Skip to main content

A New School of Thought

Jacqueline Rodriguez ’13PhD had no idea her studies and service work would eventually take her to the front lines of one of our nation’s most important challenges.

On most weekdays, Jacqueline Rodriguez ’13PhD, works from her home in the Boston area. She can play soft music while fielding phone calls from Washington, D.C., and chatting with Aspen, her German shepherd. But don’t let the gentle vibe fool you. As the CEO of the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD), Rodriguez has a huge responsibility — and she knows it.

“I believe this is the pivotal civil rights issue of our time,” she says. “Fifteen percent of the nation’s public school students have an identified disability. The largest proportion has a learning disability, and the majority are students of color. The way we educate our students with disabilities will define us as a society. This is urgent.”

Rodriguez has a full-time staff of 14, plus a core group of consultants for the nonprofit NCLD, which was founded in 1977 and serves individuals with learning disabilities through advocacy, research and partnerships with experts. It seems like a small squad to cater to tens of millions of needs, so why does Rodriguez sound so optimistic? It’s because she sees teams of people just like her in every community.

“We cannot take the approach that a student with a disability is only taught by a special education teacher. These are everybody’s kids.”

Here Rodriguez shares more about her career path and the importance of her work.

I’m atypical for this field.

The preponderance of people who enter special education has friends or family members with disabilities, but I took a wiggly route. I’ve always wanted to serve marginalized communities. After graduating with degrees in international affairs and Latin American studies, I thought I’d be a diplomat. For my preparation program, though, I was told, “The only way you can stay in D.C. is if you teach special education.” What I experienced changed everything.

I saw firsthand the problem with special education.

The classroom that needed the best teacher received the most unqualified person: me. I felt like a fraud for two years, knowing the outcomes for my students would be dependent on my ability to teach them effectively. We’re talking about 16- to 19-year-old students, some of whom still couldn’t read or write proficiently. I realized my students needed well-prepared professionals, not a college student with a degree in international affairs. That’s why I pursued a graduate degree in special education and advocate for every student to be taught by professionals who are qualified to meet their needs.

A classroom of kids with special learning needs is no place for experimentation.

The education Ph.D. program at UCF opened my mind to the power of technology. Mike Hynes, Lisa Dieker and Charlie Hughes developed a virtual reality (VR) classroom called TeachMe (now TeachLivE). You pass through a VR classroom of students with different ethnicities, abilities and behaviors. You’re figuring out the best ways to communicate a lesson plan so no one falls behind. It allows you to learn from failures without harming anyone. The program started at UCF and is now being used around the world.

I did not get into this field simply because I’m nice.

That’s how special education teachers are too often characterized: “Oh, you’re so nice, you should teach special education.” No, it should be, “You’re highly intelligent. You’re a force. You know how to get things done. And yes, you have a big heart.” But we need to do more to attract those people.

Two issues are creating a wide gap.

One, more students are being identified with disabilities. It used to be “wait until they fail” before anyone would identify a specific learning disability. That approach leads to young people being pushed through school and into the world without the necessary knowledge or skills to be successful. We now reach kids earlier and support them through interventions. The second issue is the shortage of welltrained special education teachers. That’s what I want to change.

The contribution of a special ed teacher is as great as any profession on the planet.

Education will determine whether a person finds a purpose in life or not. That’s why I advocate for high-caliber professionals who devote their careers to teaching. They’re valuable, so they should be paid as such. Also, this is a civic service, so their degrees should be fully funded — they should have no college debt when they start teaching. And finally, give them six years to prepare instead of four. I like the idea of a paid two-year residency, similar to a doctor. Our country will be better off if we do that.

My message to college students? Don’t copy my path.

You want to add value to society? See where each opportunity leads, because you never know. I wanted to be a diplomat. A turn of events piqued my curiosity about a big problem in education. Now I’m in a position to help do something about it.