Returning to UIC is a homecoming for new College of Education dean

Kathryn Chval’s ties to the University of Illinois Chicago go back to when she was a young undergraduate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and decided to pursue a degree in education rather than business. She transferred to UIC for its robust teaching preparation program and that decision led her to earn her bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees from UIC, including two degrees from the College of Education.

This summer, Chval returned to her professional “home” and became the newest dean of the College of Education, where she also had been a staff member while receiving her postgraduate degrees.

Over the course of her career, Chval has served as a suburban Chicago third-grade teacher and as acting section head for the Teacher Professional Continuum program at the National Science Foundation, where she oversaw a $56 million budget.

Most recently, she was a professor of mathematics education at the University of Missouri, where she earned a variety of leadership roles, including dean, associate dean for academic affairs, and co-director of the Missouri Center for Mathematics and Science Teacher Education. The proven leader and renowned scholar is credited with more than 60 research publications and 18 books.

“I’ve been gone 20 years now, and I’ve come back and that UIC work ethic and passion is still here,” she said. “I’m thrilled to be back.”

Dean Chval recently spoke with UIC Today:

How do you see UIC’s role in the education world?

Kathryn Chval

I think this college plays a unique role. I’ve been fortunate in my career to have worked with deans at colleges of education across the country and we’re all passionate about education, but we all serve different roles. UIC’s College of Education is known for its work in urban systems. We all need urban educational systems where research, leadership, policy and practice promote dignity, justice, and opportunities for individuals, families and communities.

Every person in this college is thinking about that. Some are in the Chicago neighborhoods and communities, some are in schools, others might be working one-on-one with children, adolescents or adults. In our Center for Literacy, UIC faculty and staff worked with more than 5,000 families last year alone.

The UIC College of Education’s role is to be the college others come to for research, answers to questions of practice, collaboration in the pursuit of answers to inquiries needing research and innovation, finding approaches to strengthen communities, and finally, to facilitate leadership that provides vision and strategy. The UIC College of Education should serve as a catalyst to advance knowledge, inspire learning, and empower communities to eliminate inequities in urban educational systems, policies and practices.

Can you tell us a little bit of your background and how it might influence and guide your new position as dean?

I grew up in the Chicago suburbs; my father was born in Chicago and so was my mother. My parents were children of the Great Depression so family and work ethic were very important to them. I’m the sixth of seven children with five brothers and so that was a big part of our family growing up. I had really good mentors who made sure that I graduated and that I was successful here at UIC. They walked alongside me and they were passionate about children in Chicago getting an education. They had this work ethic that reminded me of my parents. The faculty and the staff worked very hard and they cared about the students here.

I would like to continue to build a climate where students have really strong mentors and people who are willing to be honest with them and help direct their paths. UIC directed my path. I thought I was going to be a third-grade teacher for my entire career and it was taking the initiative to go to a conference to say thank you to a UIC professor for being my teacher and him leading me back to UIC, where I earned my master’s degree and eventually my Ph.D.

What role did education play for you?

It helped me a great deal. I think for me it was a way of thinking, solving problems and a way to help me with decision making. What I would attribute to UIC more than anyplace else was how it teaches you to interact with other people who differ from yourself and how to interact with people who have had completely different life experiences, have different expertise and have different cultural values. UIC provides learning experiences to engage in conversations with people of diverse backgrounds and informs how to approach those conversations. If you start to interact with people in ways where you’re viewing the interaction as a learning experience and opportunity for yourself to be educated, you view that person in a completely different way and you’re learning.

Why is UIC important to Chicago, and why is Chicago important to UIC?

The people of Chicago are passionate about this city and want to be part of a collective community. They are proud that their family’s roots are planted in Chicago or they are excited about possibilities when they move here. The greater community wants every aspect of life in Chicago to thrive. Achieving that pursuit requires interdependence, commitment, strategy and leadership. With interdependence, you think about what each person and institution can contribute to that pursuit. I’m proud that I work at UIC and especially in the College of Education, where colleagues pursue truth and shine a light on the challenges faced by people who live in Chicago, such as poverty, racism and violence. I’m proud that my colleagues are working to address the most important issues facing urban cities through critical-engaged scholarship and justice work.

Each Chicago neighborhood is unique and has its own identity, culture and attitude. At one point in my career, I wasn’t living in Illinois and a colleague described me as a person who was thoughtful and caring, but they also said, “Watch out, because her Chicago can come out.” Chicagoans are strong, tenacious, and curious, and so is UIC.

I think that the pandemic has changed the world in many respects, and I still think there’s a narrative about when this is done, are we just going to go back to normal? My response to this is that we can’t and we shouldn’t. Besides, what is normal anyway? You think about the fact that over history, different generations have faced many different major issues. Some experienced war, some the Great Depression and we have faced the pandemic. The question is, how do we think about everything that has been brought to light with the pandemic around education? I think there has been a new awakening around the country with some of these issues that for some reason were not prevalent in the minds of a lot of people. So, if the goal is to go back and forget all of that, that would be horrible. Let’s start working on finally doing what we need to do to address these issues that have always been here. Now more people have an awareness that they exist, and now let’s work to eliminate them.

In the past, we underutilized technology, and the pandemic brought to light how we can use technology to teach, learn and meet. So, now we have to think about how to educate people with technology in a non-pandemic world. How do we think about eliminating racism, whether it’s online or whether it’s in person, and how do you address it in the systems in which we work, our policies and our practices? If we don’t, our communities are not going to thrive and are not going to continue to improve. As we continue to engage in the conversations through the pandemic and after the pandemic, we need to be mindful that each person has experienced it in a different way. Children and their families have experienced it in different ways.

What is your goal as the new dean of the College of Education, and what would you like to accomplish?

I think that when you are talking about mission, vision and values as a dean, it’s critical you develop those together with your partners: that’s your faculty, your staff, your students and your community partners. It’s not about my vision. It’s about asking ourselves about what we want to accomplish here and what we want to be known for and where do we want to go. I’ve initiated those conversations and I’m conducting listening hours every week where different people come to the sessions.

Among my goals would be to secure resources so that the faculty, staff and students could be successful here, both now and in the future. There are a lot of people working here who have incredible ideas and are working hard to write grants and are working with community partners and families and are very passionate about their work. I want to create a system here where they can be successful and bring in funding that’s really going to enhance our communities, our research efforts and our students.

I want to create an infrastructure that provides support for our students and our alumni as they become teachers, researchers and leaders. I’d like us to think about how we can ensure the success of every student and how we make sure they have the academic, financial and mentoring support and then get them connected in professional networks and an alumni base that supports them. As dean, I also hope to strengthen partnerships in the city with school systems, nonprofits, government and higher education.

What is one thing most people don’t know about you?

I started teaching children and adults at the age of 14. I started working at the age of 5 and until the age of 14, I was a papergirl, so I delivered the Chicago Daily News, Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times. I started playing tennis at 11 when my father brought home a green tennis racket from Kmart and began coaching me. Then when I was 14, I was approached by a woman who had seen me playing tennis and asked if I would be willing to teach tennis lessons for parks and recs. I taught six lessons a day every day for the summer. I did that throughout my summers during high school. Then I started a tutoring business when I was 17. I’ve been really fortunate to have people come alongside me and say, “I think you’d be really good at this.” They saw talent in me that I didn’t see in myself and then they helped me be successful. Never underestimate the talent and potential of children and youth. We can learn from them.