Graciela Slesaransky-Poe didn’t envision herself as a dean, at least not at first.
Approached with the idea of leading Arcadia University’s newly formed School of Education last summer, the associate professor initially hesitated at the idea of leaving her teaching and research behind.
In a little more than a decade at Arcadia, Ms. Slesaransky-Poe, 52, had gained national recognition for her work in the field of inclusive education. Her colleagues encouraged her to consider the position. She also started reading Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, which encourages women to pursue leadership opportunities.
"I began to meet with other administrators, especially women, in trying to understand what it means to be a leader, what it would take," Ms. Slesaransky-Poe says, "and really ‘lean in’ to the possibility."
She was eventually chosen as founding dean of the school, which evolved out of Arcadia's department of education in 2012. Her appointment was set to begin on July 1. The school has 636 students enrolled: 458 graduate students and 178 undergraduates.
Ms. Slesaransky-Poe has focused her research and writing on issues that affect classrooms, like racial profiling, LGBTQ students, and diverse gender identities.
Her interest in children who don't conform to traditional gender identities began with her own son. As a 3-year-old, he played with toys and dressed in clothes that are often associated with girls, she says. She couldn’t find many resources about how to support him. Her son was considered to have "gender-identity disorder," she learned, and she didn’t like it that the condition was termed a "disorder."
"I thought, ‘The only problem that my son has is that it makes everyone uncomfortable, but there’s nothing wrong with him,’ " she says. "We had to come up with language that was affirming and accepting of him."
Gender-nonconforming children have started to gain more traction politically and socially since Ms. Slesaransky-Poe began her research. Calling their behavior a "disorder" is on its way out, too. The accepted term is now "gender dysphoria."
"They feel that they’re alone," she says. If they are given an accepting environment, "we are all enriched by their presence and their creativity."
At Arcadia, a private nonprofit institution in suburban Philadelphia, Ms. Slesaransky-Poe founded the Creating Safe and Welcoming Schools conference, which promotes inclusive practices in education. As a professor at Arcadia, she says, she has always felt supported in her scholarly efforts, like the conference. As dean, she hopes she can do the same for her faculty in the School of Education.
"I see my role as being the visionary for the future," she says, "but, right now, finding the resources to support the work that our faculty is doing."