When Bobby Witt-Kannady ’76 was just starting out in the field of special education, she couldn’t predict that one day she would be celebrating her 30th year at Illinois State University. However, she knew at that time she was exactly where she wanted to be. As a psychology undergraduate student in the early 1970s, she was able to work with several students and teachers in the community at Head Start, University Laboratory Schools, and the YWCA.

“Even as an undergraduate at that time, I was able to gain experience working directly with students with emotional behavioral disabilities,” says Witt-Kannady. “I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do but my dream was always to give kids a more positive life.”

After graduating from Illinois State, Witt-Kannady sat down to discuss her future with Dr. Benjamin Moore. Moore had left the Department of Psychology at Illinois State the year before for a role as Director of the Child Development Center at the Baby Fold, an organization and school providing numerous services for the well-being of children and families. The conversation led to her being hired as a behavior specialist at the Baby Fold in Hammitt School. While in this role, she was able to gain her licensure in special education. Witt-Kannady regularly interacted with area public schools, and recalled something that a visiting psychologist once told her as a tipping point for the next steps in her career.

“We were discussing an intervention for one of the students from his district that was placed in Hammitt,” said Witt-Kannady. “He looked at me and said, ‘You should be a teacher of teachers.’ That really stuck with me.”

A new path

After teaching at Hammitt School for 15 years, another important career conversation set Witt-Kannady on a different path. 

“I had coffee with Dr. Paula Smith, who was then the assistant chair within the Department of Special Education,” Witt-Kannady said. “She mentioned that there may be a position working with future special education teachers in McLean County starting up in the not too distant future. I had a young daughter at the time and, while I loved my role, I thought the change might be a good fit for me.”

Smith would later become chair of the department, and Witt-Kannady credits her as being a very influential figure in her life and career.

Once she interviewed and eventually took the position in 1991, she never left. In her role as a field-based coordinator in McLean County for learning and behavior, she teaches Illinois State special education students in the first semester of their senior years. The semester spent in field-based learning is intense. It is a totally integrated program, with eight hours related to fieldwork and another eight hours in more traditional coursework. Witt-Kannady primarily instructs the students in the classroom two times per week and coordinates two supervisors who oversee the students’ field-based experiences in a variety of schools and special education settings.

Student placements for fieldwork run the gamut from classes that are fully instructional settings for students with severe disabilities to classes where students with some disabilities are integrated into a general education classroom. Throughout their practicum, field-based, and student teaching, Illinois State students gain experiences with grades K-12 in adaptive settings (students with significant difficulties with functional needs), academic curriculum settings (resource room/instructional classroom), and behavioral/emotional settings (significant student adaptations/accommodations) in the classroom environment to create a safe space for learning.

Students engage with the classroom four full days per week, and their experiences are more than just doing what their supervising teacher tells them to teach. They are involved with three areas or classes, and assume responsibility for these by the end of the semester. 

Legacy of a life’s work

Her passion for developing students who will work to advance the field of special education is immense, and you don’t have to go far to see the fruits of her labor. All of the five other field-based site coordinators in the department are former students, as are her assistant coordinator and the coordinator of clinical services in student affairs for the department. Not only does she teach the teachers, but she now teaches the teachers who teach the teachers. She also keeps very connected to her former students, even those that have been in the field over 20 years, and lovingly refers to them as her “babies.”

“I have the rare privilege of watching my students come in with a dream, and every semester they find something within them that they didn’t know was in there,” said Witt-Kannady. “I feel connected to part of this world that is making a difference.”

In addition to working with students, Witt-Kannady also credits her longevity to working with amazing colleagues over the years. She feels blessed to have been working side by side with people of high character to lift up the special education population, and is proud to have built strong partnerships between Hammitt and Unit 5/District 87 schools that will help to guide excellent teacher candidates into the field.

While the work can be very challenging, especially given the current emphasis on testing across education and its adverse effects on special education, she notes many positive strides during her time in the field such as increased inclusion for all learners, quality of life, and enhanced rights of these students. 

Now in her 30th year working in the department, she can’t imagine doing anything different and has no plans of retirement.  “I cannot imagine a more fulfilling field.  It’s demanding and challenging cognitively, but it’s so fulfilling as well,” she says. “There are small wins, with a lot of baby steps along the way. It’s a life’s work, and I don’t feel ready to leave it yet.”