Alumni Profile: Austin Riley fulfills promise by returning to Steel Valley as a teacher

This photo shows special education teacher Austin Riley posing for a picture in the middle of the high school hallway.

As he sat through his first business classes as a freshman at California University of Pennsylvania, Austin Riley had a realization.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is boring. I can't do this,” Riley recalled. “I have to put my passions to the forefront.”

Riley wanted to teach. The 2016 Steel Valley graduate heard all of the concerns: The jobs weren’t there, the market was ultracompetitive, it was too difficult of a challenge. He took that advice seriously, which was how he found himself in business classes that threatened to lull him to sleep. Riley changed his major. He had to give education a shot.

Five years later, Riley has returned to his alma mater as a special education teacher. It is a fulfillment of a pledge he made during his senior year while applying for the Bill Campbell Scholarship. In his application, Riley wrote that he wanted to find a way to give back to his community.

“I just kept thinking Steel Valley is the place that I know I can make a difference,” Riley said. “I know I can make a change. I was always hoping something would open up and it did, so I'm here.”

Steel Valley has always been home for Riley. He was born and raised in Munhall, and by the time he was in high school, he was active in numerous clubs and organizations. He was in four musicals and every fall play, served as the vice president of the National Honor Society and of Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD).

As a recent graduate, he’s had to make a quick transition from former student to colleague with his former teachers. 

“It's a friendship now,” he said. “It's a collegiate type of level where if I have an idea, I can run to any of them and there's they're willing to share some ideas with me back and forth.”

French teacher Mrs. Toni Besh and former SADD organizer Mrs. Beth McAllister have acted as mentors, and he’s forged a collaboration with fellow life skills teachers Mrs. Jennifer Lavelle and Mr. Robert Shoemaker. The trio regularly take their students to businesses on Main Street in Munhall or in Homestead as part of a developing life skills curriculum. 

“These are experiences that are going to allow them to work in the real world when they graduate,” Riley said. “Especially for our life skill students who have the greater disability, it's hard sometimes to just be able to get up and go along your day. And granted, I think that happens with our general education students as well. But being able to find a purpose early on is so helpful.”

It was that kind of hands-on teaching that drew Riley to special education. During his field experience at the Mon Valley School, he monitored a few special education classes and found an immediate connection.

“We were doing activities, crafts, doing different engagement things and that's where I started to realize it,” he said. “I actually find myself loving working in special ed more than I do sometimes in the general population.”

Riley started a newsletter with his special education students that they work on every other month. It’s a tool to encourage them to write about their experiences, share their outside interests and showcase their creativity.

“At first, the response was all over the board,” Riley said. “There were a few who were like, ‘I can't do that. I don't I don't think I can write like that.”

Now, it has become a favorite project.

“They love it. Every other Thursday is generally when we use that class period to write,” he said. “It's like a big team basically, it's awesome.”

Riley, Ms. Lavelle and Mr. Shoemaker hope to expand the active curriculum. They’d love to have a space where students can develop basic household skills to build off the life skills outings they’ve experienced. Independent living skills are critical for many special education students, and Riley is hopeful that it’ll be possible to provide them with that experience down the road.

In the meantime, he’s relishing his return to his alma mater. He’s now the SADD advisor and recently co-directed the middle school musical. It’s where he wants to be as he strives to make a difference in the community that matters so much to him.

“I think the first day back, when I just kind of got to walk the halls again, I started to realize, ‘Whoa, I'm not a student anymore,” he said. “I'm a professional now and I'm really getting to change some lives and hopefully make a difference here.”

This photo shows special education teacher Austin Riley posing for a picture in the middle of the high school hallway.