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The Arizona Council for Exceptional Children announced the Samuel A. Kirk Teacher of the Year Award winner is Shaylyn Savage, a special education teacher at Sunset Ridge Elementary in Glendale. The award is given to those who significantly impact the education of students with disabilities through direct student contact. She received the award Feb. 28.

Savage, born in Washington and raised in Arizona, is an Avondale resident who understands the challenges of getting an education with a disability.

She said she connects with her special education students through her experience. Savage was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic and degenerative condition causing visual impairment.  

She said she was diagnosed when she was 4 and by the time she was 13, she was relying on Braille and a cane.

She set out to earn a degree in education, but she came to realize she had a passion for special-needs students. She went on to earn a dual degree in special education and elementary education.

“I’ve always wanted to be a teacher since I was in elementary (school),” she said. “I have a disability of visual impairment, so as I experienced difficulties with receiving accommodations and having to overcome a lot to reach my goals, I decided I wanted to work with students who experienced the same thing and support them to help them reach their goals.”

Savage now works with students from fifth  through eighth grades. She said she has a special connection with her students because she understands the challenges she faced as a student.

 “Some of the challenges were people not understanding I could still do things my peers were doing, but maybe in a different way,” Savage said. “And people thinking I didn’t have realistic goals of becoming a teacher.”

Because of this, she focuses on helping students who are in classrooms with general education. 

“I go into classrooms and I co-teach with general education teachers to provide students with the specialized instruction they need,” Savage said. “I also pull smaller groups into my classroom where we work on specific skills.”

When she does work with special education students in her classroom, Savage said each student has a buzzer to help her know when a student has a question or wants to add to the class. In addition, the students can use laptops to enhance their education. 

She also meets annually with her students to discuss their educational goals and talk about the students’ improvement.

In addition to her role as teacher, Savage also works with the Foundation for Blind Children over the summer as part of the high school transition program.

“My favorite part of teaching is getting to know my students and learning their strengths and helping them realize what their strengths are and start to discover what they want to do when they grow up,” Savage said.