338. Diversifying the Education Pipeline

Diversifying various fields and disciplines requires intentional work to create and support a pipeline of practitioners. In this episode, Laura Spenceley joins us to discuss specific initiatives to increase inclusion in the PK-12 sector. Laura is the Dean of the School of Education here at SUNY Oswego. She is an Impact Academy Fellow through the national non-profit organization Deans for Impact which works to strengthen and diversify the educator workforce.


John: Diversifying various fields and disciplines requires intentional work to create and support a pipeline of practitioners. In this episode, we talk about specific initiatives to increase inclusion in the PK-12 sector


John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

Rebecca: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.


Rebecca: Our guest today is Laura Spenceley. Laura is the Dean of the School of Education here at SUNY Oswego. She is an Impact Academy Fellow through the national non-profit organization Deans for Impact which works to strengthen and diversify the educator workforce. Welcome, Laura.

Laura: So great to be with you two today. I’m really excited for our conversation.

John: It’s overdue. We’re really happy to be talking to you today. And we’re talking to you from a new room which the School of Education has graciously loaned to us because we lost our old recording space, and we’re now able to keep the podcast going. So thank you.

Laura: You’re most welcome. And truly, I can’t think of a more symbiotic relationship between Tea for Teaching, the opportunity to host you here in the School of Education, and continue this great work and digging into pedagogy issues across the education continuum. And having you right here in-house makes a lot of sense.

John: Our teas today are:… Laura, are you drinking any tea?

Laura: I am not a tea drinker. But I do have a robust French roast in my mug today.

Rebecca: A popular flavor of tea, as we’ve noted multiple times here on the podcast. I have Hunan Jig today, John, I thought it was a good celebratory sounding tea.

John: And I have a spring cherry green tea in a brand new School of Education mug, which I just received today. Thank you.

Laura: You’re welcome.

Rebecca: In your role as the Dean of the School of Education, you’re involved in the entire P-20 pathway. The School of Education has received two large grants to help support students pursuing careers in education. Could you tell us a little bit about these grants?

Laura: I’m thrilled to talk more about these opportunities. And these two projects are our teacher opportunity core grant, that’s our TOC grant and our Cultivating Representation in School Psychology grant. Both of these grants are, as their name may imply, designed to help us recruit, support, retain and move through into careers, teachers and school psychologists from a wide range of backgrounds. It’s a well known fact across most educational spaces that folks who are delivering instruction or providing support services don’t always represent the constituent student populations with whom they work. And each of these programs are designed to 1. help ensure that we have a representative and diverse education workforce. But more importantly than that, they’re also designed to ensure that as we recruit and matriculate students into our teacher preparation programs and school psychology program, that we’re investing in those candidates along the way, recognizing that students from historically marginalized groups are often more likely to have challenges in persisting through their academic programs, both undergraduate and graduate. So each of these programs has some similar foundational elements. That includes financial support along the continuum of their educational program, again, undergraduate or graduate, support for things like transportation, professional development opportunities. And those professional development opportunities are really designed to empower our students from those historically marginalized or underrepresented spaces in their fields with contemporary activities that will help them address systemic discrepancies in schools. So making classrooms more responsive to the needs of the multicultural communities in which they reside, helping ensure that our future psychologists and educators have opportunities to work with people along the way that look like them, that share their lived experiences, and build that really continuum of care around their success. It’s also a great opportunity for us as educators, leaders, teachers, to be invested in those spaces with them and hearing from their mouths, what their challenges are, what their opportunities are in districts and really working to empower them for a career in education.

John: And the School of Education has always been engaged in working with students from all these marginalized groups that you’ve mentioned. What other types of support, though, have you been working on developing in the School of Ed for students who are first-gen students, Pell-eligible students, or from historically minoritized groups?

