On July 15, 2020, the School of Education welcomed Dean Robert C. Knoeppel to the School of Education. Here we share a broad-ranging Q&A about his experience, his approach for the first few months of his deanship and his vision for the future of the School of Education.
What drew you to W&M and this position?
This year marks my 28th year working in public education. My career began in Albemarle County Schools in Charlottesville, VA. Coming home to Virginia has long been a goal of mine but I was waiting for the right opportunity. The mission of the School of Education at William & Mary is completely aligned with my values. I believe that education provides opportunity — it transforms lives. We have a moral obligation to provide an equitable education to all children regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, income level, or zip code. Those values have been the driving force in my work in K-12 schools, in preparing professional educators and in my research agenda. I was well acquainted with the work of many of the faculty in educational administration and in counselor education at William & Mary so this seemed like a great fit.
How did the time spent working in Virginia K-12 schools influence your trajectory as an educator, and how does it shape your vision for the School of Education?
I had the great opportunity to work at all three levels of education (elementary, middle, and high school) across three school divisions in Virginia (Albemarle, Staunton, and Prince William). These experiences allowed me to work with students from diverse backgrounds, in school divisions that were differentially resourced, and to participate in conversations about how to design instruction to meet the needs of children and their communities. My passion is equity and educational opportunity. Working with children from diverse backgrounds and across all grade levels solidified my belief in the dignity of all persons and the need to prepare educators who have the knowledge and skills to create learning environments to meet the needs of all children.
As the university prepares for a challenging fall semester, what do you see as your first priority in the next few weeks?
Any time you enter a new leadership position, the most important thing to do is listen and learn. I’m interested in learning about the faculty in the school, the programs, and our points of pride — and of course I'm looking forward to meeting our students. As we prepare for a different return to campus this fall, my goal, along with the rest of the leadership team, is to work collaboratively to meet the immediate needs of our community while focusing on our goals for the year. Those include creating a healthy, engaged community, as well as fostering student success and faculty success.
As dean of the College of Education at the University of South Florida, you led their response to the pandemic this spring and summer. What have you learned about leadership in a time of crisis?
Leadership in a time of crisis requires constant communication, an unwavering focus on goals, empathy, and resilience. One of the more difficult components of the pandemic is the fact that information is constantly changing. The loss of normalcy and the changing nature of the response can create feelings of loss of control. As a leadership team, it is important that we share information frequently, provide emotional support, and offer resources to support the things that we can control. We can control our shared commitment to the mission of the School of Education, our programs, our students, and our research.
In many ways, the pandemic is opening up conversations about the very essence and purpose of public education and its role in society. What do you see as some of those essential questions that we should be asking?
I strongly believe that the purpose of education is to create opportunity. The provision of an equitable system of education is how we advance goals of social justice and sustain a democratic society. We have historic and systemic opportunity gaps in both access to education and student performance. The pandemic has placed a spotlight on the historic discrepancies in funding, teaching, technology, access, and student achievement that have existed largely based on race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. We need to be asking essential and difficult questions about how to prepare educators to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse society, how to adequately distribute resources to meet the educational needs of all students, and how to increase access to quality education across the entire P-20 system.
The School of Education works with a wide range of partners to provide experiential learning opportunities for our students, to research and explore current challenges in education, and to improve the lives of individuals and communities. How do you approach these relationships, and what can our partners expect from you?
I believe that education is an applied field. As we work to prepare outstanding educational professionals, our programs should include both content knowledge but also the opportunity to practice skills. A unique aspect of a school of education is that all programs include internships, practica, student teaching, or other immersive experiences. These programmatic requirements necessitate the establishments of strong partnerships with local school divisions, offices across campus and other community agencies. As a former practitioner, our partners can expect an understanding of their context coupled with the highest level of professional respect and appreciation from me. I believe that the establishment of these partnerships is a shared endeavor wherein we have candid conversations about expectations for student experiences, placements, and learner outcomes. Done properly, these partnerships should be mutually beneficial and can help us to improve our programs.
Much of your scholarship relates to school finance. How do you put that scholarship into practice as a dean?
My research agenda is focused on how states distribute funding for education and how educational leaders use resources to meet goals. I am particularly interested in the equitable distribution of these resources and the impact that revenue distribution models can have on educational opportunity. I try to use the research on revenue distribution models to rethink how we allocate funding in support of shared educational goals. I strongly believe that the budget is the instrument that allows educational organizations to meet outcome goals, so I approach budgeting as a collaborative process that is guided by the literature.
As our students, faculty and staff prepare to embark on a semester unlike any we’ve experienced before, what are your hopes as we work together over the coming months?
My earnest hope for the year is that we not lose the opportunity to grow as an educational community. Both of the pandemics that we’re experiencing (coronavirus and racism) require that we change — so let’s make the changes that are consistent with our values and stated goals. It’s likely that these changes were things that we wanted to do anyway. Let’s not waste the moment. Let’s not miss the opportunity to lead and be seen as a resource across the educational community in expanding access, creating a more democratic and inclusive society, and advancing the goals of social justice. I believe that we can meet this moment collegially, with respect for differing opinions, and collaboratively. I look forward to learning from all of you.