Q&A with Dr. Michael Hillis

Michael Hillis is the dean of the Graduate School of Education at California Lutheran University, a private, liberal-arts university located in Southern California. In its 25-year history, the Graduate School has prepared more than 8,000 professionals in K-12 and higher education, and currently offers 10 graduate programs through the departments of Learning and Teaching, Counselor Education, and Educational Leadership.

What was your first role working in education?

I was actually kind of a reluctant teacher-education student. But I ended up having the most amazing student-teaching experience, where I discovered that I actually loved the art and practice of teaching. I loved being in front of students; I loved the relationship-building piece of that.

After college, I ended up working as a substitute teacher at an alternative high school for a couple of years. I was probably there four out of the five days every week and absolutely fell in love with alternative education. Since I was a bit alternative during high school, I had a soft spot for what these students were going through. I just felt like these kids were not without purpose and not without promise. Getting an adult around them who believed in them was so significant.

How do those experiences inform your work today?

There’s lots of talk these days about increasing academic standards for teachers, which I’m supportive of. But I also know that there’s a lot of people out there who may have struggled but may also have some deeper insight into education because of those struggles. We get incredibly successful students into our programs, and I think that’s wonderful and I wouldn’t minimize that at all. But that also can impact the way that those teacher-candidates (and future teachers) see the struggling students and whether they’re going to give them the needed grace in the midst of their education.

At my previous institution, I had a student who had dropped out of high school, got his GED, and ended up going to community college and doing really well. He came into our program and was one of the very few male students in the elementary program. He was one of the most brilliant students I’ve ever had. At the end of the program, he wrote me a note that he would have never finished this program if I hadn’t shown up. Ultimately, he never did go into the traditional schools; he’s made a full career of working in homes and institutions for at-risk youth.

What is one pivotal moment in your career in educator preparation that left a positive impact on you or others?

Back around 2001, I had a dean who was very interested in establishing an alternative route to education. A colleague and I spent six months designing it, and by the end of the program’s third year, there were about 65-70 students going through it each year. It was tapping into a population our university had never tapped into before, primarily career changers, people who had gone down multiple different paths. We had people from a range of ages and I think our oldest student during those years was 66, which was amazing.

Education is such a difficult profession in so many ways, and tapping into some of the older folks who have already been down certain roads in their lives, who are making a very conscious choice toward education, shows tremendous progress. I’m constantly thinking about that as I work as a dean, because I want us to reach out to people who potentially see a career in education as an opportunity to give back to their communities.

Why did you decide to join Deans for Impact?

One of my overriding questions has been whether the compliance standards to which education programs are being held are really producing better teachers. And that’s a question Deans for Impact is trying to answer. The Impact Academy was probably the best professional development I’ve had since my doctorate as it helped me develop a different set of lenses by which to view both teacher education and my role as a dean and educational leader.

Until people become deans, I don’t think you realize the isolation that occurs. The people whom you’re working with only know fragments of what you’re actually attempting to do. So to have another group of people with whom I can share those ideas and frustrations and hopes is really important. For example, at the Impact Academy Cohort 1 reunion, I was talking to another fellow, and we started talking about the levers we could use to try and move our faculty forward. He mentioned a couple of things I hadn’t really thought about before, so now I’m thinking through how I can use those ideas to facilitate faster change.

What most excites you about the opportunity to transform the field of educator preparation in the years ahead?

Collecting and using common data would be so helpful. Right now, we get these directives from the state, or from national accrediting bodies, with little guidance. The result is that we’re creating our own dispositional assessments, we’re creating our own classroom observation tools, and we’re not tapping into a body of knowledge that could make the work go quicker and actually give it a deeper predictive value.

It goes back to my original draw to Deans for Impact. We’re doing all this stuff, but I’m not sure that many people even have an idea of whether it’s predictive of whether a teacher will be effective. If we can get more and more schools that are collectively trying to work on this, I am very hopeful that we may actually simplify the system, as opposed to just adding more and more and more, which has been the traditional practice in education.


Michael Hillis

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