Laura: It’s a great question, John, and I’m so thankful to have the opportunity to chat about it because I think sometimes, as is human nature, we want to create responses or programming from a perspective of “all first gen-students might need this thing” or “all Pell-eligible students might need this thing” and we’ve been certainly sensitive to the realities that those populations experience, but also have tried to take a step back and take a more nuanced approach to that work. I’ve had the opportunity to be in the Dean’s position for about three years now. And when I came in the door, it was the year after the global pandemic. And so, so much of what we knew here on a college campus and in our P-12 spaces in the community had just been turned on its head. So when I came into the dean’s office, one of the things that was really important was to hear from our students, our candidates pursuing their degrees, what are the challenges that you’re experiencing? And I need to give a shout out to Dr. Nicole Brown, our director of our clinical practice and partnerships office, she really had this vision of surveying students, engaging in some listening sessions with those students. And we took the opportunity to deploy a survey about how students were experiencing their programs, but also the challenges that they were experiencing. And those data were humbling, to say the least. We learned back in 2021-22, about one in five of our students was having to make the choice between eating and paying for gas to get to their placements. About one in four of our students had to go without a meal at a certain point so that they would be able to engage. We recognize, and this was not a new problem, but just how challenging transportation to and from their clinical sites was becoming particularly in a time where we were very sensitive to being in enclosed spaces. And so we took that opportunity to reflect on the ways we weren’t just to use quotes, “utilizing the resources,” like our teacher opportunity core program, but to really recalibrate the way we were engaging with all students. And so what that looks like right now is we’ve really taken an approach to engage with our students from the time they’re prospective students all the way through graduation and career placement. And so what that has looked like is we’ve had active faculty and administrator presence at recruitment events, helping prospective students and their families understand not just the phenomenal financial aid resources available to them, but demystifying grant programs like the Teach Grant program, like public service loan forgiveness, which is available to many of our graduates after a period of time, it’s also about helping those families understand what contemporary classrooms and contemporary educational careers look like. There’s so much animus in public media and in the dialogue around what’s going on in schools and giving our prospective students the opportunity to hear from our current students and our partners, what they can actually expect, not just out of their degree program, but the field, has been really impactful. On a more nuanced level, as a result of that survey, we have utilized a range of resources to help offset some of those specific concerns regarding transportation, costs related to certification, and food instability. I do need to call out our amazing student affairs team on campus that has made enormous investments in this space as well. And I think always connecting students to the most local resources has been a really effective way to ensure they can take advantage of those supports in a way that makes sense to them. For us, I was lucky enough to inherit a 12-passenger van that had been purchased right before the pandemic, and we’ve taken the opportunity to hire student drivers. We offer daily routes to and from the Syracuse area at no cost to our students, leveraging the generosity of our alumni and donors who have invested in the School of Education, we have made a commitment for any candidate that needs to get to or from their site and can’t use the van, that we’ve created an Uber voucher system. And so we’ve been able to put those funds directly in front of students. We’ve expanded our supports for certification exams and fingerprinting through really simply asking students: “Are these barriers?” and creating a process again, through our foundation funds, that we’ve been able to offset those costs in time of need. And then lastly, I think another part of this is helping our faculty understand the realities that our candidates are experiencing as they move through their degree programs. Bringing those data back from not just the survey but listening sessions we continue to offer as an open forum for students to share their concerns, bringing that back to our faculty and helping them understand in both a formative and accurate sort of way, what the experiences of our students are in looking to make changes, whether it’s to our core sequences, the way that we administer fees, encouraging open-access resources, building resource libraries within our departments, so that we can continue to wrap our arms around students, give them a great experience, and also ensure that something like a meal isn’t getting in the way of their ability to get to and from their site.

John: And one thing we should note is that Syracuse is about 40 miles or so from here. So the commute time for a student would probably be about 45 minutes to 55 minutes, depending on where the school is located. So transportation would be relatively expensive for students.

Laura: Yes, and it’s such a good point to make, and I know we’re likely to talk about partnerships later, being where we are here in Oswego, we are lucky enough to have amazing partners along the I-81 corridor from Syracuse to Oswego, almost to Utica, almost to Rochester. And so it is not unusual that our candidates are driving up to an hour each way. So absolutely.

