A Heart for Those with Learning Disabilities: Q&A with Alumna Sarah G. King, Class of 2023

Photo of Sarah G. King

This spring marks the end of an amazing educational journey and the start of a new, exciting beginning for Sarah Gorsky King, now a master’s and Ph.D. alumna from the College of Education. She has spent the past four years studying in the Learning Disabilities and Behavioral Disorders Doctoral Program in the Department of Special Education under Dr. Sarah Powell; and is now preparing to enter the next phase of her career taking what she learned in the college to positively impact the lives of children, their families and future educators.

Growing up with a brother with dyslexia and being diagnosed in college herself with learning disabilities in reading and math solidified her desire to understand and support others who struggle to learn. It was through her own personal experiences and what she learned during her time as a special education teacher, that laid the foundation for much of her doctoral work focused on improving outcomes for culturally and linguistically diverse students with or at-risk for mathematics learning disabilities.

During her time in the doctoral program, Sarah was the recipient of prestigious awards and fellowships for her research. In the fall of 2022, she was invited to join the 15th cohort of the Council for Exceptional Children’s Division for Research Doctoral Student Scholars and was selected through an internationally competitive review process. She was also the recipient of an Office of Special Education Programs Leadership Preparation Grant which prepares highly qualified doctoral students to develop and implement intensive intervention for students with learning disabilities or emotional and behavioral disorders; along with other fellowships and awards throughout her time as a student.

After graduation Sarah hopes to contribute to a university special education program through her work with pre-service teacher programs to ensure teachers entering the field are equipped to implement culturally and linguistically responsive practices in their classrooms. She recently shared with us more of her story and how the Special Education Ph.D. Program helped prepare her for what’s next.   

You have a really inspiring background! Can you tell us more about yourself, your educational journey and your research focus area?

Initially, I went into the field of special education wanting to help others and interestingly, along the way I have learned so much about myself as a learner with a disability—well beyond what I ever imagined.

To start, I received my bachelor of arts in degree in English literature and elementary education from Southern Methodist University in 2011. I always knew special education was my passion, but realized during student teaching that there was still so much more for me to learn about working with special populations. I decided that before I had my own classroom of students I wanted to explore graduate school options to further my studies in the area of special education.

I pursued my master’s degree in special education from the College of Education at The University of Texas at Austin, working with Dr. Diane Bryant. Following graduation, I taught special education in Dallas and eventually made my way back to Austin where I continued to teach special education until 2019 when I returned to UT Austin for my doctoral program.

My experiences teaching is the foundation for much of my work in my doctoral program that has largely focused on mathematics interventions for culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) learners with learning disabilities or mathematics difficulties as well as the development of pre-service teacher capacity to support diverse learners who struggle in mathematics through the use of culturally and linguistically responsive mathematics practices. 

How did you become interested in this specific area of research?

While teaching special education I gained experience working with students with a wide range of disabilities and over the years I supported students in both the inclusive and self-contained settings. All of my students were emergent bilingual students with disabilities. My experiences working with these students and developing close relationships with them and their families really opened my eyes to challenges faced by these learners and brought inequity in education to my attention. I knew that all students deserved to have access to effective instruction that is grounded in scientific evidence. Unfortunately, students with disabilities and especially those who are culturally and linguistically diverse, continue to underperform in school, particularly the area of mathematics. I knew I wanted to be as knowledgeable as possible about the research and current evidence to support what I was doing to improve student outcomes. Over time, I became more and more interested in research on supporting students who are culturally and linguistically diverse with disabilities. Once in my doctoral program, the more I learned about interventions to support this population, the more I became interested in how teachers are being prepared to support our students. I’ve always been interested in supporting other teachers, so pursuing research that focused on preparing in-service and pre-service teachers was a natural progression for me.

In the fall you were selected for the prestigious Council for Exceptional Children’s Division for Research Doctoral Student Scholars – congratulations! How has that experience helped grow you as a scholar and researcher?

Being a part of this cohort of scholars is extremely special to me. As part of this cohort, I am surrounded by incredibly dedicated and talented students who are all working in various ways to move the needle for our students with disabilities.

Each of us bring a unique perspective and line of research, which makes for really rich interesting discussions and opportunities for collaboration. Not only am I inspired by my colleagues, but I am continuously inspired by those who have walked before us and continue to give back their time and energy to new cohorts of scholars each year. The support we have received from leaders in our field is unparalleled. At a time in our program when dissertation stress is at an all-time high and time is scarce, it has been so great to have a space to connect and share our collective experience.   

How has the College of Education’s Special Education Ph.D. Program prepared you to be successful?

This program has prepared me in numerous ways, but something that I appreciate most about our program is the ongoing support we receive while also developing our own autonomy as learners. Though we all work on many different projects throughout our program, we are given the space to individually explore the areas of research that inspire and drive us forward.

Although most of us are working on research grants and collaborate with a team of researchers, our advisors and professors encourage us to carve our own unique paths along the way. They provide us with the tools and guidance necessary to make decisions that align with our individual career goals and interests. It’s been important for me to see that I can research what I love and still be successful on my own two feet.

What’s next after graduation?

After graduation I will continue to work with my advisor for another year and gain more research experience by managing an IES-funded research project. I will also be focusing on continuing to publish my own research. I plan to enter the job market in fall 2023 with dreams of starting a faculty position at a university in fall 2024. I want to continue to teach at the university level while also furthering my line of research on culturally and linguistically responsive mathematics.