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WCU Stories

Developing future teachers is what fuels professor Brad Witzel

By Marlon W. Morgan

This is Part 1 of a four-part series looking at WCU’s four recently named distinguished professors who will be joining the university this fall.

Brad Witzel with a student from Winthrop


Brad Witzel said he has a lot of teaching left in him, at least 15 to 20 years. That’s why it’s taken him some time to get used to being called a distinguished professor.

Witzel will join Western Carolina University’s College of Education and Allied Professions this fall as the Adelaide Worth Daniels Distinguished Professor of Special Education. Rather than look at the honor as a career-defining moment on the downside of his teaching, Witzel views it differently. 

“I’m greatly honored, but it certainly is going to be more of a motivation to increase work, rather than to slow down or to think it’s over,” he said.

Witzel comes to WCU from Winthrop University, where he has been since 2002, with his latest role being the special education undergraduate program director. Special education has been his focus since he began as a high school teacher in Fairfax, Virginia in 1994 focused on special education and mathematics.

Witzel said there were concerns then about whether students had learning disabilities, or if they were just poorly taught at the beginning of their classroom experiences. He used to challenge other teachers to who had the best gains – his students with disabilities vs. their students.

Brad Witzel in a classroom


“My kids have labels, but watch when I teach them this way,” Witzel would tell the other teachers. “The next thing you know, my students were outscoring my peers’ students. Why did I want to get involved at first? I love the challenge. I love taking the challenge of a child who people think has difficulties in learning. Some people think they cannot be taught. I want to make sure that we showed not only can they learn, but they can perform at expectations and beyond expectations of their peers. That’s the challenge I fell in love with.”

In order to get the students to perform well, Witzel used highly effective practices mixed with motivational principles.

“These kids have been told they can’t learn,” he said. “They already have the belief that they can’t learn. Once you show them what they can do and what they’re capable of, they’re going to work harder than what I ever expected to work as a teacher.”

Witzel saw that happen with a student who had been incarcerated for a shooting at the school. When the student returned to school, Witzel said he told him he would work with him. But first, he knew he had to gain the student’s trust.

“He didn’t trust me at first,” Witzel said. “I said, ‘I don’t care, but you’re going to do this.’ The next thing I knew, he started performing so well that he really didn’t need our learning disabilities services anymore.” 

Witzel later moved to Florida to pursue his master’s degree in special education, and the student followed him and began taking community college classes nearby. “He just wanted to be near me, as if I had some magical power, and I didn’t. He already had all the potential, all the skills there. He just needed someone to teach and drive him.

“At first, it’s incredibly rewarding because you think it’s all about you. But then you realize it’s all about that kid. I just happened to be at the right place, at the right time. It’s incredibly rewarding when you see that.”

“That’s what drove me as a K-12 teacher, and in higher ed, watching people go on to work with teachers, it’s the same thing. You kind of live vicariously through those you teach. When they get a reward, you never, ever claim that award as yours. But inside, you give yourself a hug and say, ‘Man, we got that one.’”

Witzel had a goal of obtaining his doctorate before he had children after seeing the difficulties his parents faced trying to do the same while raising a family. His father completed his, but Witzel’s mom, who also was a teacher, stopped while working on her dissertation because of the difficulties of taking care of her children and going to school. Two weeks after completing his doctorate at the University of Florida, Witzel’s first child was born.

He always thought he would return to public school teaching. But during his time spent as a researcher while in graduate school, Witzel began working with other teachers, who urged him to continue working with them. He decided to take a chance in higher education, with teaching K-12 as a backup plan. He’s been teaching in higher ed ever since. 

After serving as an adjunct professor at the University of Florida and the University of South Florida, Witzel was hired as an assistant professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction. While climbing the ranks to professor, Witzel served in other roles such as being the special education undergraduate program director twice; the special education graduate director; assistant department chair of curriculum and instruction; and assistant department chair of counseling, leadership and educational studies.

While in higher ed, Witzel saw his joy of teaching shift to watching his students grow and eventually become successful teachers. His favorite undergraduate student of all time is Lindsay Sheronick, who attended Winthrop.

Sheronick was in Witzel’s math methods class. She had a car that often broke down, so much so that whenever they would go to a school for an assignment, Sheronick’s car usually wouldn’t start. Witzel’s wife, Isabelle, eventually had to buy him a set of jumper cables. Witzel said he knew Sheronick would become “a rock star” in the teaching profession. Sheronick went on to receive her master’s degree and her doctorate.

Brad Witzel


Fast-forward several years, when one day Witzel received a message from a Lindsay Yearta, thanking him. While he thought the first name was familiar, he didn’t recognize the last name, and wondered who the person was that kept thanking him. It wasn’t until he learned that her husband, Charles Yearta, was a campus police officer at Winthrop, that he put the two together. Lindsay is now an assistant professor, program director for education core, and the Singleton Endowed Professor at Winthrop. 

“That is one of the biggest thrills I’ve ever had because I got to watch her grow,” Witzel said. “I got to shepherd her along as an undergrad. When she got her PhD, I got to write with her. I got to work with her. Nothing is more exciting than watching other people grow. Seeing her career just blossom, the same way I saw a high school kid finally make it through and he goes and gets a technical degree and becomes a repairman or a plumber.

“That’s what drove me as a K-12 teacher, and in higher ed, watching people go on to work with teachers, it’s the same thing. You kind of live vicariously through those you teach. When they get a reward, you never, ever claim that award as yours. But inside, you give yourself a hug and say, ‘Man, we got that one.’”

This fall, Witzel is scheduled to teach a graduate class at WCU. He also plans to work closely with the Catamount School, WCU’s laboratory school that is housed at Smoky Mountain High School in Sylva.

“Other professors have already reached out to me,” Witzel said. “Hopefully, we can create some partnerships and start working together. I already work a lot with the state department, so maybe I can expand and do some things in that direction, as well. My position is heavily focused on research outcomes.”

When not teaching, Witzel will commute to his home in Fort Mill, South Carolina, where his family will remain. His oldest daughter, Laura, will be an incoming freshman in the Honors College at the University of South Carolina, while his daughter Caroline will be a sophomore cheerleader in high school this fall. And his wife is an occupational therapist.

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