The title of Distinguished Professor at the University of Florida is an esteemed honor reserved for those who have demonstrated an exceptional record of achievement both nationally and internationally across the areas of teaching, public service, scholarship and publication.

Recently, Mary Brownell, professor of Special Education, was awarded the rare title. Brownell is only the eighth College of Education professor to receive this distinction.

“Dr. Brownell’s commitment to the fields of teacher education and special education are unparalleled,” said College of Education Dean Glenn Good. “She is a widely recognized national and international leader whose contributions to the many facets of teacher preparation have transformed the landscape of learning for students with disabilities. Dr. Brownell is a highly respected advocate for advancing the field and providing optimal opportunities for all students to succeed.”

Brownell has influenced the fields of teacher education and special education for more than 40 years, although she believes her teaching career started much earlier in life.

Mary Brownell

Mary Brownell

“I think my profession began before I realized it because I was being asked to help my fellow students learn before I had any formal preparation to be a teacher,” she said.

Compelled to serve youth and adolescents with disabilities, Brownell became a special education teacher working for several years both in the classroom as well as a juvenile detention center.

“I was drawn to the students and wanted them to be able to succeed more than they currently were, and I was concerned about how others saw them—that they didn’t see their potential, always,” she said.

Intrinsic to Brownell is a desire to cultivate the potential within every student. As she transitioned her career into higher education at UF, this commitment has remained at the heart of her teaching and has served as the guiding compass of her scholarship.

As a special educator herself who left the classroom, she has dedicated her research to understanding how to better prepare and better support educators and reduce teacher attrition. She has worked tirelessly to strengthen the preparation of special and general education teachers to ensure they are equipped with the knowledge, training and tools to provide exemplary instruction to all students, and particularly students with disabilities.

“I left, and so I reflected on that myself and what it would take to keep good people in these positions that were devoted to students with disabilities,” she said. I could see that when teachers were devoted like that, students, who other people didn’t have high hopes for, really progressed and you know surprised everyone.”