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Professor receives international award for impact in special education

May 06, 2011

ASU professor Elizabeth Kozleski, a pioneer in special and inclusive education, has been honored by the world’s largest advocacy organization for students with exceptionalities.

The Council for Exceptional Children’s Teacher Education Division (TED) presented Kozleski with the 2011 TED/Pearson Excellence in Teacher Education Award at the council’s annual convention in Maryland, April 25-28. The Excellence in Teacher Education Award is presented by TED and Pearson Publishing to an individual who has demonstrated an exemplary commitment to special education teacher education, preparation of future leaders, or leadership in scholarly work and legislative advocacy. 

Kozleski, who joined ASU in 2006, has made substantial impact in all three of these areas, with more than 30 years of experience in the field as a special education teacher, researcher, consultant, advocate, administrator, and teacher educator. She is a professor of culture, society and education in the College of Liberal Arts’ School of Social Transformation and co-directs the ASU Equity Alliance center with Professor Alfredo Artiles.

“Dr. Kozleski’s career exemplifies all this award is intended to recognize,” notes Betty C. Epanchin, associate dean for Teacher Education and School Relationships at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. “Her contributions to the field are significant, substantive and principled. I have known her for many years and have followed her career with great admiration and respect. I marvel at how she accomplishes all that she does! Few people have as great a passion for their work as Dr. Kozleski does, and few have such a focused, disciplined and probing intellect combined with a moral compass as she has.”

At the opening session of the Council for Exceptional Children convention, the keynoter focused on empathy. The trait, he said, is often identified as most vital to success as a leader. It is a trait, coincidentally, that has characterized Professor Kozleski’s career from the start.

As a 20-something director of the University of South Florida’s daycare center, Kozleski discovered she was especially drawn to helping kids who came into the school and had difficulty fitting in for one reason or another.

“Perhaps they didn’t feel safe without their parents, or acted out in ways that made them outsiders with their peers. I tried to see the world through their eyes and to figure out how to help them become a part of the community,” says Kozleski. “I discovered I was good at figuring it out and good at sticking with it, helping send consistent messages to kids in different ways so they could reach out and explore the world.”

Over time, she became more and more interested in working with kids who had significant disabilities. In 1977 in Virginia, her first classroom assignment after finishing her master’s degree at George Mason University was with children who had been institutionalized prior to their placement with her; many had no language at all.

With little pedagogical research being done in this area, Kozleski had to figure out a lot of teaching strategies, behavioral therapies, and logistical processes on her own – and was absolutely fascinated by the challenges – from getting the kids safely to school to getting them socially ready to learn and focus, which first often meant grasping social concepts like taking turns. She also worked directly with students’ families, to help shape their home environments in ways that would support learning and growth.

Shortly after Kozleski moved to Colorado and opened the first public school classroom for children with autism in 1979, she recognized her impact would be greatest if she transitioned to teacher education, and she completed a doctorate in special education at the University of Northern Colorado in 1985.

“I realized I could spend the rest of my career working with 5 or 6 kids a year, but there were so many children that needed this help – 1,000 kids in Colorado alone had autism at that time and those numbers have grown exponentially,” Kozleski explains. “Meeting the learning needs of this population and helping kids move into general learning situations in typical classrooms means building capabilities in as many teachers as possible. So teacher education became a real passion for me and the focus of my research career as well as my teaching career.” 

While earning her doctoral degree, Professor Kozleski did an internship in the grants division of the U.S. Department of Education. She credits that early window into proposal evaluation and the grants process for what has become an exceptional track record in securing funding for research, further leveraging her own knowledge and experience for maximum reach. Indeed, Kozleski has obtained more than $26.4 million in sponsored projects throughout her career, with a sizable proportion of these funded projects aimed at preparing teachers or leaders in special education.

While serving as associate dean for research of the School of Education at the University of Colorado at Denver, before joining ASU, she was appointed chair of UNESCO’s International Research Lab on Inclusive Practices in 2005, a position she still holds today.

Humbled by the TED/Pearson award and recognition from her peers, Kozleski admits that reading the nomination packet afterwards was, in itself, just as tremendous an honor. Colleagues from across the country, including former students and many people she’s worked with over her career, put together an amazing set of letters recalling their experiences with her. Reflects Kozleski: “Discovering things I’ve unwittingly done or said that made a difference – that touched me greatly.”