Maura Laesser saw the passion of special education instructors while she was a classroom assistant as a high school student, and the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire senior has developed a similar devotion to the profession as she prepares to graduate this month.
Laesser, a dual major in elementary education and special education and inclusive practices, with certification in intellectual disability, specific learning disability and emotional behavioral disability, wants all future teachers to be prepared to be inclusive of students with disabilities.
“I feel as though every educator should have a background in special education no matter what age or area they are focusing on,” says Laesser, of Hammond. “Inclusive practices are beneficial for all students and our job as teachers is to create a learning environment suitable for all students.”
Laesser knows what she is talking about after participating in award-winning student-faculty research over the past year designed to gauge the knowledge and skills of general education majors related to inclusive practices. Her research with senior Emily Nickolai, a special education and inclusive practices major from Neenah who also is graduating in December, and faculty member Dr. Karsten Powell, assistant professor of special education and inclusive practices, was presented at multiple research conferences: UW-Eau Claire’s Celebration of Excellence in Research and Creative activity, the UW System Undergraduate Research Symposium and the National Conference on Undergraduate Research.
The student-faculty research, “Changing Perceptions of Inclusion: The Role of a Universal Design for Learning Framework in Pre-Service Teacher Preparation,” was selected as the top submission across all education-related entries at NCUR, an accomplishment Powell called “an important achievement as far as undergraduate research is concerned.”
“Throughout her time in our program, Maura exemplified the inquisitive, lifelong learner that we hope to see in all of our students,” Powell says. “She sought out opportunities to always learn more, and used what she learned to help others, including her classmates and various students with disabilities.”
Laesser was instrumental in getting the research going to investigate methods for preparing general education teachers to be inclusive of students with disabilities, Powell says. Laesser sought out Powell for the research and expressed interest in working with another undergraduate student on the project.
The research started when Laesser was a teaching assistant in Powell’s inclusive practices course where she taught skills from the Universal Design for Learning framework designed to accommodate the needs of all learners. Each week, students learned about a new disability category and would apply the knowledge to a lesson plan to promote inclusion of a specific student.
Throughout the 2021-22 academic year, the researchers collected data to see how students’ perceptions of inclusion changed. They discovered that general education majors frequently need additional inclusive methods courses to develop their skills.
Laesser says the experience presenting the research at conferences has better prepared her to be an educator, gaining confidence, and communication and critical thinking skills. The NCUR honor was a reward for the time and effort Nickolai and she put into the project.
“We were beyond thankful to have had the opportunity to present our research at a national level,” Laesser says. “This is a topic that each of us are passionate about, so it meant a lot for us to know that others were engaged in our research and valued our knowledge.”
Laesser has expressed interest in leading professional development sessions for teachers in the future and will consider continuing her research one day in graduate school, Powell says.
While at UW-Eau Claire, Laesser participated in an international immersion experience through the special education and inclusive practices department, spending five weeks in Scotland. Highlights of the immersion included a homestay with a Scottish family, a school-based practicum experience serving Scottish students with disabilities and completing coursework as part of her licensure to teach students with emotional/behavioral disabilities.
The Scottish immersion trip taught Laesser the importance of “being comfortable in the uncomfortable,” which was a phrase her immersion group used throughout the trip. She said it was a reminder that she wasn’t expected to know everything and that learning occurs in different forms.
“Being abroad brought several situations where I did not know the answers and I felt myself sitting in an uncomfortable state,” Laesser says. “Telling myself that this feeling is OK and allowing myself to feel comfortable in the uncomfortable showed me how much more I can learn and grow from each situation.”
Higher education wasn’t a natural progression after high school in Laesser’s family. When she graduates on Dec. 17, she will be the first in her family to obtain a college degree.
“Conversations related to college were not typical in my family,” Laesser says. “It was difficult to navigate the life of a college student, the dos and do nots. Learning how to juggle being a full-time student, working a part-time job, volunteering and being involved in extracurricular activities was a challenge.”
Laesser recommends that first-generation students make use of resources available on campus, including finding a mentor who may be another student, or a faculty or staff member.
“Ask a lot of questions; you are not expected to know everything,” Laesser says. “College is a different experience for every person, so make the most out of it.”
Ironically, Laesser’s mother, Tracey Forseth, also will graduate that day from UW-Stout, where she is majoring in human development and family studies. She said sharing graduation day with her mother is “an incredible experience.”
“She has sacrificed so much for my siblings and me growing up,” Laesser says. “She has always put our needs before her own, which is a reason she went to college in a nontraditional way. To see her chase her dreams and be successful is something I will always admire about my mother.”
Forseth says her own educational journey had “many hills and valleys,” but credits Laesser and her siblings for helping give her the strength to overcome obstacles on the way to her degree. Forseth said she struggles to find the words to describe her daughter’s accomplishments.
“She is a true inspiration to those around her and with her grace and humbleness, she has gone above and beyond what any parent wants for their child,” Forseth says. “Being a first-generation college graduate, Maura has achieved her goals she set for herself and shows those around her that no matter what obstacles are in your way, anything is possible with much dedication and hard work to achieve the goals that one sets for themselves.”
The UW-Eau Claire and UW-Stout commencements have conflicting times, so Forseth plans to forgo her commencement Dec. 17 to attend her daughter’s ceremony. They will celebrate their successes at a family gathering for both of them.
“It was an easy decision to skip my commencement ceremony and attend Maura’s because as a parent, I have always wanted her to do bigger and better things than I could have ever dreamed for her,” Forseth says. “Maura has exceeded my hopes and dreams as a parent and I am honored to be by her side on this day.”
After graduation, Laesser will work as a special education teacher and become an assistant hockey coach at Eau Claire North High School.
Laesser calls her time at UW-Eau Claire a one-of-a-kind experience.
“I am so grateful to have chosen a university that fit my values and allowed me to grow in many different ways,” Laesser says.
Written by Gary Johnson