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Change agent

August 3, 2010


Karen Seashore.

Karen Seashore was one of the first people who began looking at teachers' work as something beyond just a set of teaching skills and knowledge about the curriculum. "Professional learning communities" are now part of the education vocabulary.

Photo: Patrick O'Leary

Karen Seashore is a leading scholar in school improvement and school leadership

By Rick Moore

When Karen Seashore began college, she was planning on becoming a historian. Then she discovered she was allergic to dust.

“Literally, I changed fields when I found out as an undergraduate that I couldn’t spend a long time in the stacks,” Seashore says, flashing a trademark easy smile.

History’s loss has been an epic gain for the field of organizational sociology—and for the University of Minnesota. Seashore, a professor in the Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development in the College of Education and Human Development (CEHD), has become “the most important methodologist in the field of school improvement that we have seen in the last quarter century,” according to one colleague.

Her work has also earned her the title of Regents Professor, the highest faculty rank at the University.

Change as a good thing

A lion’s share of what Seashore does is focused around one overarching question: “How do people who are working in whatever settings they’re working in generate ideas, use information, and get information to improve or change what they’re doing?”

Specifically, she studies the K-12 and higher education learning environments, and is interested in discovering the conditions under which teachers and faculty members “become highly productive.”

“I was one of the first people who started writing about and talking about teachers’ work as something other than a set of skills and a set of knowledge about the curriculum,” she says.  The concept that teachers work in a professional community in their schools—and that its effectiveness leads to teacher dedication and student achievement—has become a staple in the vocabulary of schools, regardless of whether they know who’s responsible for it.

“There’s not a school in Minnesota that is not busy working on developing professional learning communities,” Seashore says. “It’s part of the common language now.”

Before the dust settles

Seashore came to Minnesota in the late 1980s “kicking and screaming” because she loved her life, at the time, in Massachusetts. Two-plus decades later, she’s a happy Midwesterner, grateful for all the opportunities the U affords her.

“The University of Minnesota is the only organization I’ve worked for where I actually can say I really love the institution,” she says.

In particular, she appreciates that the U has catered to her self-proclaimed short attention span. “I like to redefine what my job is every couple of years, and I’ve been able to do that here … without actually changing my position,” she notes. “How many places can you go where you get to do that?”

She’s finishing up her first year as the director of undergraduate studies for CEHD, a role she never would have imagined for herself 35 years ago.

“The idea of being able to create something really wonderful for students within this huge institution is just … It’s giving me goose bumps,” she says. “And it’s a lot of fun.” She also relishes her work with doctoral students; she’s advised 54 of them to date.

Then there’s the notion that she’s working for a public university “with that strong sense of engagement with [the] public interest,” she says. “It appeals to the piece of me that cares about whether or not my research is out there, at least being thought about by people in the real world.”

This article originally appeared in 2010.

Tags: College of Education and Human Development

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