Written by Whitney Heins
Many children want to be an astronaut when they grow up. Or a professional basketball player. Or a famous singer.
Not Ellen McIntyre. Growing up in Northern Kentucky in a working-class family with nine children, McIntyre dreamed of being a teacher. Never anything else.
“There was no question. That’s what I wanted to do,” said McIntyre, who went from childhood days, setting up her chalkboard to teach imaginary students to teaching real ones in a classroom.
Thus, many may be surprised to find McIntyre as the new dean of UT’s College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences. But to McIntyre, it’s no surprise at all. It’s the perfect fit because, like teaching, her role as dean holds the promise to make a huge impact on those in the university’s classrooms and beyond.
“I was always the kind of kid who wanted to stand up for those not being treated well. I was that sort of teacher and I still think in those terms. I want my work to help support all kids, especially the most vulnerable,” she said.
Teaching the teachers
McIntyre’s path to UT began at Northern Kentucky University, where she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in elementary and reading education, setting her up to be an effective teacher in the urban Newport, Kentucky, school system. After a few years as an elementary school teacher, McIntyre furthered her education at the University of Cincinnati, obtaining a doctoral degree and fully intending to return to the work she loved so much—teaching.
But the lure of research, specifically that in early literacy, snagged her attention. McIntyre loved how her work could have a ripple effect on the efficacy of how teachers teach. She was offered a faculty position at the University of Louisville, a place she was drawn to in part because of the ability to make an impact on students in the urban school system.
At Louisville, McIntyre was honored as a University Scholar and met Bill, her future husband. Bill was born and raised in Knoxville, bled orange through and through, and gave McIntyre her first taste of Big Orange Country.
“We went to a few games, and I started rooting for the Vols unless they were playing Louisville,” said McIntyre.
After 17 years at the University of Louisville, McIntyre was recruited to North Carolina State University to become the inaugural department chair of elementary education. To McIntyre, the potential impact her work could make at a large research institution was just too good to pass up.
“They had a wonderful STEM-focused teacher preparation program, and I became enamored by it,” she recalled. McIntyre won a $3 million National Science Foundation research grant to evaluate the STEM-focused teacher prep program.
Her success there prepared her to apply for a position as dean of the Cato College of Education at UNC Charlotte. Once again, McIntyre saw the potential impact she could have at the university and in the city of Charlotte. She accepted the position and began making her mark as a leader on campus and in the community. McIntyre helped revamp the institution’s teacher preparation program, launch a new doctoral program in education measurement and evaluation, and start a summer reading camp for those who were struggling, among other accomplishments.
“It was really an exciting time. I thought I would stay in Charlotte the rest of my life,” she said. “I would hear from search firms about other deanships, but I wasn’t ever interested.”
The phone call that changed everything
But then one day McIntyre got a call about a position opening up at the University of Tennessee. She took notice. UT checked all the boxes for what she dreamed of: a big research institution in an urban setting and a place that she and her husband already loved.
McIntyre took the information home, and over dinner, she and her husband had a conversation they never expected to have.
“I was happy. My husband was happy. But we decided we wanted to make one last big move. We wanted to come here to Knoxville, live here, work here, and be part of the Volunteer community,” she shared.
The days following that decision, McIntyre began delving deep into the work the college does and became increasingly more excited. She started imagining the potential at a place with incredibly talented faculty, promising students, and influential projects, all positioned within an urban setting.
“It is a more interesting place than any other place I have been because of the integration of health, education, and workforce development,” said McIntyre. “This combination puts the college in the position to do really amazing things.”
When she began meeting with people at UT, she quickly recognized how the leaders care deeply about helping students graduate and make a difference in their lives by getting a degree.
“I could easily see that those at UT really live the mission of being a land-grant university and are really working to improve the lives of those in Tennessee,” said McIntyre.
Doubling down on doing good
The new dean intends to enhance all that the college is already doing well. She wants to ensure it continues to have a direct impact on bettering lives through its work in the local school systems. She wants to continue preparing the best teachers ready to teach those who need it most. She already has ideas for increasing integration into the community that folds in the various areas of expertise of the college. McIntyre also hopes to make strategic moves to better position the college to be awarded more research funding.
And perhaps most importantly, she wants to make certain that when the college’s students graduate from UT, they wear their orange proudly and go out into the world with a mission to make a positive impact—just as she has.
Getting to Know Dean McIntyre
What do you miss about teaching?
I miss the coaching part of teaching—helping students practice and perform—to get better at what they do. As a former swimmer, I see teaching a lot like coaching and have always applied similar principles.
Favorite vacation spot?
The Smokies. We hike all the time and have enjoyed the Smokies from Kentucky and North Carolina for decades. Now they are in our backyard.
Favorite spots on campus so far?
I love walking around. It’s a beautiful campus. I love the Pat Summitt statue, the Torchbearer, the skybox in Neyland, and the Student Union. And my office is pretty great, too, mainly because of the people.