Nancy Vitalone-Raccaro (PhD, Temple University) has a teaching career dedicated to the field of Special Education. As an expert teacher educator, Dr. Vitalone-Raccaro is committed to training teachers who are critical thinkers and prepared to meet the challenges of 21st century classrooms. Her teaching interests include student assessment, high leverage teaching practices and instructional strategies for exceptional learners. Vitalone-Raccaro is part of an interprofessional research team that has designed and implemented innovative curriculum changes for second- and third-year medical students to improve their understanding of special education programs and facilitate collaboration between families, doctors and school personnel entitled Improving the Medical Academic Curriculum to Gain Increased Understanding of the Needs of Families of Children with Exceptionalities (IMAGINE). Vitalone-Raccaro has published several articles related to this line of research, as well as articles related to teaching students with disabilities.
Dr. V-R (as she is known to her students), was born and raised in NJ and graduated from Springfield College in Massachusetts with a B.S. in Health and Physical Education. After graduating she taught Physical Education at Wayne Hills High School in NJ before going on to get her Master’s degree in Adaptive Physical Education at the University of South Florida where she became a Teaching Assistant. She said, “Teaching is in my blood. My father is Professor Emeritus of Education at William Paterson University and working with children always interested me. I volunteered at a camp for children with special needs before becoming a camp counselor at a Girl Scout camp.”
After she graduated with her Master’s in Adaptive Physical Education she taught this subject for four years at the Kennedy Child Study Center in New York City and at Burlington County Special Services in NJ.
How did you get from adaptive physical education to special education?
I always taught early concept development and language through movement long before people talked about “brain breaks.” There’s so much research now that links movement to cognition. It was a perfect fit for the way I taught. The great thing in both of my placements is that I taught every type of disability. The students in these schools could not get their significant needs met in public schools in NYC or Burlington County. I always felt I had a gift for teaching but I didn’t know why. I think it was because I was always trying to make connections, generate meaning, and see a product of cognition through movement. When I decided to go back for my Doctorate I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go back for motor development or special education. Ultimately I felt I could make a greater impact in special education and I completed my Ph.D. at Temple University in Philadelphia. Things came together for me from a theoretical standpoint in learning most neuroscientists agree that movement and cognition are powerfully connected and the driver of development and cognition came together. I was able to turnkey that piece into improved practice.
When did you become interested in Teacher Education?
At Temple University, while working on my Ph.D., I had a teaching assistantship. One of the things I had to do was supervise student teachers in the undergraduate program and that was a natural fit for me. Two things that came out of it was my love of teaching pre-service teachers and my ability to connect with partnership schools which helped make me credible in the field.
What was the subject of your dissertation?
My dissertation was exploring the needs of families with children with disabilities. At the time I was working at the Children’s School for Early Development in Westchester County NY as their Inclusion Consultant. This allowed me to do a qualitative study because I had access to the families in the pre-school program. I designed a program where I could work with children in pre-k classes and do home visits to see how families expressed their needs related to their children.
How did you come to teach at Drew?
After completing my Ph.D. I developed a close relationship to NY Medical College which was close to the Children’s School for Early Development. I was working with psychologists that were doing evaluations and became professionally engaged with them. I was then hired by Westchester Institute for Human Development but I wasn’t on an academic track and I really wanted to teach. I moved back to NJ and worked as an Assistant Professor at William Paterson University in the Teacher Ed program, and then worked at Rowan University for many years. I enjoyed the work and my colleagues, but a new administration inspired me to look for other opportunities and I applied to Drew. With Director Kristen Turner’s leadership and my creative vision, Drew seemed like a great match. I found a place to be my best self as a professional across the board. I’ve been very happy going into my fourth year here. I know I have the skills and disposition to bring it every year to the Education program.
What was one of your best teachers growing up and why?
My 5th grade teacher Katherine Hall was one of my best teachers. She was a gentle soul, with a southern accent, that just grounded me. She also made me believe that I had something to offer. She validated who I was and everything that came with it. That acknowledgement was super important. She was also creative, allowing her students to demonstrate what we knew in different ways. I remember making puppets with other students and putting on a show to demonstrate that we knew the theme and plot. Her non-traditional way of teaching helped me to thrive.
How has the field of education changed since you first started teaching for the better?
A fundamental difference that makes education better today is the focus on social justice education. With the standards put forth by Teaching Tolerance which came out of the Southern Poverty Law Center, teachers now have a framework for linking culturally relevant pedagogy to core content standards. This is the most significant change in education. It opens up the conversation to topics such as identity, justice, diversity, action and practices such as restorative justice.
What do think is the key to your success as an educator?
Empathy. For me, it is the ability to be aware of others, their feelings, and knowing that I can have a significant impact on their wellbeing. Even at a young age, I was aware that I could impact others. Also, I think I’m an egghead. I love everything about education, reading, researching and figuring it out. I think it is my ability to apply my craft with empathy. People may not remember all of the content of my classes but they remember what they felt when they were in my class.
What advice would you give students who are interested in a career in education?
Please come, especially given the turmoil with everything that is going on in society today. Life can seem oppressive and scary, stressful, and out of control. But teachers can help mediate the turmoil. I believe that the current generation between the ages of 19 to 27 are the change makers that will alter the face of our country by making an impact on the younger generation. It is their mantle to plant the seeds and cultivate social justice and tolerance in their classrooms. It’s about action. So if you are thinking of teaching, please come to Drew and learn how to resist exclusion, prejudice and injustice through everyday teaching practices . Learn about it and bring it back into society. There is a ripple effect when a pebble is tossed into a pond. It keeps generating ripples and never stop. As a teacher you will start a wave that will create a society of tolerance and justice. We need that the most and you can be that person.