When Lily Wolfer ’21 was in high school, she began working toward her goal of making a difference in the lives of students. She volunteered as a tutor, ran after-school homework programs, and worked at a school for children with autism. Now, with a bachelor’s degree in inclusive elementary and special education from Syracuse University’s School of Education , she is ready to prove her dedication to the field—the culmination of an ambition she has had since childhood. “I have wanted to be a teacher ever since I was in elementary school,” she says.
Students majoring in inclusive elementary and special education meets the academic requirements for dual New York State initial teacher certification in childhood education (grades 1-6) and students with disabilities (grades 1-6). The program, in the Department of Teaching and Leadership , provides the tools necessary to assess students and understand their needs, develop instruction that incorporates multiple learning styles, and understand multicultural perspectives.
The School of Education has provided a pivotal platform for me to reframe my educational insecurities into fuel, turning me into the confident and fervid educator and activist I am today.—Lily Wolfer
Before attending Syracuse, Wolfer was not familiar with inclusive education. “Inclusivity in the classroom means students of all abilities, backgrounds, cultures, races and genders cohesively receive student-centered, culturally responsive, differentiated content and support services,” she says. “It was not until I began formally studying education at Syracuse University that my teaching philosophy—grounded in inclusion and social justice literacy education—began to take shape.”
Wolfer says that through her experiences she has learned how to be the teacher that she always wanted—and also needed—when she was a student who struggled with disability support. “Inclusive education is not only better-quality instruction, but it provides equity,” she says. “I am so grateful to have walked through the doors of Huntington Hall and learned the concept that has changed the trajectory of my entire career. The School of Education has provided a pivotal platform for me to reframe my educational insecurities into fuel, turning me into the confident and fervid educator and activist I am today.”
Learning Through Experience
Students in the inclusive early childhood special education program progress together in a cohort, completing coursework and field experiences, sharing theories, and collaborating on strategies. “I will forever cherish my cohort of women that I took classes with and taught with since my first year of college,” Wolfer says. “We will be lifelong friends, and we will continue to lean on each other in our future careers as educators.”
Each student in the program has at least six field placements in a diverse range of settings, capped by full-time student teaching in the spring of their senior year. Throughout her time at Syracuse, Wolfer gained experience as a practicum student and student teacher in grades 1-3 as well as 5 and 6, gradually spending more time and acquiring more responsibility in the classroom. In her first year, she worked as a literacy tutor at a dual language academy for Syracuse city schools. As a sophomore, she observed as well as planned and taught at least five lessons based around cooperative learning and community building in a first-grade classroom three days a week for three hours, and then taught in a second-grade classroom all day, four days a week. Wolfer’s first-semester junior year was content focused, as she co-taught with three of her peers in a fifth-grade classroom.
I will forever cherish my cohort of women that I took classes with and taught with since my first year of college.—Lily Wolfer
In her senior year, she was in the classroom full time every day, acting as the lead teacher and even attending parent-teacher conferences. “I combined all of my knowledge of the last four years and turned into a blossomed teacher,” Wolfer says. “I came out of this experience confident in my teaching abilities and so grateful, because I was able to try new things, make mistakes, and learn from them in order to be the best teacher I could be.”
Taking the Initiative
Wolfer developed her leadership skills outside of the classroom as well, in her role as vice president for Kappa Delta Pi (KDP), the international honor society in education. KDP supports local public schools through fundraisers and a volunteer tutoring program. “This organization brings together like-minded, dedicated educators for peer support and educational programming,” she says. “I am extremely passionate about KDP’s community outreach.”
I came out of this experience confident in my teaching abilities and so grateful.—Lily Wolfer
Wolfer has served as the liaison between chapter members and KDP officers, as well as a communicator with faculty advisor Amie Redmond, who is also senior assistant dean of academic and student services. Wolfer reached out to Syracuse alumni and faculty to create programming to introduce chapter members to the variety of opportunities they will have post-graduation. “Having these interpersonal and event planning opportunities will make me a much better leader in my classroom and in my future career,” she says. “I will be well-versed in interpersonal professional relationships and leading a team of educators.”
Above and Beyond
Wolfer is grateful for her experiences and cites her relationships with faculty as a large contribution to her success. “The professors in the School of Education care about their students more than I could ever imagine. Each of the faculty members has made my time at SU extraordinary,” Wolfer says. “Christy Ashby, George Theoharis, Jill Christian-Lynch, Tom Bull and [teaching assistant] Ionah M.E. Scully have all been extremely influential in my time at Syracuse.”
This past year, Wolfer performed an independent study on Indigenous feminist theory and settler colonialism to identify best practices for cultural pluralism, representation and equity in the public schooling of Indigenous students. She was impressed by how dedicated faculty were to her education and appreciated their support. “The professors cared about my passions and made them come true by planning the independent study with me,” she says. “I have had countless weekend emails, phone calls, Zoom calls and coffee office hours not only discussing our class, but helping me with my future career, graduate school applications and overall mentorship. The professors go above and beyond.”
The professors in the School of Education care about their students more than I could ever imagine.—Lily Wolfer
Wolfer was recognized as a 2021 Syracuse University Scholar , the highest undergraduate honor that the University bestows, using criteria that include coursework and academic achievement, independent research and creative work, evidence of intellectual growth or innovation in their disciplinary field, a personal statement and faculty letters of recommendation. “I would never have been named a University Scholar if it weren’t for my amazing professors, peers and courses that allowed me to explore my educational passions,” Wolfer says.
She is also a Make Your Mark ambassador, one of 20 select students who were shaped by their Syracuse education and the support of generous donors. Forever impacted by that opportunity, Wolfer believes it is important for donors to give back through scholarships. “Alumni should support Syracuse because it will provide further opportunities for current and future Syracuse students,” she says. “Financial circumstances should not interfere with any student’s ability to succeed, and a donation can greatly support a student’s ability to continue their higher education and become future inclusive educators.”
After graduation, Wolfer will attend Columbia University’s Teachers College, where she will earn her literacy education certification. Then she plans to begin her career as a classroom teacher before continuing as a literacy specialist and a curriculum and instruction specialist. “Each of these roles will play an important part in allowing me to be both an educator and an advocate, not only for the specific students I will teach, but also for the educational institution,” she says.