Q&A with Dr. Tom Philion
Tom Philion is the dean of the College of Education at Chicago’s Roosevelt University, which was founded in 1945 with a mission of making higher education available to all students who qualify academically, regardless of their backgrounds. Roosevelt is the second most diverse college in Illinois, and about 45 percent of the university’s students are the first in their families to attend college. Dr. Philion was a fellow in the inaugural cohort of Deans for Impact’s Impact Academy.
What was your first role working in education?
After I finished undergrad, I went to the University of Michigan to get a master’s degree in English. While I was there, one professor helped me think about ways of tapping into my passion for literature and writing that might contribute more to society. That ultimately brought me back to New York City, where I had done my undergraduate work, and I ended up at a private Catholic middle school in the middle of the Bronx. It was a wonderful experience, very diverse, and I was surrounded by a community of really excellent teachers, most of whom had come to teaching for the same reasons I had: wanting to make an impact directly on the world by working with kids for whom education was a pathway to a better future.
How did you switch to higher education?
When I went back to get my doctoral degree — I did a joint program in English and education — I knew I was interested in the field of education, but wasn’t sure exactly what my next step would be. I could imagine going back into teaching; I could imagine becoming a professor.
But during my program, I was invited to participate in a project in Detroit where a group of Michigan researchers and graduate students were supporting the development of a new whole-language school. I spent two years in a classroom of fourth and fifth graders, working with students on improving their writing and with teachers on improving their teaching. At the same time, I was a teaching assistant in an English methods course for fledgling high school English teachers.
Those two experiences helped me realize: This is work I really like to do, and I can relate to it, from having gone into teaching naive and unprepared. This is somewhere I can make a difference.
How has your personal experience influenced your approach to teacher education?
I’m much more open to experiments in teacher preparation as a result of my own experiences. I didn’t have any teacher training, aside from being a teaching assistant at Michigan in two classes, but did have a broad understanding of literature from my undergraduate experience and my master’s degree in English. What I did basically anticipated, by about three years, Teach for America. That’s made me very open to the idea that learning in context — in what today are called teacher residencies — is very powerful and very valuable. I do get impatient with policies that I see as restricting opportunity for people who want to make a pivot like I did.
For example, in my state, if you decide to become an elementary teacher after getting your bachelor’s degree, you need to meet about nine to 13 course requirements on your undergraduate transcript — and if you don’t have a particular requirement, then you need to go back and take an undergraduate course in that area. I find that type of thinking very narrow.
What is one pivotal moment in your career in educator preparation that left a positive impact on you or others?
When I first came to Roosevelt, my dean asked me to teach a course on children’s literature. The course was on Wednesday nights in an elementary school on the South Side of Chicago. When I got there, there were about 50 teachers, all women, all from Chicago Public Schools, and — with maybe one or two exceptions — all African American. This cohort of teachers really hadn’t had that many opportunities to read literature written for children, certainly hadn’t read multi-cultural literature written for children, and very rarely — if ever — felt like they had had an opportunity to write their own stories, of who they were and what their experiences had been. I ended up having this awesome experience, because they were opening my eyes to a whole world of teaching and learning that I didn’t know that much about. These students were so hungry for knowledge and the opportunity to have their own voices heard.
I think of it as a pivotal moment, because I was at a point in my life where I wasn’t feeling very positive about my situation. But from that moment, the petty concerns started to evaporate, and I realized this is the work I wanted to do and was very fortunate to be able to do it.
Why did you decide to join Deans for Impact?
I feel like to a certain extent I’m in a little bubble here in my institution and in the city of Chicago, so this is a great opportunity for me to connect with people who are doing the same work that I’m doing across the country and to learn from what they’re doing.
The other part is that the people I’ve met in the organization have really reminded me that I got into all this because I love to learn. And because they’ve been supportive of my learning, it’s helped remind me that my main job as a dean is to create an environment here at my college where my faculty can learn — and feel like they’re part of something that’s larger than themselves.
What most excites you about the opportunity to transform the field of educator preparation in the years ahead?
The opportunity to make teacher preparation both simpler and better really excites me. Becoming a teacher is very bureaucratic; there are a lot of hoops to jump through. I would argue that we over complicate it, and I think the gates and the hoops that we put in front of people are not always really rigorous ones, or ones connected to effective teaching.
I’m excited that this could be a moment where we could work with each other, and with state bodies and other aligned organizations, to find ways of making the process of becoming a teacher both more appealing — because it is simpler — but also more effective, more rigorous.