Soo Ahn, a new assistant professor in the School of Education, specializes in serving students with emotional and behavioral disabilities. Photo by Ryan Riley.

New professor specializes in serving students with emotional and behavioral disabilities

With a background in international relations and a master’s degree from Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea, Soo Ahn was recruited to work with federal intelligence agencies in Washington, D.C.

But her work as a substitute teacher led her to switch career paths and instead become a teacher in special education, which has been identified nationally as a teacher shortage area.

“I fell in love with that challenge, and that need, and working with the students,” she said.

Ahn, a new assistant professor in the Iowa State University School of Education, said she applies some of the same problem-solving skills working with her students, as she would have working for the government. Her students generally have average to above-average IQ, but lower academic achievement because of their behavioral needs.

“It is almost like solving puzzles,” she said. “Each child has a unique set of challenges but also a unique set of strengths. I have to figure out what’s the best way to meet those challenges and strengths.”

Applying evidence-based practices

Ahn began her career as a special education teacher at a public day school for students with emotional disabilities. She had no experience in special education at the time, but was given her own classroom full of students who required the most significant emotional and behavioral support in Fairfax County, Virginia, one of the largest school counties in America.

“Needless to say, I had to learn effective practices fast,” she said. “I found myself researching and using evidence-based practices, which was incorporated into my everyday instruction. This provided me with the insight that strengthening instructional practices through research is the most powerful way to educate students with disabilities.”

Eight years later, Ahn joins the faculty at Iowa State. She received her doctorate in special education from George Mason University with an emphasis in disabilities that are most prevalent among students, and a secondary emphasis in international education.

“I left the K-12 education system to pursue a career in higher education, where I strive to bridge the research-to-practice gap by preparing future educators,” she said.

Some of Ahn’s past research has explored the use of technology. She worked on a multi-year, multi-site research project funded by the U.S. Department of Education that investigated the effects of supporting struggling writers with a technology-based graphic organizer.

“There is a dearth of research in using mobile apps in academic interventions,” she said. “In this regard, I see a great potential in this area — to provide students with disabilities writing supports through a familiar technological platform.”

Ahn plans to focus her future research on behavioral classroom management. She plans to wholistically look at combining academic and behavioral interventions for students with emotional disabilities. Most of her research involves going into schools and working directly with students.  

Constantly striving to improve

Ahn is a highly coveted hire who is a leader among her peers. Through her research activities in the past two years, she co-authored three published articles and a book chapter, and presented more than 15 papers and posters at national and international conferences.

As a doctoral student, she was selected as a Dean’s Scholar because of her past scholarship and test scores. She was also an ASCEND (Applying Scholarship to Create and Evaluate Next Developments in Special Education) Fellow who had extensive opportunities in research, teaching undergraduate and graduate classes, writing manuscripts, and presenting at conferences.

Ahn joins the Iowa State team of Anne Foegen, Patricia Carlson, and Linda Lind in offering expertise in special education. Foegen, professor and director of graduate education who led Ahn’s search committee, said there were several things about Ahn that were appealing to the search committee.

“Soo brings expertise in serving students with emotional and behavioral disabilities,” Foegen said. “She’s had multiple years of teaching experience in a public day school for students with emotional disabilities, which complements the experiences of other special education team members.”

“She also has expertise and teaching experience with international special education, which will provide unique insights for our students. Soo is a go-getter! She’s been active in special education professional organizations in Virginia, as well as successful presenting and publishing work related to technology-based writing supports for students with disabilities.”

Ahn comes to Iowa State having already taught both undergraduate and graduate courses in special education. But she is constantly striving to improve. To better prepare herself as a teacher educator, she took a non-credit course on how to effectively teach online classes and participated in a Bug-in-Ear study, a real-time coaching program designed to improve teaching practices through technology.