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College of Education

Q&A with Lesley Snyder, Milken Educator Award recipient

Two-time alumna Lesley Snyder (2016, Education Administration) received a Milken Educator Award and $25,000 from the Milken Family Foundation. Snyder is the only recipient of this prestigious award in South Carolina for 2021-2022. We sat down with her to talk with her about her time in the College of Education and what she’s doing now.

Tell us a little about your journey from teacher cadet to educator:

I've always known that I wanted to be a teacher from a young age. I transitioned from being a teacher cadet in high school to a teaching fellow upon graduating. My undergraduate degree was in elementary education, and I truly believed that I wanted to teach younger kids. Throughout my time in the program, I kept being drawn to teaching middle school. I spent my undergraduate internship at Hand Middle School and fully realized that teaching middle school was my true calling. Once I graduated with my bachelor’s degree in elementary education, I completed an add-on for middle level English. The rest is history. I've been in a middle school classroom ever since. 


What drew you to the College of Education for your undergraduate and graduate degrees? 

The University of South Carolina has always had a special place in my heart. One of the best benefits of being in the College of Education at USC is how immersive the program is. The ability to apply the knowledge learned from professors immediately with kids in a real classroom helped me to feel confident in my abilities as a young teacher. My time spent in the College of Education made me feel incredibly prepared to not only tackle anything in the classroom, but also to thrive. As an SC Teaching Fellow, it was important for me to attend a school that was a Teaching Fellows Institute. My time spent under Kimberly Smoak in the Teaching Fellows Program at the University of South Carolina, made me a well-rounded teacher-leader and education advocate. 


You have a specialization in project-based learning? What was intriguing about that degree, and how does it reflect in your classroom? 

Project-based learning has been a passion of mine since early in my career. I worked with Dayna Laur at a two-day PBL training years ago and fell in love with the concept of anchoring coursework in students’ passions and in the real world. Since then, I've sought out PD opportunities and professional reading to expand my knowledge. Naturally, completing the project-based learning specialization seemed like the best next step. What was most intriguing about completing it with Project AWAKE is their focus on engaging my school's career specialist and community career professionals. In my classroom, it's reflected through students connecting with people in our community while completing their coursework. This year, students completed a semester-long passion project, and many were able to connect and receive feedback from community members. 

I would like to learn a little more about your involvement in Project AWAKE. Can you explain how that program makes your middle-level students career ready and how you support the program post-degree? 

Again, one of the main facets of the program was working with my school career specialist. The program helped to reframe our thinking around planning to fully utilize her in the classroom. She has been a tremendous help and an amazing resource for my students in the classroom. She has helped coordinate virtual meetings with various career experts, coached my kids on interviewing techniques, helped my kids understand their personality and work types, taught lessons to help promote their soft skills and so much more. The coursework helped her and I become a well-functioning team. Additionally, project-based learning helps to make my students more career ready by anchoring their studies in the real world. When my students engage in a project, they don't have to wonder if what they're learning applies to the real world. The program helped me to break down my project development to ensure that I was fully meeting the needs of my students and helped to ensure they'd be successful. My students leave my room feeling confident in their ability to creatively problem solve, collaborate and to engage in inquiry — all of which are needed in today's world. 

Is there a specific faculty member that was influential during your time(s) in our college, if so, can you share a little about how they contributed to your success? 

There are so many faculty members that were influential during my time. One of my favorite professors was Beth White. I learned so much from her in regards to teaching reading and having an eye for data. I'm able to really know my middle-school students as readers and writers because of my time spent with her. One of my favorite anecdotes about Beth White is when she told my class that her future dream was to become a trucker. Every time I imagine her behind the wheel of a big truck, I chuckle. 

What is one thing you have planned for this summer that you are excited about?

Having recently won the Milken Educator Award, I have a trip planned to Los Angeles, California, for the Milken Educator Awards Forum. I've never been to the other side of the country, so I'm excited to experience a few days on the West Coast. Other than that, my summer is filling up with professional development, working on my recently purchased home, and some hiking trips with my husband and two kids. 

As an English teacher, what is a book you’ve read or assigned recently that you wish our alumni would read? 

Oh gosh, how could I pick just one book? I can't.

My Favorite BookZen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values by Robert M. Pirsig. It's a fictionalized autobiography in which the narrator explores the concept of quality and how to live a fulfilled life. It's a read that isn't for the faint of heart, but there is so much to take away from the book.

Professional Read: 4 Essential Studies: Beliefs and Practices to Reclaim Student Agency by Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher. I stand behind anything the two of these professionals write. The main focus of this book is to coach teachers to move beyond the one-size fits all approach in order to transform the way we engage with literacy. 

From my classroom: Don't sleep on the classics. I'm teaching English 1 for the first time, and I've really enjoyed re-reading some of the old classics that I suffered through in my younger years. It's amazing how a few years of life experience can fully transform your experience as a reader. Revisit The Odyssey or Romeo and Juliet, and you may be pleasantly surprised. Want a fresh take on the classics? Try picking up the graphic novel version! 

For fun: One of my favorite books lately has been The Midnight Library by Matt Haig. It was a book that really lived up to the hype for me.

Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.