By Meg Sinervo

In 2015, Sarah Martin Scott, a special education teacher, co-founded the Explore! Community School, which engages students in meaningful, authentic learning experiences that help them master core academic content while developing the character and social skills to become Nashville’s innovative leaders of the future. At the time of this interview, Scott, who received the Mary Mildred Sullivan Award from Converse College in 2012, was working as Explore! Community School’s director of student supports but later left to pursue her Ph.D. in special education at Vanderbilt University. Here, she reflects on her path to a career in teaching exceptional children and explains why “relationships and community can be a salve for anything.”

What do you remember most about receiving the Sullivan Award? What do you think you did to receive the award?

Scott: Even before my senior year, I remember attending graduations for my upper classmates and thinking that, of all the awards offered, the Mary Mildred Sullivan Award was the one I would feel most proud to receive because it honored the characteristics of service and leadership that are the most important to me. Because I had so many amazing peers in my class who were doing great things, I was definitely surprised to hear my name and had to pause for a minute to be sure I had heard correctly. While I like that I’ll never really know what I did to receive it, I can imagine that it may have been due to my love of special education, specifically deaf education, my role as a community advisor who loved hard on my residents, or my commitment to inclusion, both in schools with little ones and among my peers.

Who nominated you for the Sullivan Award? What was your relationship like with this person or persons?

Scott: The nominating process was kept a bit of a mystery to us as recipients, but I believe it was a panel of students and our chaplain. If it was our chaplain, I was lucky to have been his work-study student and to have joined him and another student on a conference for Interfaith Youth Core in Washington, D.C., where we discussed how to encourage interfaith dialogue among other students on our campus. He and I still connect on social media occasionally, and when he brings students to my current city, Nashville, he makes sure to invite me and other alums who live here to go to dinner with those current students to catch up and connect.

Tell us about your career and what you do now. Why did you go into this field?

Scott: I am the director of student supports at a Title 1, project-based learning, restorative practices charter school here in Nashville: Explore Community School. It’s the same school that I helped get started in its very first year back in 2015 as their founding special education teacher. I have the privilege of coaching the special education teachers, paraprofessionals, interventionists and English Language Learning Specialists, while monitoring compliance for all of our students’ Individualized Education Plans, intervention plans and ELL service plans.

Even though I tried to resist it for a while growing up, I always sort of knew education would end up being my path. I didn’t love my experience as a student in grade school, and a part of me suspected that I would end up wanting to be sure that didn’t happen to other kids. I didn’t know this when I was accepted, but Converse College happened to have been the only school in the Southeast with deaf education as a specialization. After a year of trying to convince myself that I wanted to major in other things, my American Sign Language class, which I was taking to fulfill a language requirement, proved to me that special education was where I needed to be. After graduating and completing two years in Teach for America’s corps in Mississippi, my love of teaching and excitement for trying to solve the puzzle of each individual kid’s learning style was reaffirmed, and I’ve been working with students with exceptionalities since.

The Foundation promotes positive social change in its programming and overall message. What are some social issues that matter most to you today?

Scott: Racial equity overall and equity in school discipline practices. I’m also passionate about immigrant and refugee rights and inclusion and access for those with disabilities/exceptionalities.

What’s some advice you would give to current college students and young people in general?

Scott: Be curious and make a deliberate effort to get to know people who are different than you. Empathy is more important than most things, and it really is true that people will remember how you treated them and made them feel more than they remember what you do. Build into people, and it will always create positive results. Relationships and community can be a salve for anything.

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