Dr. Juane Heflin ('84) | Teacher Education

juane heflin

2010 recipient of the Morlan Award
and associate professor at Georgia State

When the Teacher Education department seeks to give out the Morlan Award to an outstanding alumnus, they look for someone who's qualified, who's dedicated and who cares about people. This year, department chair Dana Hood knew the exact moment they'd found a winner.

"I first met Dr. Heflin after she had completed an all-day presentation in Abilene on serving children with autism. After her exhausting day of presenting - and she presents with great energy and enthusiasm - she received people with grace. Many of these were parents desperate for help. I was moved by Juane's obvious concern and compassion as she welcomed each person. I knew then that we had our recipient."

Juane Heflin knew from the third grade on that she wanted to be a teacher. In high school, she volunteered with a community service organization that helped children with emotional behavioral disorders. She worked with the children on an individual basis, forming relationships with them as she learned their issues and their stories. Gradually she began to realize that these children acted out because they were in pain and felt excluded from the society in which they lived.

"They wanted to belong," she said.

ACU as family

That desire to help children who couldn't find a way articulate their inner pain inspired Juane to major in elementary education at ACU, with a concentration in special education. She soon found that her drive to help the community and engage in altruism was shared by other students and organizations on campus. 

"It felt like a family," she said.

That sense of community wasn't limited to charitable efforts. Even in her classes Juane felt a personal connection to her professors and to her fellow students.

"The faculty really cared," she said. "We weren't just students in their classes. We were people."

Knowing her professors personally intensified the quality of her educational experience, as did the professional expertise they brought to the field. The combination resulted in a comprehensive program designed to prepare teachers to immediately enter the field with confidence in their abilities and those of their students.

"I believe my education was exemplary," Juane said. "The faculty members taught based on experience, not just on knowledge. They had a strong field-based component - I started going into real classes early on."

When Juane went on to graduate school, she carried that same expectation of excellence with her. She received a master's degree in emotional behavioral disorders with a focus on autism from University of North Texas. She then implemented her training as an instructor in the Fort Worth ISD, where she taught special education classes for elementary school children.

No such thing as 'normal'

Juane's special education classes were a lesson in flexibility. She had seven to 11 children on an average day, with ages ranging from first through fifth grade. Although no day qualified as "normal," her goal was to make it through the schedule with everyone participating - even if there were a few meltdowns along the way.

The classes emphasized functional activities - simple life skills such as buying groceries, cooking, and basic reading and math. Every week she and her students would take a field trip into the community to work using their skills in unfamiliar settings. And although their understanding sometimes came about in unexpected ways, Juane discovered that specific methods were far less important than watching her children learn. 

"Every moment is a teachable moment," she said, "and sometimes I'm the one learning."

She also came to realize that for these children, success was not something that society could define or set as a benchmark. It was highly personal and relative to their particular needs and accomplishments.

"Success is defined as finding a way to get the goal accomplished, but in a different way," she said.

An expert on autism

After three years of teaching, Juane moved on to higher education. Her doctorate from UNT focused on leadership in special education, which she uses to help create future faculty members and to groom teachers.

At Georgia State, where she has been since 1995, she balances her work between teaching, committee meetings, fieldwork, conducting research and writing. She has co-authored a textbook for assisting students with autism spectrum disorders and co-edits the journal Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities. But despite her busy academic schedule, every once in a while she misses being in the classroom with "her" kids.

"I miss being in the classroom desperately," she said. However, she still helps her students when they're having problems, which involves the occasional visit to a classroom setting.

"I wanted to be part of an environment where I could do research and stay connected with the students," she said. "I'm still affecting the kids; there's no doubt about it."

Her academic achievements and tender heart for kids in need made Juane the perfect candidate for the Morlan Award. She believes she can't take all the credit, however. 

"I can't even say how excited and honored I am," she said. "It's an opportunity for me to say that I wouldn't be receiving the award if it weren't for the education and guidance I received at ACU."

The bottom line

At the end of the day, though, special education isn't about awards or academic achievement - not where Juane Heflin is concerned. Her work with children with special needs has opened her eyes not only to the problems they face, but also to the unique gifts and abilities they contribute to everyday life.

"I think it's about giving people the support they need to be successful, and that's what gives me such joy," she said. "They make me feel more alive and more a part of the community around me."

She stopped and smiled, a glint of humor peeking through the seriousness of her words.
"They don't have to be 'normal' to be valued."

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Serving Local Schools
Reagan-Elementary
ACU Teacher Education majors get hands-on with students at a local elementary school.