Shirley Cohen, Ph.D. Professor, Hunter College
Choice of Career: I wanted to be a teacher since childhood. After two years as a kindergarten and first grade teacher I turned to special education because I was drawn to the more vulnerable children and seemed to have a natural talent for working with them.
Challenges: There have been few challenges to my career. The two exceptions occurred in the period from 1969-71 when I was living in the south and ran afoul of some views then prevalent on gender, religion, and race.
Accomplishments: I’m content with several of my accomplishments (I’m worried about pride): The three books I wrote about disability, the curriculums I developed years ago about accepting individual differences, my contribution to the conceptualization and development of the ASD Nest program for the NYC school system, my current role in developing the Intensive Kindergarten program model, and some of the wonderful students who learned about autism from my teaching and “ran with it.”
Turning Point: There is no single turning point in my life, and my career often seems to flow on its own. In the summer of 1971 I came to NYC for a visit with family, expecting to return to Florida to assume a position at a state university. I had arranged to teach a special education course at Hunter while in the city, and four days after beginning I was offered a position as director of a special education center at Hunter. I accepted the position only because the Florida legislature adjourned that year without signing a budget, so I still did not have a contract. A few days later the state budget was passed and my contract arrived, but I had already accepted the Hunter position.
Mentors: Two individuals contributed significantly to my professional development during the early years of my career in the field of special education—Elizabeth Gilkeson, my instructor and practicum supervisor at Bank Street College, who spent hours every week talking to me about my work with autistic students; and Louis Hay, who created the Junior Guidance Classes Program, who proved to me that innovation is possible even in huge city school system.
Advice: Keep your mind open to new ways of thinking and different ways of doing. Don’t plan your career so closely that you can’t take advantage of opportunities for the different types of endeavors that may unexpectedly enter your life space.