Santoli Leaves a Legacy of Inspiration for Educators

Posted on May 19, 2021 by Amber Day
Amber Day

Dr. Susan Santoli  data-lightbox='featured'

Originally from Oklahoma, Dr. Susan Santoli came from a long line of educators in her family. However, Santoli’s personal journey of finding her passion for education was a bit unexpected. Santoli helped her mother grade papers while at home, and thought to herself, “this is not something I want to do for my career.”

Santoli, who most recently served as professor and chair of the Department of Leadership and Teacher Education, will retire from the University of South Alabama College of Education and Professional Studies at the end of May. Santoli has served the University for more than 21 years and worked in the field of education in Alabama for more than 41 years.

When in college at Oklahoma State University for her undergraduate degree, Santoli took a few education courses and did shadowing in schools. 

“The trend, at the time, was for classrooms without walls, so I was observing in a huge room with partitions, many people talking from many places and it just seemed like mass confusion to someone with a Type A personality. Thankfully, that trend did not last long.”

“I thought, this really isn’t for me,” Santoli said. “I chose history as my major, and I had a strong love for geography. I applied for graduate school at the University of Oklahoma, and I have a master's degree in city and regional planning.”

Santoli then moved to Mobile and accepted a position with the Mobile Historic Development Commission. She did research on various properties to date the historic buildings in Mobile. She also helped develop some of the first walking tours for the historic districts in Mobile. 

“The tradition was that a certain building downtown had been the specific location of the home of Joe Cain, and so, of course, folks were very eager to prove that it was truly the case,” Santoli said. “And as we found out, he did live on that block, but it was not the building. We had to go back to the original maps and plans and look at how they were drawn. It was really disappointing to many people but it was historically correct. It was very interesting and very detailed work, and I really developed an appreciation for primary sources and historical records, which has been something that I continue to use in my teaching today.”

Santoli decided it was time to find a job that was a little more flexible to be able to settle down and have a family. She went back to school and earned a teaching certificate.

“It was supposed to be a backup plan,” Santoli said. “I taught for two years at St. Ignatius Catholic School in Mobile. When my son was three, I went back to teaching at St. Paul's Episcopal School in Mobile, and I was there for 18 years.”

Santoli primarily taught World History, World Geography, and AP European History.

“I ended up right where I said I was not going to be, grading lots of papers,” Santoli said. “I absolutely loved teaching. My students kept me on my toes and entertained. I was blessed with the people with whom I taught. They were great mentors and colleagues, and still are wonderful friends. Now, a lot of the students that I taught are my doctors, lawyers and the professional people in my life. It was a wonderful school home.”

At the age of 40, Santoli decided to pursue a doctorate degree in education.

“My midlife crisis was to go back and get my Ph.D.,” Santoli said. “My husband asked if he could just buy me a red convertible and you know, be done with that. But I'm an only child, and I had parents who were very high achievers. I just had this as my goal, and I really wasn't even sure what I was going to do with it.”

Santoli did not have a master’s degree in social studies education or master’s in education, so she went back and took the equivalent of those hours along with courses for a Ph.D. in Curriculum and Teaching at Auburn University. 

“It was like five million hours,” Santoli said. ”I mean people would say ‘how long is it until you're finished?’ And I would say,”Oh, I don't even know.’”

“I went to Auburn because they offered a three summer residential program. This was long before universities had online courses, and in most instances, you actually had to come and be on campus for two calendar years.”

Thankfully, Santoli was able to take some courses at South to apply towards her degree at Auburn. All while teaching high school full time, it took five years for Santoli to earn her Ph.D. in Curriculum and Teaching with an emphasis in Social Studies Education.

Her next step was finding a job in higher education. A friend shared that a job was posted for the USA College of Education and Professional Studies and she applied. 

“I had a huge learning curve coming to higher education from the secondary classroom,” Santoli said. “I had great mentors at South, as I did at St. Pauls. Faculty that wrote with me, encouraged me and signed me up for presentations. I was extremely grateful for their support and mentorship.”

Santoli was hired as the secondary social studies faculty member and taught and advised those majors. She also taught elementary social studies education courses and secondary courses that had students from all secondary education majors, including English Language Arts, Art, ESOL, Science, Math and Physical Education.

“We went through some big changes after I started at South, especially when the No Child Left Behind legislation was passed,” Santoli said. “We had to create a major where students would have the equivalent of a content major in arts and sciences in addition to a secondary education major. We met many times with the dean and department chairs in the College of Arts and Sciences to try to hammer out exactly what our students were going to need to do. It was a huge accomplishment, and I believe secondary faculty in Leadership and Teacher Education gained great respect from the faculty in Arts and Sciences as they realized that we all had strong content backgrounds.”

