By Peter Rice
You have registered for classes, bought the required textbooks, and adjusted to your new schedule. But something seems to be missing. You have been taking notes, completing reading assignments, and studying hard for exams: what could be the problem? Then it hits you. So far, you have spent time getting to know a few people in your classes, but neglected to learn more about your professors. Of course, it is easy to take your usual seat, joke around with a friend, quietly jot down notes, eagerly participate when you have an answer, and leave without saying another word. It is difficult, however, to learn more about your professors, because there is a considerable amount of course information to be understood and a limited amount of time in which to do it. But now you finally understand what you have been missing out on. Professors have more to offer than just their lectures and research; they have real life experiences to share as well. This can be valuable information that allows you to succeed academically and can leave you better prepared for your future. It only takes a few moments after class or during office hours to open yourself to opportunities where you get to know your professor.
Offering many courses, Dowling College has plenty of qualified professors roaming its halls, but it might be difficult to experience them all. Yet, if there is one professor you would like to meet, it would have to be Dr. Eric Shyman.
Specializing in special education, Dr. Shyman currently teaches two undergraduate courses: Behavior Management for Diverse Students and Integrated Practice in the Content Area. On top of this, he also teaches two graduate courses – Issues in Special Education: The Autism Spectrum and Educational Approaches for Students with Autism – as part of a professional master’s certification program focusing on Autism. Assuming that the necessary time and effort is put forth, students who take these courses, as Dr. Shyman commented, “feel that they have been challenged and that I have not made it easy for them, but also that… they have become better students (and future teachers) as a result.” By incorporating activities designed to enhance relevant skills that teachers can use in their classrooms, Dr. Shyman also believes that students walk away from his courses having developed a few permanent abilities to use throughout “their careers as teachers in various ways.”
Those who have taken one of Dr. Shyman’s courses, however, understand that there are high, but fair, expectations. Maintaining a professional demeanor, following along with the syllabus, and being punctual for class and assignments are just a few behaviors that Dr. Shyman seeks to encourage from his students. The reasoning behind this is quite simple. Dr. Shyman believes that “the way a student approaches their studies is indicative of the way in which they are likely to approach their jobs and, ultimately, careers.” Considering that one day the pre-service teachers sitting in his classroom will have a class of their own, it is imperative to instill behaviors that teachers are expected to uphold. “By holding such expectations,” said Dr. Shyman, “my goal is to help foster my students’ ability to take their endeavors seriously and perform successfully.”
Practicing what he preaches, Dr. Shyman actively works to ensure that his courses are not only current, but also reflective of what pre-service teachers can expect to experience in the field of special education and beyond. In order to accomplish this goal, he performs tireless research into a variety of topics such as paraeducators, social justice and special education, educational philosophy and teacher training for Autism Spectrum Disorders. From this work, Dr. Shyman has successfully published several articles and has begun to write his first book in which he is “aiming to put forth a philosophical treatise in support of inclusive education for students with disabilities.”
Here is a professor that is earnestly striving to improve the field of education for students with disabilities by impacting the lives of those who will be working alongside them. Through his lectures and research, Dr. Shyman has clearly dedicated himself to being a part of a “positive change in a very important area.” Let us now take a deeper look into the inner workings that made this all possible.
As a child, Dr. Shyman was a typical student moving through his elementary years with mostly positive memories of being a part of a warm and inviting environment. This, he commented, “I think this the way it should be.” Reflecting back on those early years, Dr. Shyman then remembered one of his first encounters with kindness.
“When I was in Kindergarten,” Dr. Shyman began, “I got on the wrong bus to go home.” He explained how all the kindergarteners at his school had a separate bus to take home from the other students. Walking innocently down the bus’s aisle, Dr. Shyman was horrified to discover strange faces peering his way. “By mistake,” he remembered, “I went on the ‘big kid’ bus.” Justifiably confused and nervous, Dr. Shyman then recalled how a stranger came to his rescue. “A 4th grader at the time,” he said, “waited with me until my mom picked me up at her bus stop.” Interestingly enough, the kind boy that lives vividly in this memory would become a colleague of Dr. Shyman later on. But it is through such experiences that he would begin to understand the power of kindness and what it means to give one’s time to aid another.
