“Students really need to listen and respond constructively to diverse perspectives. Students should expect and be willing to adapt to change, and to stand up for what is just and true amidst the change.”
As a child, Elizabeth Finnegan discovered the powerful impact that a teacher could have on a student. While in Elementary School, Elizabeth, and her classmates were assigned to create a book about something related to Christmas. Elizabeth decided she wanted to make a book about traditional Christmas Cakes. She researched every single ingredient in the cake, flour, cherries, and brandy, where the ingredient came from, how they were processed, and how they contributed to the cake. However, her school library did not have a book about eggs which is an important ingredient in cakes. This saddened Elizabeth and left her devastated because she could not finish her project. The next day, Elizabeth’s principal called her to his office and told her not to get so upset about such a small thing. He told Elizabeth there was a book in the library about eggs, and to go look for it. She returned to the library and found a beautiful new book on the life cycle of chickens and how their eggs develop. It was only years later that Elizabeth realized the principal had gone to the bookstore the night before and bought the book, especially for her. The action Elizabeth’s principal took in this situation is something that she will never forget and has driven her to become the inspirational, educational figure she is today.
Elizabeth’s current roles at STAC as both a Professor of Education and the Director of Graduate Education in the School of Education have allowed her to positively impact many of her students, just like her own principal did when she was a child. Her primary focus is literacy instruction for students with autism and/or intellectual disability, meaning, and the nature of disability labels in educational contexts.
There are countless reasons Elizabeth loves her job at STAC, a few being the ability to influence and effect change that positively affects children with disabilities, whether it is through preparing teachers, advocating for funding, or promoting best practices through research. She is passionate about working with students individually. As with all the other departments at STAC, her students can develop meaningful relationships with faculty who support them academically and guide them in their careers.
Aside from her key positions at STAC, Elizabeth has collaborated with her colleagues in Literacy, and together, they developed a summer reading program for school children, accepting all regardless of their ability. Under Elizabeth and her colleague’s guidance, teachers from different disciplines work together to create fun and engaging activities for the children. Not only do the children’s reading and writing skills improve, but their confidence also grows. “At a conference, I was talking to a colleague who would like to promote a similar bilingual program in Hawaii. He wanted to create a space in which children could not only improve their reading and writing skills in English but also feel free to be themselves and speak Hawaiian. I think that was the best compliment I ever received for our summer program,” says Elizabeth.
Over the years, Elizabeth has left a mark on countless students. STAC Alumni, Brianna Flores says, “Dr. Finnegan always pushes her students to constantly implement all the instructional strategies and knowledge they’ve acquired in her classes. If she wasn’t teaching a class, she was always available for her students whether it was to discuss class schedules or just to check in, which I definitely took advantage of. Dr. Finnegan is such a wonderful teacher and person. The knowledge I gained from her classes has prepared me for my current role as an elementary teacher.”
Elizabeth is currently on the board of the NJ Chapter of the CEC Division of Autism and Developmental Disabilities, as well as a member and the secretary for the American Educational Research Association’s Autism Research Committee. She teaches a wide variety of courses at both the undergraduate and graduate levels for STAC’s School of Education.
One of her favorite parts of her job is experiencing the “teaching moment.” Elizabeth says, “The moment when a student asks about neurodiversity, or for advice on responding to transgender children, and adolescents going through a transition, or even instructions on how to make a social skills video or blood-borne pathogens. I love those moments because I can drop the plan, gauge the feel of the room, and address students’ very real concerns about being educators. On some occasions, I have adjusted my course content for the semester based on these “teaching moments.” Elizabeth says she also loves when one of her students asks her a 1970s question. For example, “Have you seen ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest?” or “Do you like David Bowie?” Elizabeth says she might be looking up Lupe Fiasco on YouTube, but she knows the icons!” Outside of STAC, Dr. Finnegan spends her free time reading, knitting, visiting art museums, and she is also learning how to play the guitar, specifically, the Blues!