Edward Knaggs graduated from the upstart Roosevelt University in 1945, in the first months of the school’s existence. Decades later, when his daughter Kathleen Miller became an adjunct professor in the instructional leadership program, he was one of the first to congratulate her.
“My dad was the one who told me, this is right up your alley, you’re going to love teaching at the University,” said Miller.
Knaggs’ philosophy — to help others to be the best they can be — has left an indelible imprint on Miller’s teaching. Today she thinks of herself as an excavator, helping people understand the talents they already have, bring them out and apply them.
“The impossible dream” and YMCA College
Miller says that her father “lived the impossible dream.” While Knaggs was growing up in the Great Depression, his parents lost their house and moved the family into an apartment. His father, who had to take a series of different jobs to support his family, told him to find something he was passionate about and stick with it.
Knaggs’ father died on New Year’s Day in 1942 as his eldest son embarked for service in the Air Force. Then Knaggs went to work. He delivered 500 newspapers a day, hung flyers on doorknobs, washed walls and worked in the stockyards, studying the alkaline levels in carcasses to turn them into glue. On the streetcars, people would move away from him because of the terrible stockyard stench.
“Finally, he decided he needed to get out of there,” said Miller. “And he started at the Central YMCA College.”
Knaggs took classes at the Central Y while he worked full time, experimenting at his job with the chemistry processes he was studying. He admired his professors, whom he called the “entrepreneurs of chemistry in the city of Chicago.”
In the spring of 1945, the YMCA College students, faculty and staff walked out in protest of the school’s discriminatory policies. Knaggs graduated in the first class of students from the new Roosevelt College, which prized academic freedom and equal access to education.
After earning his degree from Roosevelt, Knaggs earned his master’s degree in chemistry at IIT and studied organizational management at the University of Chicago. He accrued 47 U.S. patents in chemistry and continued providing seminars and writing for chemistry journals, as well as the Encyclopedia of Chemistry, well into his nineties. He is known for the process of Continuous Film Sulfonation, a process still used today.
For Miller’s father, the idea of being the best you can be didn’t end with your own achievements. It depended on giving back to the community and catalyzing others to reach their own potential. And that’s what Miller aspires to in the classroom.
“I always knew I was going to be a teacher,” Miller said. “It was bred in me, I think.”
Bringing people together
The Master of Arts in Instructional Leadership (ILED) prepares licensed teachers to become effective, democratic teacher leaders in diverse school environments. The program emphasizes practical assignments and projects that fit with the student’s goals in their own school districts.
This summer, Miller taught a course on developing innovative curricula for elementary and secondary school students. Her class created a roadmap for supportive cultures that welcome the students who are often marginalized in public schools.
Miller aims to push her students beyond a “traditional” perspective on education, where the teacher stands up and lectures, then the student takes a test. Beyond imparting knowledge, she says, teachers need to help their students self-actualize, to realize they can achieve anything they dream. It begins with challenging their own mindsets.
At the start of each course, Miller’s students take a survey to clarify what they want to learn from the class and become more laser-focused on the impact they want to make as administrators. She gives each student her personal cell number and sets up a time to chat informally. During remote learning, feedback became more personalized because students could dialogue to attain clarity about their projects.
This became crucial this summer, as teachers dealt with worries about the pandemic and their students during this time of crisis.
“We have to really build that incubator in our classes where people feel safe to think differently, challenge old patterns of thinking, and feel like they belong,” said Miller. “We create the trust.”
New solutions to old problems
Miller encourages future principals to seek out the strengths of their teachers.
“It’s so important to get faculty buy-in and tap into their skill sets where they are the strongest,” she said. “The teachers need to see themselves through the lens of leadership.”
Through hands-on projects, her class invites teachers to think outside the box and look for new evidence-based strategies to solve old problems in learning. By changing teaching practices, we open the door to equity and student growth.
Miller’s class shares their projects with each other, creating a community of leaders who can learn from each other.
“Students get inspired to see what their colleagues are doing, and how they could apply new teaching practices to deepen learning in their own classroom,” she said.
At the high school where one of Miller’s graduate students worked, some teachers wrote off certain students as lost causes, incapable of learning. Through the Roosevelt class, the teacher leader sought ways to change that culture. Instead of mandating equity training, Miller’s student gave all the school’s teachers a homework assignment: ask students to show how they applied their math learning through a creative technology platform, instead of just on pencil and paper.
The results, she said, were eye-opening for the school.
“It changed teachers’ awareness of students’ incredible potential and what students are capable of, when we provide them the opportunity of choice and creativity to apply their new knowledge,” Miller said. “Once we provide student agency, we’re going to see the world differently.”
Edward Knaggs passed away during the summer of 2020. His dedication to bettering the community around him continues in Miller’s classroom, as well as her students' classrooms.
“My father said, no matter what, you have to work as hard as you can so that you can be the best you can,” Miller said. “But whatever you do in life, you have to give back.”
For more stories from Roosevelt’s 75 years of history, visit www.rooseveltu75years.com.