers to support their children."

Today, Lisa helps the College of William and Mary's School of Education inform people about the program to be special educators.  "I'm passionate about the subject," she says.

She's part of the Preparing Inclusive Education team focused on special educators. Special educators are different from general educators in that they have additional training to meet the needs of students who have an individualized education plan (IEP).  These students are in the special education program because they have a diagnosed developmental disability.

"The special education teachers do a variety of things," Lisa says, "that allow the teacher more creativity and variety. While a general educator works with students in the classroom and occasionally has a parent-teacher conference, a special educator works in a whole range of settings." She adds that there are three main configurations of special education in the schools: collaborative teaching, self-contained instruction and consultative education.

Collaborative Teaching: "The trend now is collaborative teaching where you find a general educator paired with a special educator," Lisa says. "The teachers work together in the classroom where a handful of students have disabilities and need support. The rest of the class are typically developing learners, but the teachers work together to meet the needs of all the students."

Self-Contained Instruction: "Some students are still served best in a self-contained classroom," Lisa adds, "where only students with disabilities are receiving their education."

Consultative Education: "And finally, some special educators act as consultants or tutors. They may pull children out of a classroom to provide intensive tutoring and support. They may also consult with general educators to provide intensive support and training to help the general educators meet the students' needs."

In addition to the classroom teaching, special educators work closely with related service personnel like social workers, speech therapists, nurses, psychologists and parents. "Parents are a big part of this team. Every child has a team of individuals based on his disability," Lisa describes.  

"This team identifies goals and objectives each year, and the special educator works with all of these people to help each child meet his or her annual goals."

The variety in the job is what draws a lot of people to the career. "Special educators wear a lot of hats: trainers, advocates, adult educators, child educators," Lisa lists. "It's very diverse and varied every day and every year."

Special education is mandated by law. That's why the position is always in demand. "There have to be special educators at every school depending on the number of children that have individualized education plans (IEPs)," Lisa says. "Across the country, many school districts have had to layoff general education educators, but they still have a high demand for special educators."

She gives the example of the demand for this career from an education fair hosted last May by the college. "Predominately, across the board, most school districts were not hiring general educators," Lisa says, "but every one of our special educators got a job. I've been in this program for three years, and each year our special education graduates have had jobs secured before they walked across the stage for their diplomas."

The College of William and Mary has an undergraduate program in elementary and secondary education. Special education is a graduate program. "We have a five-year program where a student can begin taking some of the coursework [in their] senior year then elevate to the master's program," Lisa explains of a popular option for undergraduates. "That allows a student to earn both the undergraduate and graduate degrees in five years."

The college also has a flexible program for current teachers to come back and go through the Collaborative Master Educator program.  "Those teachers can be dually licensed as general education and special education, which makes them more marketable," Lisa says. "They can move around through the years teaching general education or special education. The strategy, skills and methodology that we teach special educators is all about an individualized approach, which works for every student, not just kids with disabilities."

In today's educational environment with standardized testing and Virginia's Standards of Learning (SOL), Lisa explains that teachers aren't allowed to be creative in the classroom. "They are required to buckle down and teach to the test, not a lot of room for individualized approaches. But in special education, it's the antithesis of that. You can be very creative. Your job is to individually approach each one of your students, find out their strengths and weaknesses and the best strategy to meet that student's needs.  Teachers can teach, be creative, use their own personal skill set and talents to help the student achieve."

Lisa is passionate about the special education field. "I know that there is a need," she says. "It's exciting. I like interfacing with young people who are thinking about their future and their career.  Special education is fairly recession-proof and you can make a decent living. There is a particular shortage of educators who can meet the needs of kids with high-incidence disabilities [as opposed to the severe intellectual disabilities]. High-incidence disabilities are autism, mild intellectual disability, ADHD [Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder], the things that occur more frequently."  

A career in demand, special education stretches a teacher's creative muscle and allows the teacher to perform a wide range of roles in a child's education.

"Guiding educators to this option," Lisa Ownby states, "is in line with my personal and professional goal to be part of the field and to help folks with disabilities in the long run."