When Vasso Paliouras was asked to do a quick phone interview about her experiences with Sharon Phillips, Foster Elementary School’s longtime instructional support teacher for math, she gathered her kids for the call. Everyone wanted to talk about Mrs. Phillips.
“Anyone that needed anything, they went to Mrs. Phillips,” Paliouras said. “She was such a comfort. You just felt love and support from her in general.”
Mrs. Phillips “would help me with my homework, and I’d take tests in her room. She was very helpful to me,” said Stephen Paliouras, who graduated from the high school in June. “It felt good to be in her room.”
“You forgot you were struggling” when visiting Mrs. Phillips’ classroom, said Stephen’s younger sister, Eirene, who will graduate in 2024. “It was always a fun place to be. She had red fingernails that would clack against the board.”
“She was so kind,” said Nina, the oldest of the siblings, a 2021 graduate. “I loved talking to her. I loved the clackety nails.”
“She’s a remarkable woman,” their mom added. “You hate to see her leave.”
After almost 36 years at Foster, Sharon Phillips has retired. The grief is palpable.
“I don’t know what we’re gonna do,” said Lora Lutz, a Foster colleague who teaches fifth-grade English and language arts. She worked with Phillips for 19 years. “The person you could always go to is not going to be there anymore. The kids are going to miss her.”
Lutz will, too. “She was someone you could go to with anything, like ‘How would you respond to this email from a parent?’
“When I came to Foster, (Sharon) was a second-grade teacher,” Lutz recalled. “Just seeing her teach, and how she encouraged the kids, I just wanted to be her. I wanted to emulate her professionalism.”
Foster, for years the smallest of Mt. Lebanon elementary schools, “is like a family. It’s not just ‘your’ kids. It’s ‘our’ kids,” Lutz observed. “There’s a certain atmosphere there. (Sharon) knew the environment. She’d give guidance to the new hires.”
She added that it was a joke around Foster that Phillips “wasn’t the best with technology,” but “that’s just Sharon.”
“She was kind of like the social director,” Lutz said. “She used to have the Christmas party at her house. If someone had a baby, she’d be the first to pass the hat. She would do anything for anyone.
“She was Foster,” Lutz added simply.
Samantha Phillips, Sharon’s daughter, is a speech pathologist with the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, and works at Lincoln and Washington elementary schools and Mellon Middle School. Samantha is quick to say that her mother inspired her choice of career.
“When I was younger, I used to go to work with her,” she recalled. “That helped me decide to become a teacher.”
Retirement was a tough decision for her mom to make, Samantha said. “She was considering it last year and decided to wait another year. She’s definitely sad.”
Foster students and parents will be happy to hear that her mom will occasionally do some substitute teaching at the school. “I don’t think she could leave altogether,” Samantha said.
As for the award-winning educator herself: “It’s very hard,” said Sharon. After one year at Markham and 35 years at Foster (and a 40-year career altogether), retirement is “hard to wrap your head around.”
The past few months felt normal, since she’s always had summers off, “but by the end of August, I’m used to going in,” she said, recalling the yearly lesson preparation and classroom decoration. “It’s going to be difficult.
“Foster is a little gem,” Sharon said. “Our parents and the kids are the best you could ask for.” She added that she had been there long enough to teach some of her students’ parents.
“The kids would come in and say, ‘My dad said you were his teacher,’ and I’d say ‘Oh yeah, I remember.’”
As she settles into retirement, Phillips hopes to do some traveling. She and her husband, Rob, also retired, are skiers, so ski resorts will probably be on the agenda. Phillips will continue to do some tutoring. And, she noted, Foster’s principal, Dr. Jason Ramsey, “asked if he could have me on speed dial.
“If people need me and I can help in any way,“ she added, “I’ll do it.”
Phillips departure “is going to be a lot,” Ramsey acknowledged. “However, she’s not going to be totally gone,” he was very quick to add, noting her plans to sub.
“Foster is a family, and (Sharon) was like the matriarch,” he said. “She knew the people. She was a support to everyone there—parents, teachers, and students.
“She was the senior member of our staff,” Ramsey added. “She taught me how to be a principal.
“There are once-in-a-lifetime people in a principal’s career. I will never have another Sharon Phillips.”