Secretary turned teacher finds success with new expedited special education program

Contact: Chris Hybels

Austin Giles and mentor teacher Laurie Kuiper.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—"I had this desire after working with students with special needs to be a special education teacher. I didn't know how it was going to happen," says Austin Giles.

Starting as a secretary in Portage Public Schools (PPS), Giles knew he wanted to be a teacher. Unsure how and where to start, he joined the District's Grow Our Own teacher pipeline program. 

Looking inward for solutions, the district's Grow Our Own teacher pipeline program was started to address the statewide teacher shortage. Modeled after the Michigan Department of Education's "Grow Your Own" program and funded by a $20,000 grant from the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, PPS began offering financial aid to existing employees looking to earn college degrees and certifications. According to the district,  program has since opened a pathway to teaching careers and has strengthened their schools.

With a desire to work with special needs students, Giles joined Western Michigan University's special education expedited masters program. During his time in the program he worked as a part-time substitute teacher and paraprofessional working under mentor Laurie Kuiper at Portage Northern High School. Immediately after joining, he started learning skills and strategies he could directly apply in his day-today work with students from his professors. 

"On several occasions when I visited him in his classroom, I would see him applying strategies we'd just discussed the night before," says Meagan Walsh, assistant professor in Western's Department of Special Education and Literacy Studies. "Throughout his time in the program, he asked great questions, shared wonderful insights and helped to shape the special education expedited master's program."

Giles graduated from Western on Dec. 16, 2023, and will begin teaching full time at Portage Northern High School. 

"It’s been a really, really great experience,” Austin says of the accelerated program at WMU. "I would recommend it to anyone."

In fall 2022, Western became the first university in Michigan to offer an expedited master's program in special education. As an expedited program, current and future educators are placed on a fast track toward initial teacher certification in special education for working with students with autism spectrum disorder, emotional impairment or learning disabilities. To make it more accessible, the program is offered fully online, with synchronous and asynchronous courses and field placements in public schools.

"The shortage of special education teachers continues to increase each year. This program allows for a different path to becoming a special education teacher." said Dr. Kristal Ehrhardt, senior associate dean and director of teacher education in the College of Education and Human Development. “Our special education faculty worked closely with local school personnel to design the format of this program with flexibility and accessibility in mind, in a way that supports working professionals and non-traditional students.”

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