When Dr. Valerie Kinloch became the Renée and Richard Goldman Dean of the University of Pittsburgh School of Education PA in July 2017, she made history as the first African‐American woman dean at the university. Having grown up in the segregated South, her mission has long been to change the narrative around education by engaging communities and transforming urban education.
“I grew up in a black family who did not always have access to opportunity that I believe should be afforded to everyone,” says Kinloch. “Having the experiences I have allows me to think deeply about those people who don't have access to higher education.”
She is motivated to make better educational experiences for all students. During Black History Month, she entertained a group of toddlers at an event at the university's Community Engagement Center. She kept the kids and grown‐ups enthralled as she read from the book Don't Touch My Hair! by Sharee Miller.
“It's important to think differently about our academic programs by having them in community spaces,” says Kinloch.
In February, Kinloch was named a 2019 American Educational Research Association fellow in recognition for her outstanding contributions to education research.
Kinloch grew up in Charleston, South Carolina. Her mother had dreamed of becoming a math teacher but could not turn her dream into reality. Her father hated school because it did not provide him the opportunity to be himself. Kinloch says she was surrounded by people who should have had access to higher education but did not.
Access became her mission. She earned her bachelor's degree at Johnson C. Smith University NC. At Wayne State University MI, she earned a master's in English and African‐American literature and a doctorate in English and composition studies with a cognate in urban studies.
Prior to the deanship at Pittsburgh, Kinloch was a faculty member at Ohio State University from 2007–17, leading efforts to build sustainable models of diversity, equity, inclusion and engagement for the College of Education and Human Ecology. She also served as the college's chief diversity officer and director of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion from 2014–16. During that time, she worked to increase enrollment of underrepresented students.
The position at Pittsburgh seemed a natural fit because she saw a school of education attempting to do impactful work encompassing teacher education, health and wellness, child development, urban education and rural education.
“For me, it's about how do people learn in schools and communities and what is our responsibility as a school of education to be a part of and to lead some of those conversations,” Kinloch says. “This position allows me to do that work on a different scale and have a better impact for different types of people who are not usually at the table.”
Her vision as dean is to think about the type of educational systems people want but don't yet have, and then figure out how to achieve them. Also, she wants to ignite learning with and for everyone. Thinking about educational equity is an imperative. At the heart of it is building deeply rooted community engagement initiatives.
“My vision is to work with colleagues to energize people to think about education expansively here in the city of Pittsburgh, across the region and hopefully across the world,” says Kinloch.
As she engages with communities and develops plans for the School of Education, Kinloch thinks about how teacher education candidates can be better‐trained. She says that training needs to be done with a commitment to equity and justice in education and include anti‐racist practices. The work must be embedded in a discourse of love, care and heart, and teachers must have genuine commitment to improving the learning and living conditions of traditionally underserved people.
“When we prepare teachers, we're ultimately preparing people to enter into other people's communities to work with other people's kids and we need to work with those kids as if those kids are our own,” Kinloch says. “If we don't understand the fundamental principles of justice and equity in education, then I'm not sure we are preparing teachers to do the type of humanizing teaching and learning with kids that we need to do.
“If we are not involving community organizations, nonprofit organizations, families, kids and school districts, then we're really not talking about critical teacher education,” she adds. “If we are serious about entering into communities, we have to be invited, we have to understand communities and then we have to create some kind of reciprocal relationship.”
“In our School of Education, we are reimagining teacher education,” says Kinloch. “We have formed an ad hoc committee to really look at different models from other universities and think about what they do and how we need to do something differently to have a bigger impact.”
The work ranges from the basics of curricula to examination of where teachers are being placed. There is examination of the preparation these teachers receive to be equipped to teach in the schools in which they are placed.
“What I seek to do is to revolutionize teaching and teacher education in this country to understand that we cannot have teacher education programs that are not a partnership with our communities, our school districts and, hence, with kids, young people and families,” Kinloch says. “We will never be effective if we are only thinking about meeting certain standards.
“The standards tell one story, but they do not tell the whole story about how people learn and process information,” she adds. “I think in the next year or so we're going to have a model by which to do this work through a more transformative and humanizing lens for teaching and teacher education.”