In the Reflections series, the School of Education asks alumni to look back on their distinguished and fascinating lives and careers.
Holding a Ph.D. (1996) from Syracuse University School of Education, Marie Wiles has led the Guilderland (NY) Central School District as Superintendent since 2010, having previously served as Superintendent of Clinton (NY) Central School District and as District Superintendent of Otsego Northern Catskills BOCES. At Guilderland, Wiles has promoted an inclusive education model, by eliminating a tracking system that disadvantaged students with disabilities and by instituting unified sports programs.
Wiles’ education career began more than 35 years ago when she was an English teacher in the New York Mills School District. She had attended Temple University as an undergraduate to study clarinet but switched to become an English major instead. Her love of literature is on full display in her new book, Lessons from the Bard: What Shakespeare Can Teach Us about School District Leadership (Rowman & Littlefield, 2023).
Lessons from the Bard explores school and district leadership lessons that can be gleaned from among five of Shakespeare’s most well-known plays: Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, The Merchant of Venice, Julius Caesar, and Hamlet. Each chapter address one of these plays and what educational leadership lessons can be found therein, such as adolescent development and growth, money management, and leading with purpose.
What is your fondest memory from your time at Syracuse University and the School of Education?
I have many fond memories of my time at SU. For instance, I enjoyed the opportunity to supervise student teachers in the inclusive elementary program. As a secondary English teacher at the time, I think I learned more than they did about teaching and learning at the elementary level and the power of inclusive settings.
I enjoyed the opportunity to form close collegial relationships with other students in the doctoral program, and some of those relationships are going strong almost 30 years after finishing it. I clearly recall the day I defended my dissertation and that every extra chair for “observers” was filled with colleagues and friends who came to listen and support me.
“There is no better profession than teaching. It is nothing short of miraculous to be a person who can unlock the mystery of reading, ignite the flame of understanding, or inspire a love of learning.”
I have fond memories of the late Professor Berj Harootunian, who taught the first course I took in the program, using his “mosaic” approach to pedagogy. Over a long time, I discovered that he was right in his thinking that all of the little pieces of knowledge and experience we encounter come together to reveal a (mostly) coherent whole.
I also appreciate the lessons I learned about persistence. In order to finish writing my dissertation while I had a full-time job, I had to get up very early in the morning to work on the project before going to work. All these years later, I wrote my first book using that same early morning approach.
This might not be a fond memory per se, but I remember getting really good at parallel parking at SU and getting many parking tickets. I still have the ticket I got on the day of my defense—it is paid in full!
What is something from your career that you are most proud about?
I am proud of the progress we have made in Guilderland to become a more inclusive school district, especially at the secondary level. When I first arrived in 2010, I was surprised to see the extent to which “tracking” was still shaping the high school experience for many students, with the lowest track populated almost exclusively with students with disabilities.
Over the years, we have been able to eliminate that low track and implement multiple sections of co-taught, Regents-level courses in English, social studies, science, and math. These are classrooms of students with a wide range of ability levels taught by two professionals, one certified in the content area and the other in special education—both are equal partners in the planning, delivery, and assessment of student learning.
When you visit these classrooms, it is almost impossible to tell which teacher is which, and all students in the classroom (with and without an Individualized Education Program) benefit from the support available to them.
Along the same lines, I am very proud of our unified sports teams in bowling, basketball, and bocci. Athletes of all cognitive and ability levels are teammates who compete against neighboring schools. Our teams proudly wear their Guilderland uniforms and enjoy all the fanfare afforded to our varsity teams. Countless students have shared how being on one (or all) of our unified teams has changed their lives for the better!
What is the biggest change you have seen in education during your lifetime?
The urgency to meet the social emotional needs of our students and staff has grown exponentially during my lifetime. The demand for counseling, social work, and other mental health supports was definitely on the rise before the pandemic, but the school closures, remote learning, and prolonged isolation forced on all by COVID-19 was nothing short of traumatic.
We continue to battle through the effects of that disruptive time.
What gives you hope?
In spring 2020, when the pandemic was raging and all of our students and staff were learning remotely, one of my high school students who lived across the street from my house used sidewalk chalk to draw a giant heart on my driveway with the word “hope” inside. I was so touched by this gesture and the wisdom of this teenager.
I remember taking a photo of the heart and including it in one of my many communications to all of the students, staff, and families in our school community. That message gave hope to thousands. Young people give me hope, even in the darkest times.
What advice do you have for an SOE student just starting on their career path?
There is no better profession than teaching. It is nothing short of miraculous to be a person who can unlock the mystery of reading, ignite the flame of understanding, or inspire a love of learning. But that is what teachers strive to do, each and every day. It is remarkably challenging and rewarding work.
My advice would be to learn all you can from the wisdom and experience of the School of Education faculty, then go bravely and proudly out to make the magic of learning happen. And be sure to tell anyone who will listen how great it is to be a teacher so others will join us in the profession that creates all others.