Excellence in Teaching: Catherine Main

Each year, UIC honors some of its most dedicated and outstanding teachers with the Award for Excellence in Teaching. The winners, who receive a $5,000 salary increase, are selected by past recipients of the award from nominations made by departments and colleges.

Catherine Main Senior Lecturer and Coordinator of Early Childhood Programs
Catherine Main, senior lecturer in educational psychology and coordinator of early childhood programs in the College of Education. Photo: Laura Hayes

Years at UIC: 26

What does it mean to win an Excellence in Teaching Award?
It is an incredible honor. In the College of Education, I work among an amazing group of faculty — all of whom are excellent teachers. When Dean Tatum notified me that my application was the one the College had selected to advance, he described the pool of applicants in the College as extremely competitive. I know my colleagues and their work, so I knew this was true. It was also a particular honor to have my area of expertise, early childhood education, recognized within the university. Across many institutions, early childhood education programs tend to be very small and lack the prestige and support they need and deserve. It’s very important to me that UIC recognizes the importance of early childhood education, particularly preparing teachers to work with young children and their families and supporting our incumbent ECE workforce in our most underserved communities.    

What do you teach?
I mostly teach the culminating courses in the early childhood education teacher preparation programs.  These courses involved significant clinical work in schools and community-based settings that serve young children and their families. I’ve also taught our courses on Collaborating with families, communities and other staff. 

Much of my teaching over that past several years has focused on program development within the early childhood space. I believe exemplary teaching depends heavily upon thoughtful and responsive program development. The program philosophy, types of courses, sequencing of courses, student supports all contribute to the overall student experience.  The UIC M.Ed program in Early Childhood Education has evolved over the years to reflect scholarly advances about cultural and contextual nature of children’s learning but also in response to the needs of Chicagoland community.  The program was the first in the state of Illinois to prepare teachers to work with all young children regardless of ability and is today still one of very few that offer blended curriculum in early childhood and early childhood special education. My program colleagues and I described this program evolution on chapter entitled Fairness in Preschool published in 2009 book, Participatory Learning in the Early Years.:  Research and Pedagogy.   

More recently, my program development has focused on supporting parents and teachers of and from the community gain access and opportunity to early childhood teacher preparation program.  Some of the initiatives I have been involved in are described in the publication, Patching the Pathway and Widening the Pipeline:  Models for Developing a Diverse Early Childhood Workforce in Chicago.

Since 2007, I have brought in over $3 million in funding for program development in ECE and scholarship funding in Early Childhood Education.  I was recently awarded a $3.8 million-dollar grant from the U.S. Department of Education to enhance my Early Childhood Alternative Licensure program and study the impact of the program on participants (see research interests below). 

How do you engage students in your courses?
Key theoretical underpinnings of the ECE programs come directly from Piaget and Vygotsky, who both emphasize the significance of the individual’s construction of knowledge. A colleague, in describing my teaching, wrote: “Cathy’s exemplary teaching always involved presenting early education and developmental theory and research in a manner that was relevant to preservice teachers’ own childhood experiences and she always presented the highly abstract theoretical writing in a language that was comprehensible to the students.” My students echo this sentiment in their course evaluations and comments. For example, one student writes “The expert knowledge of the professor was most beneficial in this course. She is able to take any scenarios in our teaching, in any context, and help us process the significance of those experience.” I not only “teach” these theories to my students as framework for teaching young children, I practice and model it with my students. Supporting young children or graduate students in constructing new understandings is a collaborative process that begins by building safe relationships based on mutual respect.  I begin building these relationships with my students the moment they reach out to me and inquire about the program and maintain these relationships through my advising and my teaching. In my advising and mentoring, I follow the principles of reflective supervision from the infant mental health literature. These principles recognize the complexity and emotional toll of working directly with and on behalf of very young children. The foundational structures of reflective supervision are reflection, collaboration, and regularity. My focus is on building relationships and providing a safe environment for mutual active listening and thoughtful questioning. My students come to me with a range of strengths and experiences. I focus on building on those strengths and design a set of experiences that best match student strengths, needs, and interests. Review of my student evaluations and letters from students over the years has indicated to me the value and impact of my advising and support.  One student writes “Through Cathy’s diligence in supporting us to feel both safe and confident as teachers in every way, myself and many others have been able to go above and beyond both in our own learning and our teaching.”

The same principles permeate my teaching as I always begin each class with check in on student experiences while working with young children.  It is from these real problems of practice that we often co-construct the curriculum. Through my example, I continually model for students the importance of making the content relevant and meaningful. Another key feature of my teaching is my feedback, which I carefully individualize for each student. I provide written feedback not only on their course assignments but also on my observations of their practice teaching.  My feedback is sometimes evaluative, but always formative. One student writes, “Her teaching is much like that of a mentorship, catered to each student’s experience.”

What do you enjoy most about teaching at UIC?
The students. The UIC students in the early childhood program reflect a wide range of backgrounds and expertise. Many of my students, particularly those in the alternative routes, are of and from the communities they serve. This means they know their families well, they speak the language in the community and they knew about the community resources. Many have more than 10 years of experiences working with young children and their families and I often learn as much from them as they may learn from us. They also have tremendous commitment to working with young children and their families and many have persevered to earn first associates degrees and then bachelor’s degrees at multiple institutions, sometimes taking decades of years. At UIC, I’ve been able to reframe this as student strengths and recognize the funds of knowledge they possess and ultimately offer access and opportunity to degree and teacher licensure to a group that is often excluded. Today, 95% of the students in the UIC Early Childhood Education Alternative Licensure program are women of color. All of them are currently working in underserved communities to support young children and families.   

What are your research interests? 
My research focuses on supporting and strengthening a highly qualified, diverse early childhood workforce. My program development and teaching has lead me to this interest as well as the discouraging facts about the existing ECE workforce. For instance, nearly half of all early childhood educators working in child care earn salaries that qualify them for public benefits, turnover rates in child care centers are above 40%, the younger the child the lower the compensation, Illinois qualifications for ECE educators vary based on funding source and setting creating uneven experiences for young children, and the rich diversity in the workforce is mostly in lower level positions such as teacher assistant — lead, licensed ECE teachers in Illinois are nearly 90% white. I believe these are problems we can fix. Following a three-year project where I co-lead an Illinois team to review the national recommendations from the Institute of Medicine report on Transforming the ECE workforce we published an Illinois report Transforming the Early Childhood Workforce:  A Call to Action for the State of Illinois (2018).  This report makes recommendations and outlines some solutions. 

More recently, we were awarded $3.8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to enhance my Early Childhood Alternative Licensure program and study the impact of the program on participants in the program and the centers where they work. Through this award we plan to further enhance the UIC program through additional instruction in critical content areas (socio-emotional learning, inclusion and STEM) and expanding mentoring through UIC coaches that support quality classroom instruction, sustainable data -informed professional learning, and administrators to sustain professional development beyond the grant period. Through a robust embedded research design will rigorously evaluated and continuously improved the program. Program impact findings and lessons learned will be disseminated via multiple ECE stakeholders to inform sustainability and scalability to increase and support a high-quality, diverse ECE workforce.

What is your advice to students considering a teaching career?
First, I would congratulate them on choosing a career that has more potential for impact than any other career they may choose. The foundation for lifelong learning is laid during the first years of a child’s life — from birth to age 5. Ninety percent of a child’s brain growth occurs before Kindergarten. Early childhood educators bear a huge responsibility in supporting early development and learning and ultimately a child’s academic, social and even economic and health trajectory. My advice is to come to UIC, we have a program for you!

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