Five questions for Robert Pianta

Robert Pianta is the dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. The Curry School offers 21 areas of study, three undergraduate majors, four research centers, and 16 research labs, as well as partnerships with a number of other schools at U.Va. and a host of community programs. The Curry School was established in 1905 with a gift from John D. Rockefeller Sr., and today enrolls more than 1,500 students across its degree and non-degree programs.

What was your first role working in education?
I volunteered all throughout college at a nearby state facility for people with intellectual disabilities; it was an amazing personal and intellectual experience that sparked my interest in special education as an area of study and possible career. My very first job after college was as a special education teacher in a self-contained class of boys with emotional disturbances. I lasted three months and then took a job as a special education teacher in a middle school for the next three years. I loved it.

What is one pivotal moment in your career in educator preparation that left a positive impact on you or others?
During an individualized education program (IEP) meeting during my first year as a teacher, the team had presented results of assessments of a sixth grader in my class whose parents were deceased and was being raised by his uncle, who was  at the meeting. At some point, I mentioned that this boy was a terrific young person and that I thought some of his learning and emotional concerns may have had to do with coping with the loss of his parents. After the meeting, the uncle hugged me and thanked me for understanding his nephew. I realized relationships were important.

Why did you decide to join Deans for Impact?
I think schools of education have enormous potential for good, and right now, we just aren’t delivering on that promise as much as we need to. I think it’s important that we take responsibility for realizing that promise, rather than complaining or always reacting to what external forces are in play. I also think it’s a critical time for schools of education, and if we don’t get this right, we will see much bigger changes downstream that will greatly reduce our footprint in the sector.

What most excites you about the opportunity to transform the field of educator preparation in the years ahead?
It’s been my experience as a researcher and as a dean that we really can be far more intentional, systematic, and effective in preparing teachers. I think we are seeing just the beginning of what can be accomplished in terms of training teachers with the relevant skills and knowledge for success in the classroom, and then proving that solid and substantial training experiences for teacher candidates matter for student learning. I think there is real promise in applications of technology, and I think the policy environment has the potential to provide the right structures and incentives for promoting effectiveness.

What is one surprising thing that everyone should know about the program you lead?
I am struck by how smart and dedicated our people are. Our students are superb, and I respect their commitment to the profession when they can choose a lot of other things to do. And our faculty have shown a willingness to be creative and embrace a focus on impact. The surprising thing is not these qualities of the people here, but the very real and positive differences they make for society. I think sometimes it’s important to reflect on that.

Editor’s Note: This post is part of an ongoing series featuring Q&As with all the member deans of Deans for Impact.

Robert Pianta

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