NIU’s Department of Special and Early Education welcomed three new tenure-track faculty in fall 2020.
Familiar face and SEED alumna Lydia Gerzel-Short is joined by Rachel Donegan and Molly Pasley, who also holds a degree from the NIU College of Education.
Chair Laura Hedin is grateful to have them: “Their varied research and teaching interests have already deepened our faculty committees’ discussions and enriched the experiences of our students,” Hedin says.
Rachel Donegan comes to NIU from Tennessee, where she began her career as a special education resource teacher.
Donegan completed her master’s degree and her Ph.D. in Special Education at Vanderbilt University, where she worked as a research assistant. Her dissertation focused on contextual characteristics associated with the implementation of reading interventions, including intensity and teacher knowledge, a research focus that she continues to investigate.
“I believe every person, regardless of disability, can learn and make progress. I also believe many individuals with disabilities face lifelong struggles because of inadequate basic academic skills in reading and math,” Donegan says. “Special educators can help prevent these lifelong struggles by providing instruction using evidence-based practices to improve the academic and life outcomes of individuals with disabilities.”
At NIU, she teaches reading and writing methods as well as math methods courses. She focuses on using explicit instruction, a framework that has proven effective for a broad range of students.
By training future educators in evidence-based practices, she helps to ensure that more students with disabilities have access to high-quality instruction.
“College students have passion and energy that makes teaching them a fun and rewarding experience,” Donegan says. “I want my graduates to have the confidence and skills to teach difficult-to-teach students. Students with disabilities require more intensive and specialized instruction in order to meet academic standards.”
Donegan has an established research and publication record with manuscripts appearing in high-impact journals such as Exceptional Children, Learning Disability Research and Practice, and Reading & Writing Quarterly.
From 2016 to 2020, she was awarded a fellowship as a doctoral scholar at the National Center for Leadership in Intensive Intervention.
“Rachel shines as a teacher who communicates clearly, maintains high expectations, and initiates revisions to update classes and clinical experiences. Her colleagues on department committees rave about her suggestions for activities to promote social interactions in our ‘virtual’ year, as well as her willingness to take on service roles. She has a clear research agenda that will make a significant contribution to the areas of teacher preparation, high-leverage practices in special education and reading instruction.”—Laura Hedin
After a successful career as a special educator in DeKalb Community Unit School District 428, Lydia Gerzel-Short completed her Ed.D. in Curriculum and Instruction at NIU.
She worked in tenure-track positions at Rockford University and Texas A& M University-San Antonio, and then returned to NIU in 2018 as a visiting assistant professor. In 2020, she accepted a tenure-track position in SEED, where she has already made a positive impact.
Working in special education is “an extremely rewarding experience” that Gerzel-Short equates with becoming a parent.
“I love the electrifying moment when a student understands a concept or a skill I am teaching. At that moment, I can almost see the understanding by the smile on the face, the excitement in the voice, and the confidence in the response,” she says. “Learning is complicated, fun, messy, and very similar to a puzzle because not all students learn in the same manner or within the same trajectory. My job as a special educator is to figure out with the student how to best scaffold information in meaningful way.”
Her passion for mentoring and coaching the next generation of teachers, many of whom she met as a cooperating teacher for NIU licensure candidates, led her to join the faculty.
“These coaching experiences fostered a curiosity in how to best support the adult learners who were teacher candidates in my classroom,” Gerzel-Short says. “In some ways, these coaching experiences are similar to the ‘a-ha’ moments I experienced as a special education teacher.”
“Dr. G,” as her students call her, has taught more than 10 different courses in SEED’s licensure program focusing on methods for students with mild disabilities and collaboration with families.
Her research interests focus on high-leverage practices in special education, collaboration with families from diverse backgrounds, and teacher preparation in virtual environments. She has presented at national and international conferences, such as the Council for Exceptional Children Annual Convention and Expo.
“Lydia goes out of her way to be a supportive colleague and teacher. She has demonstrated amazing productivity in writing and a willingness to collaborate with others on scholarly works. Her depth and breadth of knowledge and experience in the field of special education makes her an asset on program and university committees focused on licensure and accreditation.”—Laura Hedin
Molly Pasley earned her Ed.D. in Special Education from Illinois State University after working as an Orientation and Mobility Specialist and a teacher of the visually impaired. She also holds a 2009 master’s degree from the NIU College of Education
Pasley serves on numerous state and national committees for professional organizations that support education of individuals with low vision/blindness.
Her research interests include perceived value of driver’s education to nondriver’s with visual
impairments, comparative analysis of international special education delivery models and using mobile technology to increase independent mobility skills of students with comorbid intellectual disability and visual impairment.
She teaches Orientation and Mobility and introductory courses in SEED’s visual disabilities program. She also teaches the Introduction to Special Education course which all teacher licensure candidates in the College of Education complete as part of their programs.
“I’m passionate about special education because I believe that teaching individuals with disabilities to be advocates for themselves and others is an important life skill. In promoting independence, we also focus on self-determination and making decisions based on a learner’s desires and needs,” Pasley says.
Before joining the faculty, Pasley’s professional experience includes positions as a certified orientation and mobility specialist, a low vision/blindness accommodations specialist and a teacher of students with visual impairments across Illinois and in Iowa, Missouri and Texas.
In 2019, she was named Volunteer of the Year by the Central Illinois Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired.
“I decided to teach at the college level because I wanted to share the love and passion I have for teaching with future educators of individuals with visual impairments,” she says. “I would like graduates who leave the Visual Disabilities program to be culturally responsive educators and advocates for their learners.”
“Molly’s energy and enthusiasm for teaching and learning are contagious. She has quickly become a valued contributor to our department because of her creative ideas, diligent work ethic, and support for candidates struggling with remote learning. She is collaborative, creative and willing to take on any new challenge.”— Laura Hedin