Rebecca: And it’s a problem that campuses that are in a more rural context experience when they’re doing any kind of placements, whether it’s internships, student teaching, or service learning, or anything like that. It’s very different than an urban context.

Laura: Absolutely. And I think we’re really committed, we embrace the idea that we are a rural educator preparation program, while also embracing the fact we have large urban partners just down the road. And we see that as an opportunity to diversify our candidates’ experience and give them a broad sampling of school structures, organizations, what’s possible, both in large districts, small and the in-betweens. And so that’s been a really critical part of our preparation framework for many, many years here in the School of Education.

Rebecca: It’s always great to hear stories, and we’ve heard more of these since COVID, of schools really paying attention to the actual needs of students and what barriers they’re facing, and really being responsive to them and finding ways to solve the barriers that they’re facing. Because often, the barriers are great, but often there are solutions that we can put into place that aren’t actually that complicated when we get down to what they are.

Laura: Rebecca, I love so much how you framed that, because one of the driving mantras that I often remind myself is we can solve problems if we choose to. And I think to solve problems, we need to be able to describe the problem, we need to understand it from a compassionate perspective. Recognizing every candidate that declares a School of Ed major sees themselves as a future educator in one form or another, and partnering with them, to actualize that vision is the best part of my job.

Rebecca: Well, and we would hope they want to do the same thing for their students. So modeling what we’re hoping to bring into the land of education is certainly a good place to be. We talked before COVID, with the School of Education about some of the really great partnerships you all have both locally and regionally, both as school districts and community organizations. Can you talk a little bit more about some of the outreach you’re continuing to do in those spaces?

Laura: Absolutely. And frankly, we would not be a school of education without partners. Every program housed within the School of Ed requires an applied learning experience. And so even our non-teacher preparation programs in counseling psychology and management programs require some sort of applied experience. And so strong relationships and a strong understanding of the context for our partners is really important to our success and our candidates’ success. So I’ll talk about a few examples since there are many day to day here in the School of Education. For context, in 2020-23, for example, we placed more than 1000 candidates across I believe 246 different settings, kindergarten all the way up through high school. Don’t quote me on the number, but I think I’m close. But we have made a couple of purposeful efforts over the last few years. And in particular around our professional development schools. These are schools where we have an agreement to focus professional development activities for our pre-service teachers, in-service teachers, so folks who are classroom teachers in that district, and align that with our faculty areas of expertise to create what are called that third space for learning, where we were bringing in a range of expertise and perspectives. Here in Oswego County, we have professional development school partnerships with six of our nine local districts. And those partnerships have focused on strengthening support for technology and STEM-oriented initiatives at the junior high and high school level. In another district, it’s included a dedicated focus on early elementary school literacy outcomes and improving the way we’re preparing kids to read and write. Other districts have focused on more systems-level change with strengthening the way that we identify students who are struggling before that becomes a significant impediment to their learning, and organizing teacher and leader responses to ensure that those processes are unbiased, that we’re making decisions that help us put resources around what kids need to thrive. But that’s just a sampling of the types of partnerships that we have with local districts. I think, given the fact that education continues to be a domain where the public dialogue is not always framed as positive, partnerships with our local practitioners and districts, give us opportunities to 1. change that narrative and help people in our communities understand the value that schools can bring to that community. And Rebecca, you mentioned the way that, coming through the pandemic, schools are really regarded as kind of community centers. And I think we’ve seen those types of initiatives be really effective, whether that is including opportunities for families to access medical care, dental care, social services and supports when they’re in district, we have something to offer to that conversation because of the range of our preparation programs here on campus. And so we really tried to engage with our partners in the P-12 sector to ensure that we are operating as a true continuum of care for our communities.

