Many moviegoers recall the poignancy of seeing Anne Bancroft, in the role of Anne Sullivan, make a startling intellectual connection with Patty Duke as the blind and deaf Helen Keller in the 1962 feature film The Miracle Worker. Standing at an outdoor water pump while the cold liquid runs over young Helen’s hand, Sullivan traces the letters, “W-A-T-E-R,” into the girl’s open palm, sparking a breakthrough moment of comprehension for the teacher and student.
Dr. Michele Wilson Kamens recalls the scene not only for its emotional drama, but as a breakthrough moment in her own life. Kamens, a professor of Special Education at Rider University, knew at that instant that her own professional course was set.
“I thought, ‘I want to be that teacher,’” Kamens said. “I wanted to make that kind of difference in a child’s life.”
And while the reticent Kamens would much rather discuss the successes of the students she has mentored since coming to Rider University 11 years ago, she was in fact recognized for her own excellence in special education when she won the Small Special Education Programs Caucus’ Nasim Dil Award at the Annual Conference of the Teacher Education Division of the Council for Exceptional Children in Dallas during the first week of November. The prestigious national honor is given annually to an individual who has demonstrated exemplary service to the development and advancement of quality teacher education in the field of special education, as well as service to the Small Special Education Programs Caucus.
The Nasim Dil Award, named for the pioneering professor emeritus of Special Education and Early Childhood Special Education at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, was presented to Kamens in recognition of her efforts to build the Special Education program at Rider. It’s the very task she says she was brought in to Lawrenceville to do.
“Coming here to start the program was the job of my dreams,” she said.
Inspired by The Miracle Worker, Kamens arrived as an undergraduate student at Rutgers University to pursue special education. Her experience there helped shape her approach to teaching and learning. “The laws had not yet changed, so their curriculum combined elementary and special education programs,” she explained. “So when I prepared to be a teacher, I simply looked at children as children. I started with an inclusive mindset about teaching children. They all have strengths and needs and it doesn’t matter what the label is.”
That philosophy, whereby every student is indeed an individual, has remained with Kamens ever since. “There are lots of common characteristics, but there is no exact description of what makes a child unique,” she said. “For example, a student with severe cognitive disability still has his or her strengths. The key is to teach to those strengths and that is how you make a difference.”
Kamens taught at a number of grade levels in both general and special education after graduating from Rutgers, from elementary through high school. During her second year in front of the classroom, she returned to the New Brunswick campus, this time to the Graduate School of Education. There, she earned a master’s in Special Education, “to be a better teacher,” she said.
Not long afterward, though, Kamens and her husband started their family. After taking some time off to raise her first daughter, she returned once again to Rutgers, this time to work in a part-time capacity, supervising student teachers. “I loved it!” Kamens recalled. “I knew I had to get back to the classroom.”
Around that same time, Kamens’ husband’s job brought him to Pennsylvania, where she then began teaching at West Chester University. Over the next 14 years, Kamens taught on either a full- or part-time basis, depending on the needs of her growing family, while pursuing her doctorate in Curriculum, Instruction, Technology and Education at the Temple University Graduate School of Education.
“After I got my doctorate, I knew I wanted to look for a full-time, tenure track professorship,” said Kamens of the decision that would ultimately lead her to Rider. The University was searching for someone to build its nascent Special Education program, “so I was hired to do that,” she said.
Nationally, there is a shortage of special education teachers, a situation Kamens says makes her program at Rider a gateway to tremendous opportunity for students. “A lot of teachers are looking for opportunities, so ideally, they’ll learn more about special education,” she said. Her students at Rider are drawn to the field for a variety of reasons.
“A lot of them have family members or friends with disabilities, while some of them simply love children and want to make a difference in a child’s life,” Kamens explained. “Some of them want to be elementary school teachers, but want to have that special education knowledge, and once in a while, we even get students with disabilities themselves who can apply that perspective to their own educational experiences.”
The increasing need for special education teachers nationally, Kamens says, is due, in part, to a high burnout rate. “It’s very hard work,” she said, “And the role of special education teachers has also changed over the last few decades. Very often, they do not have their own classrooms in which to work. There are lots of variables.”
Still, Kamens says, the program does annually produce highly skilled and, just as importantly, highly dedicated special education teachers, and that is what fills her with the most pride and satisfaction. “After 11 years, I think my major accomplishment is and always has been the progress of my students,” she said. “Hearing about the ways they make a difference in the lives of children when they return to campus as graduate students or as teachers – that is the true reward.”