In the fall of 2017, Tammy Parsons knew she needed a change.

After two decades of service in the Metro Nashville Public School System—both as a teacher and an administrator—Parsons sensed that God was calling her to a new place of service, but she was shocked when she realized where.

“I was in absolute shock when God said, ‘I’m going to send you to teach the blind,’” Parsons recalls. “I didn’t have certification. I’d worked with one student who was visually impaired in my entire life. I was an expert in my content area—math—but I didn’t know how to read Braille. I didn’t understand how to modify work for the visually impaired.”

Parsons soon found herself teaching math at the Tennessee School for the Blind. With a lot of support from fellow teachers and on-the-job training, she was learning more and more about how to teach students with visual impairments, but it wasn’t enough.

That’s when she turned to Trevecca.

“On-the-job training is great, but I knew this program at Trevecca would allow me to fill in a lot of questions I had and was forming on a daily basis,” she continues. “The more information I have, the better teacher I’m going to be for my kids.”

Parsons is part of a cohort of students enrolled in a 13-month, 30-hour master’s program at Trevecca designed to help educators more effectively teach students who are visually impaired. Graduates will add a Teacher of the Visually Impaired (TVI) endorsement (pre-K to 12) to their current teaching certificates.

Cohorts start each July, and participants progress through the program together, squeezing in classes on Friday evenings and Saturday—often while teaching full-time.

Parsons, who already holds a master’s in educational leadership from Trevecca, was excited by the prospect of returning to her alma mater.

“When I heard my degree would come from Trevecca, I was ecstatic,” she says. “My first degree was a master’s in educational leadership, and that degree served me well. It was well-developed program, and I was immediately able to put what I learned into practice.”

According to Dr. Andrew Burnham, a professor in Trevecca’s School of Education and coordinator of the program, that’s the goal.

“Any teacher looking for a challenge [would be a good candidate] for this program,” Burnham says. “We toured Tammy Parson’s classroom a couple months ago and she said, ‘I thought I was a good teacher’—she teaches geometry—‘until I walked into this classroom and had to teach students who couldn’t see how to do geometry.’” 

The grant also provides a few other perks to licensed Tennessee teachers who are willing to spend two years working with students with special needs after earning the endorsement: paid tuition, books and supplies.

Graduates will leave the program with vital skills for teaching the visually impaired, Burnham says, such as fluency in Braille and Nemeth code (Braille for math). In addition, students gain the knowledge to help them build lesson plans to teach concepts to students who may not benefit from traditional visual methods.

“You have to be a good teacher,” Burnham says. “You have to teach concepts in completely different ways.”

Initially funded in 2011, the grant was renewed in 2015 for five additional years. In 2020, Burnham and Janice Lovell, Trevecca’s director of grants and foundation relations, plan to seek renewal again. At a time when nearly every state in the U.S. reports a shortage in special education faculty—according to a report issued by the U.S. Department of Education in 2016—Burnham and Lovell believe the program has a lot to offer.

“We train them as practitioners to leave the program and be able to walk right into a either a district or a school like Tennessee School for the Blind, and function as a district TVI,” Burnham says, “Very few districts have more than one.”

Burnham reports that students from across the state have taken part in the program over the years, some traveling long distances to take classes. To date, 79 students have graduated from the program with 55 alumni currently serving in roles focused on special education or visual impairment. Twenty graduates currently teach at the state-run Tennessee School for the Blind while 16 graduates currently serve school districts in three most populated Tennessee counties: Shelby, Davidson and Knox counties.

“We’re in the process of rewriting our technology course because technology has changed so much over the last eight years,” Burnham said. “With Apple products, so much accessibility is built right into the product that can help students who are visually impaired.”The schedule of classes and class content isn’t static either. Using feedback from recent graduates and practitioners, Burnham and other Trevecca officials have readjusted the schedule of courses to better streamline the learning experience. As technology such as smartphones, tablets and computers continue to add built-in accessibility functions, the faculty has begun rewriting the program’s technology course.

For Parsons, graduating from the program is about more than adding an endorsement to her teaching certificate.

“This program will make me a better advocate for my students,” she said. “[This knowledge] will also help me to help other teachers. I won’t just keep this information to myself; I’m going to be able to help other people as well.”