John: During the pandemic, there were some fairly substantial learning losses that disproportionately affected students from low-income households, and low-income school districts. And a study was just released by WICHE in February of 2024, which found that those learning losses are still persisting, which means the students who are teaching in schools are going to face students with a fairly wide variance in their prior preparation. What types of things do you do to help prepare students to address the diversity of student backgrounds in terms of how much they come into the classes with?

Laura: Coming through the pandemic, one of the things we were reminded of was the power of a direct positive relationship between a student and an adult in the building, that can look like a wide range of folks, coaches, teachers, mentors, administrators, volunteers. But that’s something we have continued to embed in our curriculum and helping our candidates understand that day to day, the way that we make students feel is often the thing that will be really critical and helping ensure that they walk through the door the next morning, the next day, or ask for help when they’re having a tough situation. And so empowering our students to respect the dignity of people’s lived experiences, we embed before they move into their clinical experiences in schools, quite a bit of reflection, self-reflection on their own lived experiences, what education has meant for them, the spaces where they have been privileged or perhaps oppressed through educational structures, protocols or policies, and building that capacity of our students to both identify and address bias or embedded bias in the spaces where they work. Getting down into the curricular focus, it is frankly staggering to see how children have been impacted, particularly in the early elementary levels and the older adolescence ages when we think about both academic skills, but socioemotional skills, wellbeing, and I think one of the things that I try to celebrate is the resilience that’s been built into this generation of learners. On the other hand, that comes with a certain amount of exhaustion, anxiety, uncertainty about their future, and so coming back to that element of relationship building, it’s so key. At the curricular level, there is an enormous focus here in New York on the ways that we can do a better job in preparing children to be literate, contributing members of a just society. So right now in New York, there’s a lot of focus on the science of reading. And I want to be really clear to listeners, the science of reading isn’t about a curriculum, it is about embracing the empirical evidence towards a systemic approach to the instruction of reading, writing, and literacy across grades. There’s an enormous amount of energy around this work right now recognizing that we can do better in preparing kids to be literate. And I’m starting to see an equal attention to a focus on math and frankly, STEM preparation. Here in our community in central New York industry has returned with a bang. And there are wonderful opportunities for employment for students with a wide range of educational experiences starting right out of high school for gainful and lifelong employment in these sectors. But what we’ve heard is that math proficiency is often a barrier for those students. And so trying to incorporate elements of curiosity and creativity, bringing science, technology, and math into creative spaces, like art, design, dance, helping students understand that math and science, quite frankly, isn’t just about memorizing equations, or knowing your multiplication tables. But there are a range of application of math, science in our day-to-day lives. When I think about when I was a kid, we had a great lesson on fractals, and we went outside and we found fractals in nature. I remember it to this day, almost like it was yesterday, trying to engage students in their learning, that incorporates their lived experiences, having access to textbooks, readings that reflect their family structures, their linguistic background, the realities of their lives. And so our students ,when they move into those first teaching positions, carrying with them that, I’ll go back to respect for the dignity of all persons, that recognition that kids carry much more with them into a classroom than a backpack, and finding ways that we can empower their learning not just through curriculum, but through curriculum that is delivered at their level, that celebrates individual students growth, that isn’t anchored in some specific outcome, but recognizes individual student’ s growth as meaningful. And I’m really proud to say our data suggests our students do move into their first teaching careers with those skills. And I think the next phase of the conversation starts to focus on how can we, as an educator preparation program, be part of the community in delivering professional development? How can we bring the great work that’s going on in schools to our faculty and have that kind of recursive flow of information, and also ensuring that we are preparing school leaders to create conditions that help us achieve all of these goals. And with our programming here in the School of Education, we’re uniquely positioned because we offer those range of preparation programs and have the luxury of great relationships with partners.

Rebecca: We’ve talked a little bit about learning losses in K-12. But obviously, that has an impact on our college students as well. They also survived the pandemic and are here. What are some of the things that your faculty are doing to help these candidates feel like they have what they need to go into the community having maybe had some experiences of remote learning or challenges with some of these subjects too?

