“The most important disposition in education is the disposition of dignity of all people.”
Continuing with our tradition of interviewing leaders at William & Mary, the Wren’s Nest spoke with Dr. Robert Knoeppel, incoming dean at the School of Education, in an exclusive virtual conversation. From at his home office, Dean Knoeppel shared his career path and vision for leadership in the School of Education, as well as his own maturation as a leader. We ended our time with his musings on community and equity in learning in a virtual education landscape. His conviction that connection is possible despite physical distance was hopeful and keenly felt—all the more so for being shared virtually. We hope you enjoy this conversation as much as we did.
When asked about his start in education, Dean Knoeppel described his route as “circuitous.” He earned a bachelors degree in economics, spending his summers teaching swimming and working with children. He also taught swimming at the Chapel Hill YMCA, which affirmed his enjoyment in working with youth. Although his first job was working on the floor of the American Stock Exchange and later in Congress, he relied on a mentor and the faculty at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to decide ultimately to pursue a degree in education.
What was one of most impactful experiences you had with education before you became an administrator?
I feel very lucky that I’ve had a 28-year career in education – I’ve been a school counselor, I’ve been a faculty member, and a varsity coach. I’ve worked with people across a broad spectrum of ages – aged 3 to 70s. Understanding the developmental issues of children, working with families in crisis, teaching adults have all shaped my thoughts on education, education policy, forming partnerships and relationships, and communicating.
When you were younger, what was your dream job?
When I was younger, I do not know that I had a dream job. I always enjoyed coursework in social sciences – history, political science, humanities, and economics. I thoroughly enjoyed working with people. I wanted to do something that I enjoyed, where I could contribute and learn. I have always sought out jobs that allow you to give and grow. After working on Wall Street and the US House of Representatives, I became much more focused on working in the field of education broadly defined – my focus became on working in a ‘helping profession.’ Throughout my career in education, I have maintained that focus on give and grow – beginning as a school counselor, and then a director of guidance. I worked as an adjunct at UVA and George Mason before becoming a professor, then program coordinator, department chair and then a dean. At first, it was hard to leave positions with direct contact with children and students, but I realized that you continue to give and grow in leadership roles – you can impact the learning experiences for students in leadership jobs and ultimately impact more students.
How did your career path lead you to William & Mary?
My strong interest as both a practitioner and as a researcher has been on equity of educational opportunity. I strongly agree with the values of equity, social justice, and the transformational nature of education. I was drawn to William & Mary because of the mission of the School of Education – it aligned strongly with my values and I felt that the institution was a good match.
What mindsets are important for current students to consider as they develop into professionals in the educational field?
I think that the most important disposition in education is the disposition of dignity of all people. As educators, we must be aware of our bias – we all have bias. However, we have to create welcoming environments that recognize the value of all people – that celebrates the value of all people – that appreciates all cultures and maximizes the social capital that is found in a diverse community. In so doing, we create critical relationships with the communities that we serve and maximize student achievement.
Where do these convictions come from for you?
I’ve learned through experience. Working in student services gives an educator the unique opportunity to interact with families in a different way than a classroom teacher. Perhaps my greatest learning in these areas has been in supervising dissertations on how we prepare and mentor new teachers in cultural competence and culturally responsive pedagogy and educational leaders in social justice and culturally responsive leadership.
You’ve had quite a lot of leadership and education experience. Are there changes you have led that you are proud of or that have positively impacted students?
At Clemson, I was proud to be part of a team that developed a new degree program – an Education Doctorate (EdD) in Educational Systems and Improvement Science. The program was designed to focus on systematic education improvement for district level leaders. The three themes of race, rurality, and poverty were chosen to contextualize the degree program for leaders in South Carolina’s schools. Finally, we focused on using Improvement Science as a way to research programs of whole school reform.
As USF, I was very proud to establish and empower the Office of Field and Clinical Education. We realized that we needed to improve the partnerships that we had with the local school districts and to rethink the experiences that our student teachers had in the field. USF is the second largest producer of teachers in the state of Florida (2200 students) and we knew that the opportunity to apply knowledge and to develop pedagogical skill was critically important as part of our teacher prep programs.
Part 1 of 2. (Read: Part 2: Connection and Virtual Education)
Devon Boyers is the Associate Editor with Wren’s Nest. She is currently a master’s student, studying Clinical Mental Health Counseling at William & Mary.