Excellence in Teaching: Lisa Cushing

Lisa Cushing
Lisa Cushing

Each year, UIC honors some of its most dedicated and outstanding teachers with the Award for Excellence in Teaching. The winners, who receive a $5,000 salary increase, are selected by past recipients of the award from nominations made by departments and colleges.

Lisa Cushing
Associate Professor, Special Education

Years at UIC: 14

What does it mean to win an Excellence in Teaching Award?
It is an honor and rather humbling to receive such a prestigious award. I have been a teacher for over 30 years. I began my career as a middle school teacher instructing students with disabilities and then transitioned into higher education, where I train teachers.

What do you teach?
I primarily teach advanced graduate courses in special education. My expertise is working with middle and high school students with significant intellectual and behavioral challenges while in school and as they transition from high school.

How do you engage students in your courses?
Interactions and behaviors among key stakeholders such as administrators, teachers, students and paraprofessionals; their thinking around school policies, practices, personal biases and learning; and the school environment impact how they teach. They must also know how to gain access to research and resources so that they can continue to grow professionally. As an educator, maintain high expectations, but scaffold student learning in a manner that is achievable. Belief that students with disabilities deserve to learn from teachers of the highest caliber.

What do you enjoy most about teaching at UIC?
I have worked at several top universities, but I have found UIC to be the most fulfilling place to teach. I have had the freedom to build four advanced programs that align with state and local teaching shortages, and the high number of new courses aimed at providing special educators in the Chicagoland area with specialized training to serve students with disabilities in urban settings who (a) are transitioning from high school to adulthood, (b) require adaptation of curriculum in the general education classroom, (c) have multiple disabilities, or (d) have complex behavior needs. Many of the students that select to enroll in these programs at UIC are practicing teachers from Chicago that want to improve their practice to support the success of their students with disabilities. Furthermore, I have appreciated a university, college, department focus to support students from under-resourced communities in Chicago. As I mentioned before, students with disabilities and their families, especially those from under-resourced or disenfranchised communities deserve teachers of the highest quality — and from my 30 years of experience, I truly believe that teachers coming out of this program are extremely qualified.

What are your research interests?
My current research activities have concentrated on identifying and honing instructional and social supports and services that enhance access and opportunities for secondary youth with intensive needs in urban schools and communities. Much of my research interests stem from earlier teaching experiences with secondary students with disabilities. During one of my first teaching positions, I worked with the administration to programmatically transform how students with significant disabilities were educated. Previously being taught in isolation with minimal involvement with other aspects of school life, we redesigned school structures so that these students could be included in courses, and in-school and out-of-school activities alongside classmates without disabilities. In order to promote access and equity for these students, it was incumbent to ensure that each student felt a sense of belongingness to their school community while receiving high quality instruction. A newer line of research that I have undertaken extends this idea of belongingness to encompass secondary student with disabilities as they transition from high school to post-secondary education, employment and living quality lives.

What is your advice to students considering a teaching career?
This might sound a bit cliché, but love what you do and don’t give up. Teaching is challenging and requires much planning and practice. However, when implemented correctly, it is incredibly satisfying to watch students learn and realize that you made a positive impact on another human. Students, especially those with learning challenges, deserve to be taught by teachers that focus on identifying skills that allow a student to determine for themselves and improve the student’s overall quality of life.

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