College football star finds calling as teacher and role model

May 3, 2019

Steven Spencer MAT ’18 is a teacher, mentor, athlete and father

By Jonathan Riggs

“In the classroom, I’m not as dramatic as Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society, but I try to let loose in front of my students instead of being some stoic rules-keeper,” said Steven Spencer MAT ’18, a high-school English teacher in Fresno. “I want them to know that we’re here to learn, but learning can be fun.” (Photo/Ross Brenneman)

For Steven Spencer MAT ’18, teaching was his destiny—even if he tried to avoid it.

“It’s funny,” the Pasadena native said. “My mom, grandparents and their parents were all teachers, but growing up, all I wanted to be was a football player.”

He was good, too—a defensive linebacker who walked on at Texas Christian University and also played at the University of San Diego—but football ultimately brought him back full circle.

“I’d spent so much time trying to get away from what was in my blood, but sports helped me find my true calling,” Spencer said. “I saw how many teammates of mine grew up without strong male role models. My dad showed me every day what a great mentor was, so I realized teaching would be a great opportunity for me to pay it forward.”

Being a single dad in college drove this point home, as Spencer experienced firsthand the awe-inspiring joys, frustrations and responsibilities of raising his daughter, Laili. Juggling everything—finishing his undergrad and starting his master’s at USC Rossier, working as a substitute teacher and caring for a young child—wasn’t easy, but he had the best cheerleader possible.

“Laili made it all worthwhile, even when she was popping in on classes or interrupting me during study time,” he laughed. “She’s my motivation and made me want to be a teacher even more, so I could build a great future for us.”

Today, Spencer is an 11th grade English teacher at Sunnyside High School in Fresno Unified School District. He formally graduated from USC Rossier’s Master of Arts in Teaching program last December. His favorite thing about teaching is helping his students find and take command of their voices.

“I always try to teach to the young man or the young woman based off their strengths, and to help them find ownership of who they are through literature,” Spencer said. “English class helps people become better versions of themselves.”

USC has been a big part of his own journey of self-actualization—not only did his grandparents meet in Doheny Library on campus, but his brother is a graduate of the USC Marshall School of Business. He’s proud to be able to share his Trojan experience as USC Rossier’s student speaker at commencement.

“I hope I can do my amazing classmates and professors justice,” Spencer said. “It means everything to me, too, that my family will all be there.”

Of course, that includes his mother, who’s taught for 30 years, and Laili, who may only be 4 but seems poised to follow in the family’s footsteps.

“She loves that I’m a teacher and tries to be one herself,” Spencer said. “She has a very commanding presence already—I think she’s going to be the next generation.”

Now that he has his master’s, Spencer will continue on this fall to pursue his doctorate at USC Rossier. He’s excited to start his next chapter, citing the competitive drive that served him so well as an athlete.

“Working toward a dream keeps us all going. That’s why I love it when young student-athletes come into my classroom,” he says. “I want to encourage them to pursue that or anything else they’re passionate about. I’m proud to be proof that the sky is the limit for anyone who puts in the work.”

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