Laura: This is a really important question. And I think it’s one I’ll both answer from the school of education perspective, but also the broader campus perspective, frankly, because we don’t do this work in a vacuum or in a silo. And so I’ll pick up on some of the elements of the last answer, which is making sure that we on campus are framing the opportunity to serve our students as a positive one. We have an opportunity to meet students where they are and that will look different for different students. On the other hand, I think our faculty have been eager to try to crack this code, so to speak, on bridging our lived experiences in K through 12 and transition to college through the framework of the contemporary student experience and those are not parallel for many of us or really even comparable. I have been trying to, as dean of the school, make sure that we are approaching this from a perspective of strength. What students do come to us with us is a resilience that students of prior generations may not have. They come to us with skills and knowledge of technology and how to leverage it in a way that students didn’t in the past. And frankly, it was because they had to learn how to use that technology. Students coming to our campus today have access to more information at their fingertips than any generation of student has ever had in the past. And where we have opportunities is to help students both identify where they may have gaps, whether in their knowledge or experience, put those experiences in front of our candidates, and also help them navigate this world where it’s not always easy to identify what is good information and bad information. Now, let’s drill into some more specific examples there. I think one of the most critical things that we have done in the last few years and again, I’ll give kudos where they’re due to our student orientation groups. We have been embedding ourselves into some of those opening week sessions, where we’ve had the opportunity to talk to our future majors and undeclared students around college- level expectations. And while that might sound silly, I think when students can hear from us, from me, from my faculty colleagues, our stories that many of us are first-gen, were Pell-eligible, have student loans, worked while we were in college, struggled to purchase textbooks, come from different backgrounds, are new to the state or the country. I think that goes a long way as a formative first step in building that trust in the relationship with our candidates. It also gives us the opportunity to begin to plant those seeds around what supports are available to them. Whether that is to help them address their mental and physical health needs, their academic needs through our tutoring center, our office of learning services, the embedded tutoring services, and also come to see us as people that are here to help support them and what their vision for their success looks like. I had a young person come up at the end of our first orientation and said, “I’ve never had someone like you say, you walked in the same path as I have.” And it was really a moment where I understood that coming to the table and being authentic with our students is so critical at this point. The other piece of it, John and Rebecca, is recalibrating the way that we orient our classrooms to continue to give students frameworks for utilizing technology and AI and the wide range of information, also helping them become critical consumers of that information, providing formative feedback to their assignments in real time, flipping our classrooms and allowing students to lead the conversation. I think providing choice as much as possible around what literature students choose to present in classes, for example, have been ways that we have said to students, both overtly and more discreetly, you matter, your story matters and you and my classroom matters. I’ll also share we have been taking a look at the way we offer our curriculum to try to identify, and again as part of a larger campus focus on retention and success for our first-year students, where are the pain points, so to speak, in their degree program, particularly for transfer students, we’ve heard that there isn’t always as seamless of a transition to campus as we may assume. And so really starting to tackle some changes in our course sequence to ensure that our academic programs are set up in a structured sequential way that also gives enough flexibility for students to pursue some of their areas of interest, be student athletes ,be club leaders, or frankly, support their family, which many of our students need to do.

John: Recently, we’ve seen a lot of attacks on education at all levels, with books being banned in the classroom, removed from libraries, and restrictions on the types of topics and the types of history that can be taught in classes. What are some of the things that you do in the School of Education to help prepare students for a world in which they may be facing more challenges from parents and political pressures?

