Dr. Karen Eliasson Santos

Quotations inspire me… I carry them with me, read books of them, print relevant ones on special paper for workshop participants, create class agendas with special quotes for each session, frame them for my office, and look forward to two arriving by e-mail each morning. I resonate with the way that some people are able to capture illusive concepts with artfully composed words. These quotes frame what sustains me.

Your profession is what you were put on earth to do with such passion and such intensity that it becomes spiritual in calling. – Virgil

I felt I was put on earth to teach; to be a partner in learning. It started with a unique opportunity to interact with individuals with learning challenges and from that time forward a true passion for teaching emerged.  Since my early years, I have known “what I wanted to be when I grew up” and I worked to achieve this goal with relentless purpose.  This focus drove my selection of a university, a major, and all of my summer employment experiences.  I distinctly recall sitting in my first deaf education class at Northwestern University and feeling goose bumps because I was finally on track to become a teacher. Throughout school to my first teaching job, I was intrigued with understanding learning, excited about ways of teaching, and literally enthralled with how it all came together in a classroom. It was fascinating and I just couldn’t get enough. I worked hard and took advantage of every opportunity.  It was like putting the pieces of a puzzle together. Subsequent roles from teacher to administrator, from professor to head of the program, from school in-service provider to university faculty developer, as well as consultant, all have been about teaching and learning.  They were “puzzle like” experiences of finding and connecting the pieces to form a meaningful whole.  Regardless of my role, the focus was always on the learner and how to maximize a positive successful learning experience. Whether the learners were PK-12 students, teacher candidates, practicing educators, or university faculty, it was about serving and partnering in learning. This journey as an educator was what I was put on earth to do and the intensity and passion are what sustain me.

They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself. – Andy Warhol

As I contemplate the ways my career has changed, I realize it has been about vision. Although not always crystal clear, as I look back, it was one that unfolded gracefully and compellingly over more than 30 years. I did not wander aimlessly only then to have opportunities fall in my lap but rather I became deeply invested and engaged in each stage of my work in a way that captured my imagination and facilitated envisioning the next step.  For me, it was about sensing the need and working very hard to create the change.  That sustains me.

“Opportunities are seldom labeled.” – John Shedd

Opportunities provide the petri dish for innovation but sometimes what grows is unexpected.  I like innovation with it’s formal by products of “better,” “more effective,” or an “improved way of doing things” but equally important are the accompanying energy, excitement, newness, and fresh perspectives that are part of the process. I find it highly stimulating to identify a need and use creativity and imagination to creatively design a solution.  While each phase of innovation, from idea generation to implementation, is exciting I especially treasure the stage of new ideas arising from multiple sources and working collaboratively with colleagues to refine them into an effective plan of action. It never ceases to amaze me how ideas become better and better as a result of diverse perspectives.  Reflecting back on a variety of collaborative education ventures, examples come to mind… the satisfaction of creating sustainable structures for recruiting and orienting new teacher candidates, establishing comprehensive processes for advising and progress monitoring, aligning and sequencing curriculum, designing new courses, developing highly integrated applied practicum experiences, working on the development of national standards rooted in the real work of schools, and conceptualizing the JMU Center for Faculty Innovation. Many of these may seem like the traditional tasks of higher education but those of you who were partners in these innovations will recall how we seized the opportunities to innovate. Having the capacity to change things and lead these efforts to create something new or improved definitely sustains me.

“My favorite thing is to go where I’ve never been.”  – Diane Arbus

I am nourished by a sense of adventure into the unknown, by variety and change…assortment of roles, array of courses, types of students, diversity of colleagues, multiplicity of ideas, novelty of spaces and new places. Throughout my career, this variety provided the fuel for constant forward momentum.  Each step along the journey had an unexpected sureness, not necessarily during the decision-making stage but once the decision was made, I experienced amazing certainty as it unfolded. I love going where I’d never been. Deep down, in the midst of significant change and despite what may have appeared as disparate work, I was sustained by a sense of meaningful continuity.

“Associate with people who are likely to improve you.” – Seneca

My professional contributions are a result of associating with people and forming relationships.  These relationships had a profound impact on me.  First and foremost, my family and my children improved me because they became the standard to which I held myself and others accountable.  Would I want this person teaching my own children?  Would I want this professional interacting with my family?  These special people in my life provided the benchmark for high expectations, not only challenging me to require this standard of others but demanding that I model the behavior and attitudes I hoped to see in others. Nothing could be more important in education.

I thrived on being surrounded by talented people who were different than me and who were likely to improve me, improve us, and improve our work. Admittedly though, I had a strong preference for those who also had a high level of passion and a strong work ethic. I was truly blessed to know countless individuals in local schools, at James Madison University, at other institutions, and in national organizations who possessed incredible drive, zeal, and dedication. It has always been incredibly stimulating to interact with colleagues with new ideas and styles… I thank them all for how they not only improved me but how they continue to sustain me.

“Sometimes I believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” – Lewis Carroll

 My life and career have felt busy, at times hectic, characterized by so many opportunities and interesting challenges… maybe they didn’t all occur before breakfast but sometimes it surely felt that way.  This begs the question about what ultimately failed to sustain me.  In hindsight, it was not having enough time to think, to breathe, to reflect, to play a little hooky, to renew.  I do not want to portray a career of over commitment as negative as I would not have had it any other way and only I made the choices I did.  I was overcommitted because I treasured every opportunity that came my way.  Each was a special chance to learn, to grow, to work with new people, to contribute, and ultimately to enhance.  The infusion of frequent change helped sustain me but in the end, I needed a different type and pace of work.  I embrace this latest stage with enthusiasm and again, with certainty.  There may be less days with six impossible things before breakfast but that is now what sustains me.

“Your work is to discover your work and then with all your heart to give yourself to it.” – Buddha 

I have been sustained by an amazing array of opportunities which unfolded over the years.  Certainly this was “work” but interestingly, most of the time, I never thought of it as work.  I enjoyed it so much that I gave my heart and soul to it. I have been very blessed in my career to have been recognized in multiple ways for my contributions and accomplishments. These nomination letters and awards have always felt disconnected from the image I have of myself and I never truly internalized that the person being talked about was actually me. This was epitomized at a lovely retirement event when individuals I greatly respect and admire described my contributions. It was as if I was listening to descriptions of someone else.  Knowing I have had a positive impact on others is gratifying but through these relationships, it is I who benefitted and became the better person. I do believe I was put on earth to become an educator and this original passion has taken me on an exciting journey. I recognize that opportunities might not always have come with labels but on many days at least six were available to seize before breakfast.  I had the power to change things especially if I associated with people who improved me and improved our work.  Ultimately I have been blessed to discover my true work and to put my heart and soul into it. I have tremendous gratitude for this journey which continues to inspire and sustain me.


Karen Eliasson Santos is a James Madison University Emeriti Professor of Education and founding Director of the JMU Center for Faculty Innovation (CFI).  She earned her B.S. in Communication Disorders from Northwestern University and M.Ed and Ph.D degrees in Special Education from the University of Virginia.  Prior to serving as head of the Special Education teacher preparation program in the College of Education she was a teacher and a school administrator.  Based on a strong commitment to applied learning, she initiated and developed customized school-based practicum experiences including the JMU May semester at Marymount International School in Rome, Italy. Karen co-authored two books, To Think Like a Teacher: Cases for Special Education Interns and Novice Teachers and From Rigorous Standards to Student Achievement: A Practical Process.  She has received numerous honors and awards including those from the Teacher Education Division of the Council for Exceptional Children, Phi Delta Kappa and James Madison University.