Special Education Professor Katie Tackett Wins Massey Award

Special education professor Katie Tackett, MA, ’04, PhD ’09, gets nervous before every class. Sitting in her office, stocked with a coffee maker and several mugs, before walking to her classroom, she thinks, “Maybe I can just cancel class today.” But she doesn’t. For Tackett, nerves are a good thing. The second she stops being nervous is the second she stops teaching.

“To me, those nerves are a sign of the passion and a sign that I’m nervous I’m not bringing my very best to these students,” Tackett says. “If I stop getting nervous and think, ‘Eh, this will be good enough,’ I need to find a new job.”

The nerves seem to be working. Tackett was named the recipient of the 2016-17 Elizabeth Shatto Massey Award for Excellence in Teacher Education. Nominations for the Massey Award are given every other year from deans in the colleges of education, fine arts, liberal arts, and natural sciences. “The College of Education and The University of Texas at Austin are fortunate to have Dr. Tackett not only as an innovative teacher of pre-service teachers, but also a dedicated mentor and guide through so many years of their education here,” Manuel Justiz, dean of the College of Education, wrote in his letter recommending her. “Her dedication to increased access to excellent education for students of all abilities has benefited the educational careers of our pre-service teachers and those of countless K-12 students who have been taught by them.”

John Massey, LLB ’66, Life Member, Distinguished Alumnus, created the award in honor of his wife, Elizabeth Anne Shatto Massey, BS ’61, Life Member, Distinguished Alumna, in 2003 to celebrate her dedication to teaching. “Teachers are heroes in our family,” Massey says. “This award is to appropriately recognize teachers of teachers who are preparing today’s students to become outstanding teachers in the future. Dr. Katie Tackett exemplifies the very best of these attributes because of the significance and breadth of her work in the department of special education. She is simply outstanding as a clinical professor and an undergraduate advisor.”

Tackett has been a professor at UT for five years, but she’s been frequenting the Sanchez building for far longer. While working as an elementary school teacher, Tackett had three students with disabilities in her classroom. She found the services offered to them were poor, so she decided to head back to school to learn more about special education.

Now as a professor and the undergraduate advisor for the department of special education, Tackett trains tomorrow’s special education professionals. In addition to teaching undergraduate and graduate courses, she oversees student teaching and internships and is the cohort coordinator for special education pre-service teachers, meaning she guides the same students for five semesters. Tackett says she tries to model for her students what she expects from them in a classroom—namely, a sense of both urgency and vulnerability. “Kids with disabilities don’t have time to waste,” Tackett says. “They are often behind their peers in some way. It’s our job to catch them up.” She starts off class with her “learner’s creed,” in which she encourages students to take risks and learn from their mistakes. “As a teacher you will make tons of mistakes,” she says. “As a teacher, I still make tons of mistakes, but we will learn from those, and that’s where the real learning happens.”

She says her best classes are the ones where she doesn’t feel exhausted by the end of them, meaning her students did most of the work, not her. Her classes tend to consist of activities: discussion, designing lesson plans, practice teaching, and more. “I know the classes where my students learn the most are the ones where I kind of get bored because I’m just facilitating the learning,” Tackett says.

She also thinks it’s important for her students to know something about her, like the fact that she’s a mom of three, and earlier this month, became a foster parent of two. Now when she’s not at UT, she’s parenting five children ages 9 and under at home—and she’s not afraid to share that with her students. “I learn better when I have an idea of where people are coming from and their experiences, and I think that’s when my students learn best, too,” Tackett says. “I want them to see I’m one person who has kids and is working, and it’s not perfect or balanced, but I’m doing it. I think it’s important for them to see that that is a possibility.”

When I ask her what makes her who she is (“Coffee,” she jokes), she says it’s her stubbornness. When things don’t go her way—whether that’s getting one of her children to put shoes on, or mastering the art of teaching an online course—she sticks it out until they do. “My natural inclination is ‘how do I get better?’” she says. “I don’t say, ‘Well, that class was good, I don’t need to improve.’ This award, while lovely and wonderful, does not mean, ‘Now I know how to educate teachers. Come ask me how to educate them.’ No. I’m still learning.”

Photo by Eileen Wu


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