Laura: This is a critically important question and will be critically important action. I hope I could say in the next year, but I have a feeling this will be a long road. Too often I hear colleagues, neighbors, friends say, “Well, Laura, at least we’re in New York, you don’t have to deal with this in the same way.” And while it is true, I am proud to be in a state that has been very overt about people’s lived experience, respecting the civil rights of all persons here in the state. It is also the case that that can change very quickly in an election cycle. And frankly, we have seen that across the country. I’m particularly concerned right now about the way that civil rights discussions have been framed. And there are some cases in litigation right now around bullying initiatives and carving out exclusions or exceptions in those bullying protocols or policies that would allow, for example, trans students to be targeted without recourse. We see that replicated in both sports spaces, but also classroom spaces. I’m deeply troubled that this is a place that we’re going in a country that was frankly built upon public education and access. And we haven’t always gotten that access piece right. Many of our school policies and procedures have been built on an exclusionary clause rather than an inclusionary mission. On the other hand, we’ve made such great gains over the last 10 to 20 years in ensuring that schools are more responsive, supportive, dignifying places. I’m really troubled by this work. For our students, we have a commitment to social justice embedded in the framework of the School of Education. And that is more than transactional or it goes beyond the words social justice. Our curriculum prior to students going into schools is focused on those ways that schools have been exclusive spaces, have not always dignified the realities of the people who walk through the doors. And so for our students, what we tried to do is help them understand the threats or attacks on people’s civil rights or their histories is not new. On the other hand, it’s taken a very different tone in the way that it’s being implemented. So 1., it’s giving them the tools in knowledge and understanding of history to understand schools don’t have to be exclusive places, schools can be responsive, welcoming, encouraging spaces for all students from all backgrounds. It’s also about helping students understand that I want to be a teacher, I don’t want to be a politician is not a reality in which they will live as an educator. We try to empower them without encouraging them to engage in any particular behavior, to stay attuned to the realities of how legislative efforts, school board votes, and other sorts of community oriented book bans and dialogues might impact their ability to teach a particular lesson, utilize a particular academic resource. So you may have seen coming out of Florida, among other things in the last few weeks, a school district teacher had thought that it was prudent to send home a permission slip to alert the parents, that their children were going to be exposed to a black author. It wasn’t about the content of the book, it was simply the fact that they were going to be reading a book from an African- American author. I can’t think of a better example to highlight the importance that an apolitical stance is not one that classroom teachers can take, that school leaders can take. And that’s not about voting for a particular person or a particular party. But it is standing up to ensure as educational experts who have preparation, expertise, and insights that the community may not, to share them and be vocal about the ways that diverse learning materials, accurate historical representations of the world are critical towards ensuring that we do not replicate them. And so I am both incredibly disheartened at the turn that this discourse has taken. I’m also incredibly optimistic when I look at how young people, how educators, how experts have shown up and linked arms to say: “This is not right. We are not going to correct the wrongs of our history by limiting access to that history or by building smaller tables with fewer voices.” And so I tried to stay in that headspace as much as possible.

Rebecca: Definitely some good reminders and things for all of us to be thinking about in our role as educators. So we always ramp up by asking what’s next?

Laura: I love that question, because I could probably read you a laundry list of the things that we’re thinking about in our School of Education. Right now, here in New York, there’s a lot of robust conversation around, what does a high-quality teacher look like? What are they ready to do in their classrooms? And there’s a lot of engagement there. And again, this relates to helping the public understand not just what we do day to day or what the outcomes are, but the opportunity space towards preparing children for lifetimes of success. Here in the School of Education, we’ve got a range of new programs that we’re lifting in the fall of 2024, including our new master’s degree in behavioral health and wellness. And frankly, I think we have a range of new programs. As we talked about industry thriving here in central New York. There’s also a lot of energy in the school of education around our career and technical educator preparation programs, and of course, our technology education programs, some great investments in our lab spaces, looking at opportunities to do more in partnership in and with local districts to ensure, as we were talking about kids across Oswego County, have great opportunities to engage with science and technology and math in ways that bring them out of the classroom and into the world and creative spaces. So I’m really excited to see what the year ahead is going to look like for us.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us, Dean Spenceley and for our wonderful space.

John: …and we’ll be talking to you much more in the future.

Laura: I look forward to the opportunity. Thank you both.


John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

Ganesh: Editing assistance by Ganesh.