Santoli’s heart is in the classroom, and she never really felt her gifts lay in administration. 

“I was interim department chair for Leadership and Teacher Education for six months, and then I applied for the position,” Santoli said. “Just like with teaching, this certainly is not where I thought I would find myself. However, I have actually loved doing something different. I told the faculty I was going to give it my all and that my focus would be on what I could do to help our department be stronger, and that’s what I’ve always tried to keep in mind.”

The mission of the Department of Leadership and Teacher Education is to prepare highly qualified teachers, administrators, supervisors and other professionals for jobs in many academic settings. The department offers undergraduate majors in education for students to earn certification in elementary education, early childhood education, secondary education or special education. Students can also major in early childhood studies. The department also offers multiple Master of Education and Educational Specialist graduate degree programs and the Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership.

“I love working with teachers who are already in their own classrooms,” Santoli said. “For example, I love working with teachers through South Alabama Research and Inservice Center (SARIC) workshops, when teachers come back for higher degrees, and when I supervise our student teachers in classrooms. And I really love working with preservice teachers.”

“One of the most rewarding things is the fact I have been able to be in so many K-12 schools and so many classrooms. When I look at a list of employees at K-12 schools, I see a lot of our former students there. It's fun to be able to go to alumni and say ‘you know, I told you, I was going to be asking if one of our student teachers at South could come and be in your classroom.’”

Santoli has appreciated the collaborations on projects and research with faculty at South. Many memories include travelling and presenting with Dr. Paige Vitulli, chair of the Department of Integrative Studies and coordinator for the art education graduate degree program.

“She and I have some common interests in integrating the arts into content areas,” Santoli said. “We've done a book chapter and many journal articles together, presented at an international education conference in Dublin and several other places, including Washington, D.C., and Hawaii. Our collaborations have been very rewarding to me personally and professionally.”

Santoli says her biggest achievement would be seeing the success of students.

“I love to know our students have been prepared to go into the schools, and we hear positive feedback from their administrators,” Santoli said. “That’s our whole purpose of being here. When they share their successes, I am so excited for them. I love to know we prepare our students well. That’s the ultimate payoff. I want them to exceed their mentors, and feel like we have helped launch them.”

Santoli is very active in her church, Ashland Place United Methodist Church in midtown, and looks forward to dedicating more time towards service there.

“I play handbells there, I teach a Sunday school class, and I also am a member of the prayer shawl group,” Santoli said. “I haven't been able to go a whole lot lately, but that is going to change now and I'm looking forward to that.”

Santoli also serves as an active member of the Philanthropic Educational Organization, also known as PEO. The organization has nearly 250,000 members throughout the United States and Canada and provides grants, loans and scholarship support for women in education. 

“I've been really active in that organization at the local, state and international levels,” Santoli said. “PEO owns a liberal arts women's college, Cottey College in Nevada, Missouri. When the college changed from a two-year to a four-year college, I was serving as the chair of the board of trustees. That was very, very exciting and it's been wonderful to see the impact the college has had on the lives of so many young women.”

Santoli enjoys reading, knitting, crafting, cooking and playing handbells. She also loves spending time with her friends and family. Her son is stationed in Maine and serves in the U.S. Coast Guard, and she hopes to spend more time with her grandchildren, teaching them to appreciate history. 

“I also love to travel,” Santoli said. “I was very fortunate that my husband and I were able to take St. Paul’s students and parents on trips to Europe for many summers.”

“Three years ago, I took a trip with three very dear friends, and we did a tulip tour of the Netherlands and Belgium on a river,” Santoli said. “It was absolutely fabulous. I was with people that I dearly love and we laughed the entire time. I have really kind of gotten hooked on river cruising. The next year, we all did a cruise on the Rhine, and that was very fun as well. But, I would just love to go back and see those tulips anytime. That was definitely on my bucket list.”

South has been a home for Santoli, and she looks forward to staying connected from the sidelines.

“I didn’t really plan to be here as long as I have,” Santoli said. “It’s been very rewarding and a wonderful place to work. I am excited that I will be watching South from the sidelines to see where it’s going to go. I was taking classes in the 70s when the University was just getting started, and now to see what it’s turned into is just so rewarding. I’m looking forward to using our football tickets in the fall, and it’s just a wonderful time of growth and accomplishments for South.”

Below are quotes from a variety faculty, staff, students and alumni who want to say thank you to Dr. Susan Santoli for her service and inspiration.