Thinking back to his middle school days, Dr. Shyman said, “I don’t know anyone who didn’t struggle through middle school.” As a time of changes, he remembers experiencing a shift in deciding what truly mattered in life. Those all so important activities of elementary students quickly fall to the wayside and were being replaced by a whole new world of possibilities. Beyond this, he was among one of the first and smallest classes to pass through his middle school, which used to be a junior high school. In the end, however, Dr. Shyman was just glad that he made it through. “I survived,” he said, “which, even in retrospect, seems good enough.”
Going to high school was an extremely interesting time for Dr. Shyman. Admittedly, he claims that, “I didn’t always value my education and was not always a stellar student.” And continued by adding, “I struggled as much as I succeeded academically and socially in high school, but in retrospect, it was an enjoyable and formative time.” In hindsight, Dr. Shyman does believe that high school students today seem to be under more pressure than he ever had to face. He thinks that it is important for professors to understand these sorts of generational difference, because it better enables them to identify with their students.
During these years, Dr. Shyman started working as a towel washer at a local car wash, but admits that – for a variety of reasons – this only last for two weeks. Yet, the work experience he gained there was helpful later on his in life. It taught him the value of a good day’s work. His next job, at the age of sixteen, was in a guitar shop. This gig only lasted for a week though, “because,” Dr. Shyman said, “as it turned out, it was less a guitar shop than it was a ‘garage sale.’” His longest lasting job, however, came during his junior and senior years in high school when he worked at a retail store called Service Merchandise. “It was at this job,” he pointed out, “I really do believe I learned how to deal with all kinds of people in all kinds of situations.” This kind of work allowed him to channel his inner Buddha as he learned to “submit and let go.” A quality that is all too important in life.
Through it all, however, Dr. Shyman did well enough to get admitted into SUNY Albany after finishing high school. “This time in my life,” he said, “was a true awakening” for him. “Being an undergraduate [at SUNY Albany] felt like a once in a lifetime opportunity to reinvent the traits I was less fond of and retain those that I liked.” He was comfortable at this university because the people and surroundings all reminded him of being back on Long Island. Under this mindset, Dr. Shyman set forth to become a student who managed to excel at his work, while still finding the time to have fun. “Something clicked in me,” he smirked, “that both were not only possible, but also necessary.” Dr. Shyman wholeheartedly believes that the person he is today can largely be traced back to his college years. Even now, he still finds himself drawing on his experiences during this time. In particular, during his junior year in college, Dr. Shyman lived and traveled around Europe for four months and studied at Oxford University. An energetic adventurous spirit had been uncapped as a result.
As an undergraduate student majoring in Psychology, Dr. Shyman was unsure of what he wanted to do in life but knew that graduate school was for him. After graduating from SUNY Albany, he took up a job at a school for kids with autism. Working with these students, Dr. Shyman learned what teaching was all about. During the first two weeks, his classroom only had four items: 1 table, 3 chairs, and, as he said, “a box of pattern blocks with three pattern sheets (these are the activities that have 4 different shapes and templates that form pictures when they are matched).” Experimenting and learning to make do, Dr. Shyman began to understand that good teaching is not defined by the things in the classroom, but rather by the personal connections – by any means – being made with the students. In retrospect, he believes that not having the materials right away was a blessing in disguise, because it forced him to be creative and learn what “my students can do in even the ‘barest’ of situations.” Out of this experience, he finally found his passion in life.
Enrolling into a graduate program that specialized in autism, Dr. Shyman was not a stranger to the world of special education. As an undergraduate, he had taken a course in Autism and had gained experience by working as an aide for a 14-year old with cerebral palsy and intellectual disabilities. He felt ready to begin his life as a graduate student.
“All of the enrollees,” Dr. Shyman remembered, “worked, to one degree or another, with students that had autism.” Working alongside these peers, he was first exposed to the competition that exists among professionals in the field of education. Yet, he remembers that, “I also experienced a ‘mellowing’ of sorts as we all got to know each other.” Under this unique graduate school experience, Dr. Shyman observed how “the program began with all of us ‘defending’ our respective schools and ended with us visiting each other at them so we could find ways to improve.” Overall, he found that graduate school was a fantastic experience that further prepared him for his future work.
