Rider professor remembered for lasting impact on special education field

Dr. Michele Kamens, who passed away in December, launched Rider's special education program in 1998
Keith Fernbach

When Michele Kamens was a young girl, she saw a movie that changed her life forever. The film was The Miracle Worker, the story about the relationship between Helen Keller and her tutor, Anne Sullivan. Even though she was only 8 years old at the time, she knew what she wanted to be when she grew up.

“Helen Keller inspired me, and I wanted to be Anne Sullivan,” she recalled during an interview last June. “I decided then that I was going to be a special education teacher.”

Kamens, who passed away on Dec. 9, 2018, following a lengthy illness, went on to do just that and more — she became one of the leaders in her field. Along the way, she touched thousands of lives and left a lasting impact as a vocal advocate for the inclusion of special education students in the general education classroom. She will forever be remembered for her many contributions to Rider University, which include launching the school’s special education program in 1998 and co-founding the study abroad program for special education teachers. In 2011, she was the recipient of Rider’s prestigious Frank N. Elliott Award for Distinguished Service in recognition of all she had done for the University.

She was also an active member of the Teacher Education Division for the Council for Exceptional Children, and in 2008 won the Nasim Dil Award for Outstanding Service to Teacher Education, an annual award given to an individual who has demonstrated exemplary service to the development and advancement of quality teacher education in special education.

“In her 20 years at Rider, Professor Kamens contributed much to the programmatic growth in the College of Education and Human Services,” said the College's dean, Dr. Sharon Sherman. “She saw a need and developed the undergraduate special education minor and then the Master of Arts in Special Education. Currently, almost 40 percent of our education majors receive the special education endorsement along with their initial license, which is in either elementary or secondary education. This is quite significant. We have a robust 30-credit master’s program, where working professionals specialize in learning to address the needs of children and adolescents with both mild and severe disabilities.”

Prior to Rider, Kamens enjoyed a successful career in a number of different teaching roles. After earning a degree in elementary and special education from Rutgers University, she spent the next eight years teaching special education.

“At the time, special education jobs were not plentiful, so I went from place to place, taking whatever job I could get,” she said. This gave her the opportunity to have a wide variety of experiences, both in special education and general education classrooms.

Her career path took a detour following the birth of her first child. She spent the next phase of her career supervising student teachers, first at Rutgers and then at West Chester University, where she also taught as an adjunct professor. In 1998, she was offered the opportunity to come to Rider to launch the school’s special education program.

One of Kamens’ core beliefs was that whenever it’s in the best interest of the child, students with special needs should be included in the general education classroom.

“Schools are a microcosm of society. These children will need to function in the real world and be included in society, and that should be reflected in the classroom, too,” she said.

In developing the special-education curriculum at Rider, Kamens made sure that the topic of inclusive practice was covered in the very first course prospective teachers took.

“I wanted to get the pre-service teachers right into that mindset of thinking about inclusion and best practices for doing it,” she said. “Inclusion is an attitude, and if they learn to embrace inclusion from the outset, they will embrace inclusion forever.”

Her most impactful contribution was to the Rider community, Kamens said was her role in starting the study abroad program for special education teachers.

“Every year we traveled to another country to visit schools and see how they prepared special education teachers in that country,” she said. “It was fascinating to see the changes in our students in just two weeks. It was life-changing for them, and for me, too.”

Sherman was very supportive when Kamens and Dr. Diane Casale-Giannola, professor of teacher education, approached her in 2009 with the hope of creating study abroad experiences for students. They wanted to expose students to how special education differs in other countries and explore new cultures.

After an initial trip to Spain that summer, the program continued to expand to other areas of the world. There are now faculty-led study tours to new destinations each year. Previously, trips have been taken to Austria, England, Germany, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Italy and Finland.

“Michele was a colleague who believed in me and gave me my start at Rider University,” said Giannola, who, in addition to co-founding the study abroad program with Kamens, taught alongside her in the special education program. “This opportunity forever changed my life and my family, and I am forever grateful. Dr. Kamens’ love, compassion and research made a great impact on the inclusion of students with disabilities. Our field has lost a champion for diversity. My friend and colleague will be sorely missed, but her work and spirit continues to live on in her students and all those they reach.”

Dr. Sharon McKool, chair of the Department of Teacher Education, said Kamens will be remembered for her mentorship. With 20 years of experience in Rider's Department of Teacher Education, Kamens was looked to as a leader by her junior faculty members and students.

"She was known to her students as a professor who demanded excellence in the classroom but who was also a mentor and occasionally ‘the mom’ that we all needed," McKool said. "She will be missed by many but will be remembered by all who were fortunate enough to call her colleague, professor, friend or mom.”

Dr. Lauren Delisio, an assistant professor of special education who also worked closely with Kamens, said, “It’s really hard to put into just a few words the impact Michele Kamens had on my career and my life. First and foremost, she is the reason I am at Rider, and for that, I will forever be grateful to her. She was a passionate advocate for people with disabilities, a dedicated and devoted teacher, a mentor, and a friend. She made a tremendous impact on her students, her colleagues, and the field of special education. Her legacy will live on through all of the lives she touched, including mine.“

Since the news of Kamens’ passing was announced, there has been an outpouring of tributes on Rider’s social media platforms from many of her former students.

“I will be forever grateful for your kindness, dedication, and commitment to helping me become the teacher I am today. You will be greatly missed, Dr. Kamens,” Ashley Lynn said.

Christine Fityere '05 wrote, “To a professor, colleague, and most of all a friend. Thank you for your strong expertise in the areas of special education and inclusion. Thank you for sharing your stories and knowledge with all of us. What I learned most from you was to teach with your heart. I will never forget you, Dr. Kamens.”

Sarah Sell Schuller '13 said, “Thank you, Dr. Kamens, for inspiring us all to be life long learners and value all students. She transcended the teaching profession as she acted more like a mom to many of her students. The Rider community is not the same without you.”

“Dr. Kamens wasn’t your typical professor. She was the mother figure you needed when you were away at school. She loved all of her students and went out of her way to support us in every way. She planted the seeds for my love to travel and study education abroad,” said Shaw Lynne.

Kamens is survived by her brother, three daughters, two sons-in-law and two granddaughters. Memorial contributions may be made to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.