At her confirmation hearing, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson spoke about perseverance—a theme that resonates with the Rev. Terrance Antwon King, a graduate student passionate about working with students with disabilities. King recently completed his coursework for a Ph.D. in special education and is finishing his work on a certificate of advanced study in educational leadership through Syracuse University’s School of Education. His goal is to make an impact in the special education field and its classrooms.
“I think it’s important to persevere through life’s ups and downs. These last two years have affirmed my personal strength while navigating and persevering all that I have on my plate academically and personally,” King says.
That’s certainly been the theme throughout King’s life.
Born in the Bronx, New York, King is the first person in his family to receive both a bachelor’s degree (in sociology from Le Moyne College) and a master’s degree (in education with dual certification in general and special education from Metropolitan College of New York). While King once thought of becoming a doctor, his dreams of earning a medical degree shifted. As he watched his godmother care for people with disabilities, he started entertaining a career in teaching. “I saw the love and the light in her eyes while serving them,” he says.
The passion his godmother had resonated with King who started working in the nonprofit sector and eventually led him to where he is today. “I think everybody plays a role in special education,” he says. “We all have individual ways of learning, understanding and retaining information.”
King’s dissertation research interests for his Ph.D. focuses on the representation and power of Black male special educators in schools, professional development in inner city urban schools and the implementation of inclusive practices in education. “I believe in breaking down barriers and generational curses, and education is a way to do that.”
“I like knowing that I’m helping the next generation in this country, in this society. I love when students come back to me and tell me how impactful I’ve been on their life, beyond the classroom.”
His research is funded by Project Include, a federally funded program awarded by the U.S. Department of Education to Syracuse University and other universities to support students pursuing doctoral degrees in special education. King describes himself as somewhat of a “unicorn,” in his field. He was the only Black male special education teacher in the Syracuse City School District when he taught there, and the only Black man in the cohort of all the universities in Project Include.
More than anything, King hopes his dissertation research can be useful to teachers and administrators in special education contexts. “Oftentimes people write dissertations that stay within the world of academia and practitioners don’t know they exist,” King says. “It’s my hope that my research will be impactful, applicable and practical beyond its submission. A dissertation that can roll off the pages it is written on.”
Before he was studying special education, King was a teacher in the Syracuse City School District, teaching special education classes at Clary Middle School. Before that, he was a special education teacher in the South Bronx.
He says of his love for teaching: “I like knowing that I’m helping the next generation in this country, in this society. I love when students come back to me and tell me how impactful I’ve been on their life, beyond the classroom.” Just recently, a former student contacted King to express his gratitude for the impact he had on his life and his decision to join the U.S. Army. “That’s what it’s all about,” King says.
His research interest stems from his experience with self-contained classrooms—rooms for students with disabilities that are designated as least restrictive while exclusive from the general student population. He says the experience opened his eyes to how this approach affects students. “Statistics show that if students with disabilities are fully included, they are more productive—grades are more productive, and behavior’s more productive,” he explains.
It motivated him to figure out ways to include children with disabilities in general education classrooms without the need for self-contained classrooms, a concept in line with Syracuse University School of Education’s teaching and leadership on inclusive education.
“I think everybody plays a role in special education. We all have individual ways of learning, understanding and retaining information.”
King supports the charter school model and says he’d love to see a boys and girls charter school that caters to full inclusivity, perhaps even starting his own one day. “I think that with the charter school model, children, students, staff and stakeholders will see the power of student voice in education,” he says. King’s first teaching experience was in a charter school, and he found that there was more willingness and leniency to allow students and families to feel heard, valued and represented both inside and outside of the school setting.
A Pastor and a Father
While King balances schoolwork, working as a teaching assistant and serving as president of the Syracuse chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, an intercollegiate African American fraternity, he’s also involved in his community as a church pastor.
King commutes to school from nearby Ithaca, New York, where he lives and works as a pastor at St. James AME Zion Church. The 36-year-old teacher and single father started working there at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. “No one has the handbook for how to pastor in the middle of a pandemic,” he says.
The church itself has a storied past. One of the first AME Zion churches in the country, it was an important stop on the Underground Railroad. Notable congregants in the past include Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, among other civil rights leaders.
It’s a lot to manage, but King looks toward the lessons he’s learned in church and from Justice Brown Jackson to handle it all. “There’s a cliche we say in church, but it really bears fruit,” he says. “God won’t put more on you than you can bear. Looking back over the last two years, everything I have navigated is a testament to that being true.”
His work at the church connects to his coursework. King highlights the societal treatment of people with disabilities as compared to slavery. “There’s a connection to special education and/or people with disabilities and slavery because these people are not seen as ‘normal’ or ‘human,’” King explains. “So, to oversee a church where inclusion was the goal and pillar for its existence, and to now be a special education teacher and Ph.D. student with inclusion as the focus, is full circle.”
By Lisa Maresca