Getting to Know CEC President Christy A. Chambers
On Jan. 1, career special educator, administrator and longtime volunteer leader Christy Chambers became the 81st president of the Council for Exceptional Children. She recently took the time to answer some questions about how she got her start in the field, the path she took to leadership, and what it means to her to be the president of an organization that has played such a critical role in her career.
CEC: Our members would like to know more about your background. Is it true that you didn’t set out to become a special educator?
CC: No, I didn’t! I was always good in math and science, so I joined the Nurse’s Club in high school. I worked in a hospital for a while and figured out it wasn’t for me. An upperclassman I respected mentioned special education to me and it just clicked – I wanted to be a teacher of children and youth with exceptionalities. Turns out it was the perfect career for me.
CEC: How did you get into administration?
CC: In my eighth year of teaching, I received a call from our special education director inviting me to interview for a newly created administrative position at the special education cooperative. It was a great opportunity and I jumped at the chance. This cooperative encompassed 29 districts. One of the schools was 51 miles from my office.
CEC: How did that work?
CC: We saw a lot of pooling of resources and a variety of ways to serve the children. There were, and still are, a lot of staff who are road warriors, logging lots of driving time getting to the different schools. I think as a field we need to really focus on online learning and how technology can help our members provide effective services in the rural areas. I spent a good deal of my career working in five cooperatives in Illinois as an administrator.
CEC: Do you remember a turning point in your career when you really knew you had chosen the right profession?
CC: One of the roles in my career I found particularly fulfilling was helping families navigate the special education system. I remember getting a call from a parent who was angry and ready for a fight because he didn’t think we were doing enough for his child. Over time we worked together to build a program he was really happy with and that was good for his child. Not that someone else couldn’t have done that, but I remember feeling that I had hit my stride and got a lot of joy from helping that family. Family advocacy has been an integral part of my career. I find it very motivational. I’m still doing this advocacy work, advising families and attending IEP meetings with parents. It keeps me anchored in what is important.
CEC: You’ve been a member of CEC since your college days. What was your introduction to CEC?
CC: When I was a senior in college I volunteered for some activities sponsored by the college CEC chapter. When I became a professional I attended the local meetings of the Starved Rock (Illinois) CEC professional chapter and was encouraged to take a leadership role by my now dear friend, Cheryl DePaepe. It was a great way to get to know other special educators.
CEC: Tell us about your personal path to leadership. How have you been involved in CEC throughout the years?
CC: I’ve had too many roles to list them all, but I started as a Special Olympic organizer with my local chapter and then served on the executive board and as president. From there, I moved to the state level, got on the committee to plan the CEC state convention, then moved to committee chair for the program, and chaired the state convention twice and became treasurer and president. Later I became involved in Illinois Council of Administrators of Special Education (CASE), now named the Illinois Alliance of Administrators of Special Education (IAASE) and became president. I am currently serving as co-chair of the Federal Committee for IAASE. I strongly believe in staying active at the local and state level. After serving on a committee with International CASE I was elected secretary and then president. I also served as the chair of the international divisional caucus of CEC.
CEC: Hmm…a pattern is beginning to emerge here.
CC: I know. I am very committed to CEC. CEC has provided leadership opportunities and the connections to others who are also concerned with the education of children and youth with exceptionalities. And, once I'm involved in something, I’m all in.
CEC: Is that why you have remained a member for so many years?
CC: CEC was where I found my professional voice, my special education voice. My affiliation with CEC has given me more than I have contributed. My experience with CEC helped me develop my leadership skills and my leadership style.
CEC: And the connections you’ve made?
CC: I’m still best friends with Cheri, the person who was the president of my local chapter all those years ago. My connections to CEC go back to my college days and have sustained me all through my career. I’m particularly excited about the new CECommunity we’ll be launching through our new website in the coming months where our members can get together to network and share online. This will be particularly important for our rural members, but special educators are collaborators by nature and I think they’ll really like this opportunity to network and give and get ideas online.
CEC: CEC really has been a big part of your life.
CC: Yes! Aside from my professional connections to CEC, it’s all in the family for me. My husband, Ted Burke, is Senior Director of the Illinois Early Intervention Training Project and is active in CEC’s Division for Early Childhood. And my son, Gordon, who is now an adult, attended his first CEC convention when he was just 3 months old!
CEC: What is your leadership philosophy?
CC: I believe in a head, heart and hands theory. It isn’t enough to be smart and get things done. It’s all in the “how.” Building relationships and working in a cross-stakeholder way is how we effect and sustain change, change we all can support.
CEC: What advice do you have for special educators?
CC: I hope they know that belonging to CEC is the best thing they can do for their careers. As a member you have access to the collective skills and knowledge of CEC’s membership. That’s huge! We can also build relationships and networks of resources, personal and professional, that help us all be the best educators we can be. We’re the best of the best and all the leaders in the field are CEC members. That’s our greatest strength. It’s an incredible honor to lead the organization I’ve worked with for so long and that has given me so much.
Christy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.