The Project LEAD IT scholar will graduate this weekend and become an assistant professor in exceptional education at the University of Northern Iowa.
Whitney Hanley standing with UCF exceptional education professor Rebecca HInes
Whitney Hanley with her major advisor Rebecca Hines, an associate professor of exceptional student education.

For seven years, Whitney Hanley was a teacher. During her time teaching in Georgia as well as her home state of Kentucky, she noticed a disconnect between girls who exhibited behavioral problems and their teachers, specifically that the teachers were not usually open to them being in the classroom. The students would turn to Hanley, then a special education teacher, and share their experiences with her. “Special education teachers are advocates for students with disabilities, which is important for us to be, but it’s also important for students to feel like all adults in the building are advocating for them,” says Hanley, who graduates this weekend.

When Hanley joined the exceptional education doctoral program at UCF as a Project LEAD IT scholar, she was ready to dive into the research and make an impact. “I know this sounds cliché, but I’ve always been interested in teaching because I had such great teachers growing up,” says Hanley, who taught in elementary and middle school. “I was also a member of a community organization that cultivated this desire for me to always want to do something where I can help, and teaching has always seemed to be that thing that fit best for me.”

The combination of working in middle school during her last year of teaching — watching students transition academically, socially and mentally into high school — and her experience with an organization called Girls Incorporated made her realize that she wanted to specialize in working with students with disabilities, especially young Black women. Girls Inc., a nonprofit organization, serves girls ages 6-18 with research-based programming that focuses on “inspiring girls to be strong, smart and bold women of tomorrow,” says Hanley.

While searching for doctoral programs, Hanley’s mentor told her about UCF’s exceptional education program, particularly their Project LEAD grants. Project LEAD prepares special education personnel from culturally and linguistically diverse populations for leadership positions at universities and school systems. Hanley was one of eight doctoral students funded by the grant. The LEAD IT branch, which Hanley was a part of, focuses on inclusion and transition, explains Rebecca Hines, the principal investigator on the grant as well as an associate professor of exceptional student education.

“From the minute Whitney arrived on our campus, she was a breath of fresh air and an energizing force. From that first day until her final dissertation defense, she made every project that she participated in a true pleasure,” says Hines, who was also Hanley’s major advisor.

As Project LEAD IT is a personnel preparation grant, the support of Hanley’s professors offered models for future higher education faculty — from working with a team on research and writing manuscripts to the creativity and accessibility needed in a presentation, says Hanley. “We’re going to be preparing future teachers, so we have to constantly be models for best practices. I think that was something that was done very well in my program,” says Hanley.

Being a black female myself, I have this different level of empathy for certain topics and issues. I think that most researchers’ interests and passions are connected to their identities and experiences.

Whitney Hanley

A highlight of Hanley’s experience as a grant recipient was a summer internship with the Department of Education’s Office of Special Education in Washington D.C., where she got to speak with local education agencies and the thinkers behind decisions that trickle down to affect all schools — and their students with disabilities. “All of the mentors I worked with really tried to keep the students at the center of it all. At the end of the day, we’re not only wanting to give students access, but we’re also looking at the outcomes. We want to see progress and growth,” says Hanley. “As graduate students, we love to learn, but understanding how educational policies and programs are developed, revised and maintained is something I really enjoyed.”

Hanley also keeps students with disabilities as the focus of her work and research. In her new job as an assistant professor in exceptional education at the University of Northern Iowa, Hanley will help mentor the special education teachers of tomorrow and continue the work she began at UCF — in the form of her dissertation.

What began as merely something she noticed while teaching in elementary and middle schools — the disconnect between girls with behavioral problems and their teachers — became the foundation of her research, but she wanted to focus specifically on the lived experiences of young Black girls with disabilities and their experiences with discipline. This discipline disparity could potentially lead to academic failure, dropping out or involvement in the juvenile justice system, says Hanley.

As she began reading the school discipline research, Hanley noticed a discrepancy between the students being represented. “The primary focus has been on boys. It has begun to shift, but when you’re reading about Black or African American students with disabilities and the disproportionate use of discipline, it’s the entire group. Most comparison research analyzes differences between race or gender, but not often race, gender and disability.”

Hanley used her dissertation to shift the perspective. She wanted to explore and describe the needs, beliefs and attitudes of Black females with disabilities and identify how their intersecting identities of race, gender, disability and socioeconomic status affect their experience.

“Being a black female myself, I have this different level of empathy for certain topics and issues. I think that most researchers’ interests and passions are connected to their identities and experiences,” says Hanley.

Hanley spoke with four sixth grade and four seventh grade Black girls with disabilities, asking them about their experiences with discipline and analyzing the identity markers they used when describing their experiences. The most prominent identity mentioned was race, followed by gender; only two of them directly referenced their disabilities. Hanley concluded that the girls desired a teacher who appeals to their academic, psychological and emotional needs. “Someone who insists that they do well and holds them to high expectations,” says Hanley. “The girls desired to be seen, heard, respected and understood. Teachers must be critically conscious of their own identities and the social messages they send as well as understand different cultural goals and interaction styles so behaviors aren’t misinterpreted and students aren’t punished for culturally and socially appropriate behaviors. The girls in this study remind us that they need to be empowered and taught self-regulation techniques when they’re upset. Consequences for behavior should be restorative instead of punishing, restricting or ignoring emotions. All eight of the girls interviewed felt they were not listened to.”

For Hanley, it all goes back to her experience with a young woman during her days with Girls Incorporated. “In my first experience with a member with Down syndrome, one of the things that I noticed was her resiliency and boldness. I remember always being amazed that despite societies’ efforts to marginalize her, she was still thriving. Being a product of that network of support and seeing the network that she had, I wanted to be that person in the lives of other girls and students, so I specialized in special education — just wanting to do more.”