Special Education professor Janet Gaffney lands literacy position in New Zealand

by The College of Education  /   Jun 4, 2012

Sometimes, a new job is just that—a new job. Maybe it's for the sake of a different job, or maybe it's a slightly better opportunity, perhaps a half-step up on the career ladder. Then other times, a job change is life-defining and life-altering; a most-of-my-life-has-led-me-to-this-moment job change. For Janet Gaffney, her new appointment as professor of Educational Psychology–literacy at the University of Auckland in New Zealand is definitely the latter.

Gaffney joined the faculty at the College of Education in the fall of 1987, working up to professor of Special Education with affiliate appointments in the departments of Educational Psychology and Curriculum and Instruction. Her research focused on developing teachers' expertise to facilitate the independent literacy learning of children and youth with and without disabilities who are not making adequate progress.

She was contacted about the New Zealand position by an executive search firm more than a year ago. "The reason that I looked into it further and the reason it appealed to me—first of all in Special Education we don't really offer anything in literacy and my new position is literacy. This really pulled me like a magnet to the position, "Gaffney explained, "And, second is that Marie (pronounced MAH-ree) Clay is a former faculty member there."

Marie Clay, who passed away in 2007, was a well-known pioneer in early literacy. Declared a dame by the Queen of England, she developed and designed the Reading Recovery program and exported it to the U. S. and Australia in 1985 when both countries became interested in literacy, according to Gaffney.

But to understand why Gaffney decided to pick up, move to another country, and leave a University and community that she both loves and appreciates, you have to go back to where she started at the College—as a visiting assistant professor 25 years ago.

In the spring of 1988, about six months after she arrived on campus, Gaffney recalls that she was teaching a large course in the most massive space here in the Education Building, the auditorium. "I'm just in my first year, and I'm contacted by the Center for the Study of Reading to see if I would cancel my class for a day so that they could hold a meeting about a reading program," Gaffney remembers.

Albeit (she admits) a bit impolite, she declined.

But that phone call planted a seed. Something in the back of her mind prompted her to contact that meeting's organizer after the fact to inquire about what reading program might attract so much interest.

"It's funny. They say nothing is by chance," Gaffney said.

That meeting in question was about the Reading Recovery program created by Marie Clay, with the idea that children who struggle to learn to read and write can be helped with early intervention.

The program intrigued Gaffney so much that she went on a mission to find the original guidebook on Reading Recovery. She could only find it through the library loan program from Illinois State University.

Once the thin book was in her hands, she remembers reading it at her kitchen table "like it was yesterday," Gaffney said, who even remembers intricate details of the book's cover. She could relate to Clay's words as she read them, adding "she was writing the things I say."

It's ironic (or perhaps fate) that she had the book in her hands and consumed it like a sponge soaks water, because she got a call from the then Education Dean Nancy Cole to ask if Gaffney would meet with her that very day about a literacy program.

"I asked her which one, just to be sure," Gaffney said. "When she said 'Reading Recovery' I just read a little faster."

Reading Recovery originated in the United States in 1985 at The Ohio State University. Gaffney's encounter with the program was three years after that and literacy experts were poised to spread the program throughout the country. The dean asked Gaffney if she would be willing to go to Ohio State for a year-long intensive training program and serve as a liaison for Illinois.

The rest is history, as they say.

Then a few years later in 1990, Clay came to the Center for the Study of Reading at University of Illinois for one year as part of the George A. Miller lecture and visiting scholar series. College of Education professors David Pearson and Richard Anderson wrote a proposal that allowed Marie Clay to visit and teach here for a year and then deliver the lecture, according to Gaffney.

"I really got to know Marie Clay in that year," Gaffney recalls. "She really became a colleague and a mentor for me. Now, by going to New Zealand, I want to honor her career."

Thus far, Gaffney can't speak about her new role as well as her career here without getting a little emotional.

"I'm so grateful for my experiences here," she said. "I've had the good fortune of meeting the people I have here as well as the leadership opportunities I've experienced—those things are like steps that led me to say yes; to know 'I can do this.' I couldn't have said yes 10 years ago."

In addition to her responsibilities as a professor of literacy, Gaffney will also help start the Marie Clay Research Institute. She, along with others, will develop and design the institute.

Who knew her life would unfold the way that it has when she got that call to ask if she would cancel class 24 years ago.

They say nothing is by chance.

Photo: Jan Gaffney with master's degree recipient Lauren Brewer, who graduated with certification in the Learning Behavior Specialist I program.

Editor's note:
Janet Gaffney co-authored the book titled "Stirring the Waters: The Influence of Marie Clay" with Billie Askew about the life and work of Marie Clay. It is on its sixth printing. Here is a brief biography of Clay from the book.