Meet Georgetown College’s Dr. Kara Rusk-Jenney, Lecturer of Education, School Counseling and Moderate/Severe Disabilities Certification Programs, and experience her passion for special education.
What programs do you teach at Georgetown College? What drew you to these fields of study? What keeps you excited about them?
At Georgetown College, I teach in the Moderate and Severe Disabilities and Learning and Behavior Disorders programs. I also have the opportunity to teach the field placement courses with college observers and mentor teachers to support teaching candidates as they complete their final field practicum.
When I started as a teacher, I was emergency-certified to teach in a multiple disabilities classroom. This certification type was reserved for classrooms that were hard to place teachers. I did not have any prior teaching certification or experience; I had a B.S. in Recreation and had started a Master’s in Teaching Program with an Elementary Education and Special Education Certification.
When I first started, I was completely overwhelmed. I had no resources and very little support. My mentor teacher was wonderful, but she had her own classroom, and it was a sink or swim moment for me. I had to learn on the job how to teach but also how to support the ten students I had in my classroom. I was fortunate to have a great instructional assistant. She was always willing to help in any way possible as I changed and manipulated the classroom environment to meet the needs of the students.
I had students that had behavior challenges, medical conditions, autism, and learning disabilities. Learning how to differentiate for a wide range of students was a challenge. That is why it is so important to me that our programs at Georgetown fully equip our candidates to be resourceful, find supports when needed, and differentiate to meet a variety of student needs.
How will your programs better prepare/equip educators for the current climate they are facing? How will the programs help them tackle the challenges of COVID and post-COVID teaching?
One of the most important things to know about Georgetown College is that even though the program is online, building community within each course is very important. We want our teaching candidates to work with one another to learn:
- Best practices
- Teaching strategies
- Ways to support students in the classroom
- To share experiences
- To support one another throughout the program
Moving through as a cohort allows candidates the opportunity to work alongside the same group of individuals throughout the program. Even though they may be in different parts of the state, they can learn about each other and share experiences that help shape their educational experience.
When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, we had to play catch up! Candidates were not prepared to teach virtually or from their homes. They did not have the resources to support their students and the loss of instructional time that occurred was challenging for many.
Our biggest challenge at Georgetown College was to make sure that students were able to finish placements and college observers could complete observations. In each of our courses, we established guidelines for completing fieldwork and being as flexible as we could. This is something that we are still doing as teachers and schools everywhere are still adjusting to pandemic requirements.
I believe the state did a nice job of pulling together resources that teachers could use to support their students in a virtual setting. Many of the activities and resources put into place are still being used in our courses today.
What attracted you to teach at Georgetown College? What sets them apart?
Being an educator who took classes and worked full-time, I think the flexibility a program offers is the most important thing to look at when choosing a certification program. Georgetown offers online programs that allow educators to work full-time and attend asynchronous classes convenient for their schedule.
Zoom sessions and face-to-face meetings are also recorded for individuals that cannot attend. It allows candidates to participate in coursework once their day is over and family time is complete, at night and on the weekends, for many. In addition, course professors make themselves available at convenient times for candidates, ensuring that candidates are successful as they work through the program.
What is your professional background as an educator? Why did you become interested in education?
Before entering into teaching, I worked as a recreational therapist at a children’s psychiatric hospital. I worked with individuals with special needs that had become too challenging for them to live at home. Some of the residents eventually went home but many were there long-term.
I had the opportunity to work with them in the classroom, out in the community, and as they learned daily life skills. This was my first real opportunity to work with individuals with more severe disabilities. The behavior supports, visual schedules, and communication systems that we used helped me see that this was the population of individuals I was meant to work with. Soon after, I began my first teaching certification program.
Once I began teaching, I obtained my degree in school counseling and eventually my doctorate in leadership and administration, focusing on best teaching practices for students with moderate to severe disabilities. I worked as a school counselor for one year and then began my career at Georgetown.
What would you tell prospective students considering your programs about yourself? What’s something that students and colleagues should know about you?
My educational philosophy is the same now as it was when I started teaching 22 years ago: “All students can learn as long as they have the resources they need to be successful.”
I approach my college classes the same way I approached my elementary classroom and my middle school counseling program: meet students where they are and support them to be successful. This is important at the graduate level as well. Teaching candidates do not all come in with the same set of skills. It is key to support them as they build their tool bank and learn how to be successful teachers. I want all candidates to feel this support.
What advice do you have for students interested in pursuing their school counseling or moderate/severe disabilities certification? How can people stand out in these fields?
When exploring how to become a school counselor or obtaining certification to teach moderate to severe disabilities, it is best to find a program that best fits your needs. There are many things to consider:
- Type of programs offered
- Strength of programs
Georgetown College offers all of these things. Being able to teach in your own classroom while completing your degree program is another option that we offer that other programs do not. The convenience of taking classes online in an asynchronous format is appealing to many teaching candidates.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
As teachers finish their programs and begin their teaching journeys, it is essential to always put your students first. All students’ needs are important in determining the type of educator you plan to become and what will ultimately set you apart from other teachers.
Special education is a challenging profession and takes a special kind of teacher; remember that the students are why you are doing what you are doing and always advocate for each of their needs.