Above and beyond

Scholarship helps aspiring teacher go the extra mile preparing for her career in early childhood special education

By Brelyn Powell

When one of her students faces a challenge during a class activity, Elizabeth Phillips (M.Ed.’14/E) looks for inspiration in the lessons she learned as a graduate student in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Education.

“I start thinking about strategies my professors suggested and how I can use different approaches to help my students,” she says. “I’ve learned to think quickly on my feet. What motivates a student one day might not work the next day, and it’s my job to figure out how to motivate that student in order to help them improve, succeed and meet their goals.”

Phillips teaches early childhood special education at Bensley Elementary School in Chesterfield County, Virginia. She has six students in her class this year, each unique in their physical, emotional and intellectual abilities, so working as a team with the students’ families and health care providers is essential to their progress.

In many cases, this teamwork provides valuable insight into how educators can accommodate their students’ needs in class. Phillips recalls a former student who struggled with hand-eye coordination until a conversation with the child’s case management nurse revealed that he had been prescribed eyeglasses.

“We were a few months into the school year, and not once had I seen the student wear glasses,” she says.

Phillips contacted the child’s parents. When they told her they had not been making him wear them because he did not want to, Phillips helped them understand how his vision deficits were impacting his classroom performance and suggested they could help by making sure he wore them to school each day.

“I never would have known to have that conversation with them if I hadn’t gotten that medical information from his nurse,” says Phillips, who quickly noticed improvement in the student’s performance after he started wearing his glasses.

Phillips developed her collaborative approach to teaching in one of her graduate courses in VCU’s Early Childhood Special Education program. Interdisciplinary Methods in Early Intervention is not required for graduation, but Phillips knew the material would be helpful in her teaching career.

“I wanted to be as well-rounded and prepared as possible for a career in special education, if it meant going beyond the course requirements for my degree,” she explains.

She could afford to enroll in an extra course with a $600 award from the Ann Sarratt Garner Endowed Scholarship.

Howard G. Garner, Ph.D., a former VCU faculty member and the first director of the Partnership for People with Disabilities, established the fund in 2007 with a $10,000 gift in memory of his late wife, Ann Sarratt Garner (M.S.’83/E). After graduating from the VCU School of Education, Ann Garner taught special education in Henrico County, Virginia, until she retired in 1999. She died of ovarian cancer six years later at the age of 64.

“Ann was an excellent teacher,” Garner says. “She worked hard and loved what she did, and I know how important it would be to her to be supportive of these new teachers who are entering the field that meant so much to her.”

Garner notes that early childhood special education teachers provide guidance and support during a critical time for children with disabilities, and scholarships help aspiring educators pre-pare to take on that responsibility.

“Early intervention can make a huge difference for these children in shaping the rest of their lives, so educators in this field play an important role,” he says. “The more qualified these graduates are, the greater impact they will have on the lives of young students.”

Andrew P. Daire, Ph.D., dean of the VCU School of Education, agrees.

“Scholarships are so important to our students, and they are equally important to the donor as they are investments in people who make a difference in so many lives over the years,” he says. “Ann Sarratt Garner’s contribution as a teacher lives on in many students who have since become capable and dedicated alumni like Elizabeth Phillips.”

Phillips continues to be grateful for the assistance she received from the Ann Sarratt Garner Scholarship and the opportunities it gave her.

“I was able to focus on my studies and professional development instead of stressing about money and getting an extra job to cover tuition,” she says. “That financial support made a big difference to my family’s financial situation and made graduating a reality for me.”

Garner and his wife, Barbara Hulburt, have continued to contribute to the endowment over the years. They hope the fund receives additional support from others who share their passion for special education.

“It’s very important that people with means provide as much support as they can to people who are just starting out,” Garner says. “The idea of making the advancement of someone’s career less stressful and perhaps making graduate school a richer experience without being as financially draining as it can be – I feel lucky to be a part of that.”

To learn more about the School of Education, contact Ed Kardos, senior director of development, at (804) 828-4692 or egkardos@vcu.edu.