Balancing school and his outside work was admittedly difficult for Dr. Shyman. But to maintain harmony in his life, he heavily utilized his time management skills. “This was,” he said, “and is, always easier said than done. The work of a classroom teacher, especially one in the early years of their career, is unending, and I spent several nights with nothing but a pack of construction paper, markers, a laminator, and a pizza box.” This investment of time and dues of energy are things that all teachers are asked to pay. Though it may be difficult, and even feel impossible, Dr. Shyman believes that he was made all the better for it. In some ways, he even misses it.
“As I get older,” he said, “I seem to learn one thing over and over: life seldom gets simpler.” Being able to manage your increasingly hectic life becomes the main challenge, because being hyper-focused on work is all too easy. Therefore, he believes that it is sometimes necessary to step back and realize that time is too valuable to not be spent with quality.
Moving forward in his life, Dr. Shyman had always wanted to obtain a doctorate degree, but it was not always a viable opportunity with the various constrictions on his time. There were days when he wondered if this aspiration was just a silly pipe dream. Then it happened. During a commemorative dinner at an autism conference, Dr. Shyman listened passionately to a remembrance address for an important figure in the field that had just passed away. “I remember,” he began, “being so impressed and enamored by his accomplishments, and I felt [such] a surge of inspiration… [that] I had made two decisions that night: I would apply to a doctoral program, and I would get engaged.” Luckily, both panned out.
Attending Columbia University’s School of Education (called Teachers College), Dr. Shyman began his journey towards a doctorate. Half way through his program, his world was suddenly rocked by the realization that “[he] would never know enough.” Not broken by this, Dr. Shyman found comfort in understanding that the only choice he had was to just keep learning. Even to this day, it is this lesson that, he contends, “continues to drive me academically.”
Along his road of professional development, Dr. Shyman attended many conferences. Each of these experiences surged his mind with ideas and rejuvenated his constitution to see them through. Reading and writing excessively in a wide array of areas has also been a staple to his success. “Working vigorously in only one area of a field,” explained Dr. Shyman, “never really appealed to me, so I am sure to read books in all areas of thought, even those that don’t seem to be directly related to special education.” He has found that surprising connections can be made in the strangest of places. Between these two strategies, Dr. Shyman was able to develop into a proficient educator and obtain a doctorate degree.
Attending and presenting at over thirty conferences in areas including autism, behavioral intervention, occupational stress, educational philosophy, paraeducator training, Response to Intervention, among other topics around the country has allowed Dr. Shyman to open and speak his mind. And with six publications in peer-reviewed journals, and more on the way, Dr. Shyman is having his voice heard in the world of education. “I’ve published three articles,” he said, “using the data from my dissertation which looked at stress factors of paraeducators (teacher assistants, teacher aides, monitors) working with students with disabilities.” And he has also continued to expand on his knowledge base by comparing the educational philosophies of John Dewey and Paulo Freire, exploring philosophical treatise that attempt to establish special education as a matter of social justice and developing blueprints for a graduate studies program focusing on autism. The latter of which holds a special place in Dr. Shyman’s heart, because his passions about the field of autism, being as they are, leaves him feeling honored just to be a part of its discourse. “Some of my future writing and research interests,” added Dr. Shyman, “[will] involve taking a closer look at teacher education programs in autism, as well as investigating the role that social justice plays in special education teacher training programs.”
Throughout his career, of course, there are several things that Dr. Shyman would like to change. But then again, is not that the point? Life is not perfect. We can only learn to grow. Even so, Dr. Shyman does admit that when he was a young educator without any children, he was unintentionally insensitive to parents. “I think understanding what it is like to be a parent,” he explained, “is possible only when you become one and further understanding what it is like to be a parent of a child with a severe disability is nearly impossible even with experience, as everyone responds to such a circumstance differently.” Though the wheels of time cannot be reversed, Dr. Shyman fervently believes that learning is what moves us forward.
In all, Dr. Eric Shyman is a very devoted person. Whether it is the admiration he has maintained for his father or the love for carries for his wife and son, he is an individual that is willing to go beyond the call of duty to serve others. In a world abounding with uncertainties, Dr. Shyman passionately enjoys sharing his interests and hobbies with his family, colleagues, and students. It is for this reason that he will always be remembered as a person who cared and as a teacher who excelled.