Gatepost Interview: James Cressey – Education professor

Donald Halsing / THE GATEPOST

By Donald Halsing

News Editor

What is your educational and professional background?

I studied psychology and theology as an undergraduate at Georgetown. And then, [I earned my] master of special education – that’s from Plymouth State University. My Ph.D. is in school psychology from UMass Amherst. … I was an elementary special education teacher, grades one through six, and I taught children with emotional/behavioral mental health needs: autism, learning disabilities … at the Wediko School, and that was in New Hampshire. And I also taught in the Boston Public Schools. I worked as a school psychologist as well. I did individual therapy, group therapy, family therapy, and psychological testing. That led me toward working with teachers, sort of behind the scenes after I left the classroom. I was working as a consultant to teachers and helping them to adapt their classroom practices. And I found that I really liked that. Eventually, that is what led me here to Framingham State, where I now prepare future teachers.

What drew you to Framingham State?

I really liked the opportunity to teach in an education department. It’s actually not a special education department – it’s general education majors. So, while my area of expertise is special education and teaching courses in special education, I like working with our students who are not special education majors. They’re actually elementary and early childhood [education] majors, and most of them will work as general classroom teachers. I get to help them learn about inclusion practices and ways to be proactive and preventative to help students with disabilities, but also students without disabilities: [students] who have unidentified needs or who might be at risk for developing significant needs. I feel like it’s a really unique position that I got here.

What is your role at FSU, specifically working in the field of special education?

I have taught here in our master of special education program as well. Over the years, I have taught in that program, but primarily, I’m teaching here in our undergraduate and PBTL – post-baccalaureate teacher licensure. We’ve got those two programs. I’m primarily teaching the early childhood and elementary education majors. They really just get two to four credits of course instruction in special education. In a way, my role is to pack a whole lot of knowledge and experience into a small amount of coursework for those students. And now, I am teaching in the childhood and family studies major, which is in its second year – it’s a new major. That is a major for students who are not necessarily going toward classroom teaching. They want to work with children or families, so it’s perfect for future psychologists, social workers, [or] early interventionists. I finally got the chance to create a course from scratch for that new major, so I’m teaching a course called “Disability in Society.” I’m teaching that for the first time right now.

Do you think the programs here encompass all the types of special education that need to be taught?

We don’t have an undergraduate special education major, and I know there’s students every year who ask me about that. My advice for them is that any of our majors are a great background for special education because all teachers in Massachusetts will go on to earn a master’s degree. So, completing our early childhood, or elementary, or secondary education program, or now our childhood and family studies major – those are all perfect undergraduate programs to set you up for a master’s in special education. 

Recently you presented your case study on social-emotional learning. How did you get started with this project?

When I taught elementary school, I taught children with the most significant level of need in that area. Many of my students were children who had experienced abuse, neglect, or trauma. On top of that, many have had experiences of failure in the schools, so schools not meeting their needs or being in elementary schools that weren’t very well-equipped to support them with their disability. My research interests now are trying to prevent that from happening, to be proactive, to especially focus on the early childhood years, and have ways to support teachers in setting up a safe classroom environment that’s supportive and trauma-sensitive, and also culturally responsive. That’s another element of this work that’s really important to think about: race, and class, and cultural language, and how those factors are at play.

What impacts does the case study have on FSU students in the curriculum?

One thing I was able to do while collecting data is bring our students to the case study school. Over the years – this was a multi-year process – I probably brought eight to 10 of our students over time to come and observe in classrooms, but almost more importantly, observing the teachers’ collaboration meetings – that was more of the focus – and to interview teachers. So, it’s been sort of embedded in my teaching. Now that I have results and published articles, I’m assigning those to my students to read. They’re able to see how a teacher can become a researcher as well. So, I’m also talking to them about, for their future path, to think about: as you’re being a teacher, you can also collect data and work with researchers, too, to publish your work. It seems to fit really well with my teaching and my advising.

What advice do you have for students?

Strive for open-mindedness in all that you do. … We ask our students to share their opinions and to develop knowledge. But the more education I’ve gone through in my life – you realize over time how little you know. So, to remain a lifelong learner, it’s great to be confident and build up your knowledge, but also be open to learning in all different contexts in and out of school throughout your communities and your world. It’s not just in the classroom.