Babe Ruth once said “it’s hard to beat a person who never gives up.” These words rang through my thoughts as I was entering college working with the Special Olympics and kids who never gave up. This experience would change my academic and personal life forever. Working with children and coaching made me pivot my original plans of studying sports medicine. I was fortunate to get a job right out of college teaching a resource mathematics class for Mike Moses Middle School in Nacogdoches, Texas. At the same time, I entered a graduate program in school and behavioral psychology at Stephen F. Austin State University. This is where the research bug bit me! I only required a little nudging to make me want to chase a Ph.D at Utah State University and the Center for Persons with Disabilities.
My research, which has been continuously funded since 2008 with more than $12.25 million from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Education Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services (OSERS), examines how K-12 and postsecondary students with disabilities can effectively learn science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) content using innovative technologies.
This research has provided a foundation for the Toni Jennings Exceptional Education Institute (TJEEI). In 2017, I was asked to become the Director of the TJEEI where we bring a convergence of interdisciplinary research, teaching, and service with a scholarly focus on individuals with disabilities and their families. The mission of the Toni Jennings Exceptional Education Institute is to provide opportunities for lifelong learning and support for children and adults with exceptional needs and their families through interdisciplinary research and practice, professional development, and partner collaboration. We have funded several doctoral and postdoctoral positions and employ students with disabilities helping with research initiatives. In addition, we are able to support our local community by hiring students with disabilities from a local STEM high schools to complete internships with us. The partnership with PedsAcademy at Nemours has allowed a new and exciting opportunity to impact children and families at the world’s first pediatric school program designed to provide children in hospitals with extraordinary, research-backed educational opportunities specific to their respective disease or condition. Our team and I are committed and excited to help establish the PedsAcademy as the preeminent location for effective evidence-based practice and research.
It has been my privilege to work with children and their families for over 20 years as a pediatric physical therapist. My clinical experiences are rich and diverse as I have served children in many diverse settings including hospital, outpatient clinics, and home health. I have witnessed dramatic changes in health care. In addition, I have gained insights on the many challenges experienced by children and families navigating medical and developmental diagnoses. A passion for pediatric physical therapy and these new perspectives fueled my desire to explore innovative strategies to improve the lives of children. I was not only interested in how to serve children but where we serve them. I had worked with children in health care settings but what about educational settings? These questions led to me to pursue a doctorate in exceptional education. I hoped that the skills gained would help me bridge the medical and educational communities to improve the lives of children.
My journey in exploring new approaches led me to incredibly talented faculty with a shared passion. Dr. Nickels is one such faculty member. During our very first conversation, I was so impressed and inspired by her research on evidence-based education for children t disease tailored to their specific disease or condition. I also learned about PedsAcademy and I knew that I wanted to be involved in this very special initiative. PedsAcademy allows me to use both my medical and educational backgrounds to serve children and families in a unique way. I am collaborating with amazing and diverse faculty working towards a common goal of providing an extraordinary educational experience for children in the hospital. As pediatric therapist, I can identify potential challenges to learning and develop appropriate accommodations. In addition, I have the pleasure of teaching elementary education interns about the hospital setting and the different diagnoses that they may encounter. I continue to be so impressed with the students’ ability to create and teach lessons that allow a child in the hospital to engage in learning that is fun! Children are motivated and excited to learn despite the medical challenges they may face.
UCF PedsAcademy at Nemours is improving the lives of children. My time spent at PedsAcademy is rewarding beyond measure.
Since the age of twelve, I have known I wanted to educate others. Having taught in the elementary school setting, consulted around the country and currently as an Associate Lecturer in the College of Community Innovation and Education School of Teacher Education, I have fulfilled my passions for teaching others in many settings. I thoroughly enjoy learning and am proud to be a triple KNIGHT, having earned all three degrees from UCF!
My research interests center around reading motivation, access to books and quality children’s literature. My dissertation was titled: The Impact of Access to Books on the Reading Motivation and Achievement of Urban Elementary Students. Above all, I pride myself on being a teacher practitioner, spending most of my time designing engaging course meetings for teacher candidates and seeking funding sources to provide valuable educational experiences for our teacher candidates and local school children. I have taught numerous courses across three programs in our college however my true passions lie in children’s literature and social studies along with designing and coordinating the Capstone experiences for all Internship II Elementary Education majors.
I am also the acting coordinator, advisor, and mentor for the interns in the hospital setting at PedsAcademy. My passion projects include: Read for the Record each fall funded by PNC Bank, KnightED Talks Student Showcase each spring and being the advisor for the Student National Education Association at UCF; both projects which now also take place at PedsAcademy. I am committed to positively impacting future teachers to in turn, have them positively impact our youth.
I began my career as a high school teacher and then served as a middle school counselor, supporting the career, academic, and psycho-social needs of students in Virginia. My experience as a classroom teacher helped me to understand the contextual factors that affect children and adolescents when they enter the learning environment. I quickly learned that students bring their entire world into the classroom, including the norms, values, and challenges of their homes and communities. Once I acknowledged their realities, my students would learn the history I presented them, even if they claimed to hate the subject. As a school counselor, I never forgot the lessons I learned in the classroom and was able to support students from diverse backgrounds, including students with varying abilities and conditions that affected their educational experiences. As a counselor educator that trains students to serve as counselors in school and community settings, I am able to help these future counselors to conceptualize their clients in a holistic way.
When Dr. Nickels asked me to join PedsAcademy to bring the counseling perspective to the work, I was elated. She and I had talked quite a bit about the social and emotional effects of critical and chronic illnesses on children, adolescents, and families. I am honored to be able to support the teaching interns and faculty by sharing information about family dynamics and empathy, and by creating spaces for them to process their experiences. I look forward to opportunities to broaden the awareness of and support for mental health within Peds Academy.
I began teaching in 2006, focused on students with disabilities (K-2ndgrade) and then full day inclusive kindergarten. My life in education started long before that time; a passion sparked by family and friends with disabilities and a desire to understand others. After eight years of teaching, I decided it was time to further my own learning so that I could help others strengthen their own education. I took a leap of faith in 2014 and left my comfort zone of teaching elementary school to pursue my PhD in special education at the University of Central Florida (UCF). While at UCF, I focused on working with students with disabilities, especially those with intellectual disabilities (e.g., Down syndrome). The university provided me with opportunities to explore innovative ideas, technologies, and research. Upon graduation in 2017, my main focus was equality and equity of students with intellectual disabilities learning science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) concepts in elementary school.
And then the option of working at PedsAcademy at Nemours Children’s Hospital was placed in front of me- an opportunity to provide education to medically fragile students using STEM education, working alongside talented UCF Faculty, post doctoral scholars, and pre-service teachers. My research and teaching foci remain the same as at my graduation, with just one small change: I now add medically fragile students to those I have a passion to teach and support. I embrace the opportunity to work with all students regardless of abilities or disabilities, race, cultural background, or environment. Students are the future and PedsAcademy at Nemours Children’s Hospital provides me the opportunity to put my passion for teaching and research in action to teach the future.