There wasn't one big "Aha!" moment in Holly Whistler's (M.Ed. '05) life that told her she should become a teacher.
“For me, it was more a series of smaller moments,” she said. As a child growing up in Dinwiddie County, Va., she remembers playing school with her younger sisters and cousins. “I was always the teacher. I was the one assigning vocabulary words and giving tests.”
She also has vivid memories of reading to her great-grandfather when she was five years old and having him tell her how well she was reading. She later developed a love of writing, and after spending two years at Richard Bland College in Petersburg, Va., she went on to earn her bachelor’s degree in English from Longwood College in 2001.
She had lots of friends at VCU at the time, and she had made many trips to Richmond to visit them. “There was so much creativity and innovation in Richmond. There was something new and different to do every day,” she said. The attraction was so strong that she enrolled at VCU in 2001 to pursue her master’s degree in literature, hoping to become a professional writer.
Soon after enrolling, Whistler took a job as a teacher and found that she enjoyed it. As a result, before she had even finished her master’s degree in literature, she was already pursuing a second master’s in special education at the VCU School of Education (VCU SOE).
One of her earliest memories of VCU SOE was how quickly she was exposed to hands-on practical experience that would benefit her later in her career.
“I’m amazed at all the opportunities we had,” she said. One of those opportunities was a class she took on how to effectively teach students with autism. Whistler recalls that it wasn’t taught in a VCU SOE classroom on campus.
"Richmond is so supportive of SOE’s culture, and SOE is so supportive of the Richmond area. It really is a happy marriage.”
“It was taught at the Faison School [for students with autism]. We saw the students there every day when we went to class. When you think about it, the approach makes perfect sense. We needed to understand people with autism. There was no better place to do it.”
Whistler also benefitted from the interdisciplinary teaching approach of the school.
“Experts from a variety of disciplines – such as school counselors, school psychologists, educators from other areas of the university – came to our classrooms and talked to us,” she said. “This cross-curricular approach was really helpful, especially when you consider that many universities tend to isolate their student populations.”
“At VCU, we even worked on projects together with students in other curricula, which gave us even more exposure to other perspectives that would help us later on in our jobs.”
In addition to the innovative approaches and early practical experience, Whistler said that students benefitted from an experienced, diverse faculty.
“SOE professors are practitioners. They shared classroom stories and always gave us nuggets of wisdom or a bit of encouragement to reassure us that we were making the right career choice.”
That wisdom and encouragement proved useful to Whistler later. After she earned her master’s degree in special education, she began working with special needs students in public schools. It was an intense and emotional experience at times.
“As a special ed teacher, you’re constantly bombarded with a lot of high-stress situations. It’s like being a firefighter or a paramedic,” she said.
Despite the challenges, Whistler believes that going into teaching special education was one of the best decisions she ever made.
“It gave me so much insight and perspective,” she said. “When you’re in a special ed classroom, you’ve got maybe seven different disabilities that you’ve got to work with. You’ve got to think fast in order to differentiate them and meet the different expectations. It’s really helped me to develop the ability to think critically about multi-layered problems in general.”
Today, Whistler works at Nash Community College in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, teaching English and counseling special needs students. She’s also a doctoral candidate in Education Leadership, Curriculum and Instruction at the University of North Carolina in Wilmington. Her family moved there eight years ago when her husband had a career opportunity. She’s still a strong supporter of VCU SOE.
“Some of my students from North Carolina end up going to VCU because I tell them that it’s so amazing,” she said. “Richmond is so supportive of VCU SOE’s culture, and VCU SOE is so supportive of the Richmond area. It really is a happy marriage.”
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