“Thank you Dr. Santoli for being a mentor and friend. Your inspiration and guidance continue to impact me to be a better educator. Wishing you all the best in retirement.” - Randall Reed

"Thank you for your service to our college. You've been an inspiration!" - Dr. Ryon McDermott

“Thank you Dr. Santoli for equipping me with the tools to not only help students but to magnify their potential. Thank you for allowing me the opportunities to better our youth for a better tomorrow for all of us. I wish you the best in your future and appreciate you for supporting ours." - Tia Nickens

“You have been gracious and helpful to me in every way as chair .... you are appreciated!” - Dr. Ed Leonard

“I have loved talking about European History of the past years and our shared love for social studies. I learned a lot from you." - Burke Johnson

“Such a pleasure and privilege to have worked with Dr. Santoli for the last 16 years….even more of a pleasure and privilege to also call her my very good friend. Many blessings to you in your retirement!” - Kathy Beck

“I have chosen a quote by Dolly Parton that I think exemplifies Dr. Santoli. ‘If your actions create a legacy that inspires others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, then, you are an excellent leader.’” - Dr. Betty Patterson Dixon

“Thank you Dr. Santoli for your dedication to your students. You continue to be an inspiration to me as an educator and lifelong learner.” - Justin Parmer

“You have made a lasting impact on my life. I am eternally grateful for the wisdom that you’ve shared with me and the compassion that you have given me. Your leadership has shaped me and it still encourages me to always fight for my students. Thank you for your devotion to your students and for the hope that you instill into every classroom that you touch. All of the best wishes and blessings to you in retirement! I hope that you get to explore the world and study genealogy to your heart's content!” - Lila Smith

“A quote from Dr. Santoli that resonates with me is ‘What can I do for you?’ and my response is ‘What can we do for you, Dr. Santoli?’ Not only do I appreciate your commitment to us, but I also want you to know I am there for you currently and in the future. You are truly amazing!” - Dr. Hannah Szatkowski

“Thank you Dr. Santoli for your words of encouragement and support during the final days of the semester. You are greatly appreciated and thank you for everything.” - Miranda King

“Thank you, Dr. Santoli, for being a source of encouragement, inspiration, and support during my time in the M.Ed. program. It was such a blessing to have you as a professor. Thank you for your years as a mentor to so many. Wishing you a very happy retirement!”  -Katie Segers

“Dr. Susan Santoli is, and has always been, a person of great heart, integrity, and intelligence. She is one of the most gifted and distinguished faculty members I’ve ever known. In addition, she’s always shown such grace and kindness, and it’s been a pleasure and honor to work for her. Dr. Santoli, thank you for the memories! I wish you all the best in your endeavors, and you will continue to be in my thoughts and prayers.” - Glenda Carpenter

“Dr. Santoli has been a super helpful, caring, loving, person who was always willing to share wonderful information to help educators succeed and grow. She will truly be missed.” - Shaniqua Washington

“Dr. Santoli fostered a love of social studies education in her students. She is an inspecting professor who became my mentor and my friend. She was never too busy to provide professorial or academic assistance long after I graduated. Her legacy will love on in social studies classrooms throughout our area.” - Nicole Landry

"Dr. Santoli has been the best professor I have had during my college coursework. Her passion is contagious, her energy is inspiring, and her love for education is without bounds. She has been by far the biggest influence on my future career. She is retiring this semester and this would be an amazing honor for her to receive upon retirement. There is nothing negative to be said about Dr. Santoli. She may be the most genuine and passionate person I know. She truly deserves all accolades that she is nominated for! She may not teach many other student-athletes, but she deserves nomination for this award and deserves all the recognition possible. I cannot overstate how great Dr. Santoli is!" - Hunter Appling

“I have known you since I used to call you Ms. du Mont and coach Santoli was my basketball coach. So, it has been a very long time that I have known you. I am thrilled to have had the chance to work with you at South. I know I didn’t get to work under you, but getting a chance to work with you and be a colleague of yours has been a thrill for me. I want you to know how much I appreciate the way you treated me when I was younger. I know you made the comment recently I was a nice, respectful young man, and I was to you. That was a little bit of a trying time for me at that age. I was really wanting to go to public school and I was becoming a bit of a rebel. I was trying to find my own way, and I was probably not the favorite student of a lot of teachers at that time. It was always my goal as a teacher to make students feel welcome and loved. In my experience, what I remember about the younger years was not the content that was taught, but how the teachers made me feel. You always made me feel welcome and you always made me feel like I belonged. And I really needed that at that time. And I really appreciate that. It’s been such an honor to have the chance to work with you as an adult. I wish you all the best.” - Dr. Joe Gaston

“We are going to miss you like crazy. We are so excited for your future. Congratulations on this huge milestone!” - Dr. Susan Ferguson

“Thank you for all your support and love you have given. I couldn’t have made it through my Ph.D. program without you, with all the little notes you left and signs. You have always been a huge fan. We love you and we are so excited for you. Don’t miss us too much!” - Dr. Kelly Byrd 

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