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An elementary school boy sits in front of a computer in his special education school while holding up a page of autographs.



A Day in the Life of a Special Education Director

A Day in the Life of a Special Education Director

Ever wondered what life as a Director of Special Education looks like? We asked Ernie Ley, M.Ed., our Director of Special Education at our State College, PA campus what his role looks like, how he got there, and any advice he could give. Take a look at what he said! 

What was your career trajectory? How did you end up at New Story Schools? 

I was a special education teacher for about 16 years prior to moving to Pennsylvania. I spent most of my life living in Ohio, halfway between Cleveland and Akron. I moved to State College, PA to take an administrative role at a small Christian school. I was there for about four and a half years, but eventually felt like my time had run out there and I was unsure as to what I wanted to do next. But I always felt that “once a special educator, always a special educator.” I found the job at New Story Schools, and it ended up being the perfect fit. It was exactly what I was looking for.

What is your day-to-day role like as a Special Education Director? 

I believe my role is to empower other leaders here to do their work to the best of their ability in terms of serving our students and their families. For the people that I work with, I want to model for them how to represent what it is that we do both as a philosophy and a practice. My role is to protect, to teach, to model, and to instill in those that I work with everything that we do. Sometimes I’m a counselor, sometimes I’m a problem solver, sometimes I’m a mediator. It is a very chameleon role. I enjoy my role and I think it fits my personality, but most importantly, I like to lead leaders.

What is something you look forward to everyday? 

I look forward to celebrating the little wins that we see with our students. Sometimes we are so close to the action or treatment that we get lost and don’t see the forest for the trees, so to speak. I try to remind my coworkers of the little things that happen for our students each day and remind them to celebrate those. Like when the students draw a picture for you and put your name on it. Things like that are why it is important to remind people that the work we do is so incremental and there won’t be those huge breakthroughs very often. That’s why we have to care for them and meet their individual needs.

What makes our State College, PA campus special?

I feel very blessed to have a great team here. They truly understand the approach of “we.” We’re not perfect, but when it comes down to it, I think what makes this special is that I can safely say that people are going to do what is best for the students here. I don’t have to “teach” them how to care for the students. They enjoy what they do and I believe they see it as a privilege to teach these students. They see it as a challenge, and they all work really well together. I’m only as good as my team, and we have an excellent team here.

What makes you proud of the work you do? 

I’ll give you an example. A little while back, I was in a meeting with a school district, and there was a lady from the Youth Services Bureau who was meeting our team for the first time. I told her that I was the Director of Special Education at a New Story School. And she said to me, “Oh, you’re that miracle school.” When I hear things like that from LEA’s it makes all the difference in the world. Whenever I hear that we are a district’s first choice to place a student, that’s when I am the proudest in terms of having the reputation that we do. We aren’t just taking in students and doing the best we can, but we are actually doing the work and people are seeing the results.

Is there any advice you could give to someone who is also looking to pursue a career in special education? 

Don’t forget where you come from. Don’t be afraid to roll your sleeves up and do some work in the trenches. I have a quote I keep under my desk that’s been my philosophy, and this is what I tell every person that works for me. It says, “I’ve come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher or administrator, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspirations. I can humiliate or heal in all situations. It is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or deescalated, and a child humanized or dehumanized.” That is my philosophy. It has been since day one and I’ve been doing it for 30 years. People will not always remember what you say or what you taught them, but they remember how you made them feel. For some of the students we have, we are the best thing they have going for them. Sometimes the most consistent, loving, and caring. That’s how I expect them to go about it.

One additional piece of advice I would give is that students know. They know if you’re the real deal or not. If you’re faking it, or you don’t really like the students or the job, you won’t be able to fool them. They can tell if you really care about them or not. You have to be genuine.

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