North Central News

Making a Difference in Education

New special education degree program built on research and inclusion

Hannah Brauer

Nov 06, 2022

North Central College has launched another great opportunity for students to succeed in their future careers—this time, through a uniquely designed special education undergraduate degree program. The new program is designed by Cheryl Widman, visiting assistant professor of education. Leaning on her Ph.D. in special education, as well as nine years’ experience in middle school teaching, Widman has designed a program that combines research-based curriculum with multiple field opportunities for hands-on learning. Open and ready for enrollment, the student-centered program offers future North Central graduates the knowledge and skills they need to stand out as special education teachers.

Why is the need for a special education major so strong now? Currently, there is a nationwide shortage of special education teachers that Widman hopes to help address. That shortage makes the field ripe with career opportunities. According to Bruce Spitzer, chairperson of the department of education, “recent data from the Illinois State Board of Education indicates that there are 602 unfilled special education positions in the state.” Spitzer adds about the new degree opportunity: “We are excited to offer this robust, new program that helps fill a need in the Chicagoland area.”

Despite the local and national shortage, special education teachers play an important role in their students’ lives and in their communities. They must be able to meet the diverse needs of their students in order to help them learn to live, work, and function in the community.

Certainly, teachers in special education have a huge impact on society. Perhaps most rewarding, though, is the significance they have in helping each of their students reach their full potential. In Widman’s words, “Your job as a teacher is to liberate the talent in every child.”

While personal fulfillment is important in any career, North Central’s special education program also gives students the practical knowledge they will need to be “outstanding in their future classrooms,” according to Widman. As part of the curriculum, teacher candidates will gain expertise in a variety of topics essential to special education, including learning about psychology, disability law & policy, and equity & access in systems of education. They’ll also learn about collaboration with families, caregivers, professionals, & the community to help their future students overcome educational and societal barriers to succeed.

North Central College Professor Cheryl Widman.

Cheryl Widman

Having presented at national and international autism conferences since 2003, Widman’s design approach for the program’s curriculum is grounded in research. She emphasizes, “Every course in this program is evidence-based.” Through their classes, North Central students will become familiar with the foundations of teaching & learning—and even learn about assistive and augmentative technologies in order to support a range of diverse needs in the classroom.

Integral to students’ success are the unique fieldwork experiences built into the program. “We’ve created a program that truly prepares students to work with children from kindergarten through age 22,” says Spitzer. Teacher candidates will have opportunities for three different kinds of field experiences: at the elementary school, middle/high school, and transition program levels. These varied field opportunities will allow teacher candidates to self-determine where they can best use their skills in their student teaching residencies—and, eventually, at which level they want to teach after graduating. By giving them the chance to shape their own academic experiences at North Central, the special education program plays to students’ strengths so they can “hit the ground running” in their careers, asserts Widman.

As the mother of an autistic adult, Widman has witnessed first-hand the impact special education teachers have on their students’ success. Speaking about her son Nicolas Widman, who is now an instructor at Clemson University, she said: “I felt the need to go on and help him." This personal motivation has driven her dedication to instruct and encourage aspiring special educators. Now teaching at the collegiate level, Widman hopes that the new program helps to inspire future educators to open up educational opportunities for others. For a child in any level of special education, “it’s not just about acquiring skills, it’s about being included,” she defends.

Widman knows that her family’s story is not the only one that has been influenced through special education—or, for that matter, through the encouragement of teachers. Because teachers work to support the diverse needs of all their students, Widman says, “Every educator is a special educator.” North Central’s new special education program provides students with the knowledge and real-world skills they’ll need to be prepared for their future classrooms, no matter who fills them. That’s why this specially designed program will help to propel students to excel in their educational careers—and ultimately, to make a difference in the lives of so many others.

Clemson University instructor Nicolas Widman.

Nicolas Widman