Faculty: Dr. Matt Militello
As the Wells Fargo Distinguished Professor in Educational Leadership, Matt Militello has taught many degree-seeking students, but it took a question from one of his own professors to direct him down his current path.
“When I was at Michigan State pursuing my doctorate, I was a principal at the time and had the full intention of moving into central office or superintendency since that’s what I went back to school for. Halfway through my program, I had a professor walk up to me and say that he was really pleased with one of my assignments. He then asked, ‘Have you ever thought about being a professor?’ and walked away.”
“Those words changed my life because it was the first time I ever had to think about that. I started asking questions to some of my advisors. That one statement where somebody in a powerful position tapped me on the shoulder literally changed my life.”
The answer to that question was one that Militello took time to discover but had a bit of assistance in finding the answer.
“Dr. Maenette K.P. Ah Nee-Benham was a mentor of mine at Michigan State and is currently the chancellor of the University of Hawai‘i-West O’ahu. She chaired my dissertation, and she ended up being a lifelong friend and colleague,” said Militello. “She opened some doors for me and some opportunities. At that point I was (working) in a high school, and she said that if this is what you want to do, you’ll have to come here full time. She had a graduate assistant position available that worked with the Kellogg Foundation in communities across the country. She provided me with opportunities so that when the time came to go into the job market, I was ready.”
While he began his career teaching middle school students, Militello now instructs adult learners. Despite the wide difference in ages between the two groups, Militello has found some aspects of teaching remain the same.
“I think there’s a misnomer that teaching and learning are just one thing,” said Militello “That if you teach elementary school, it’s different than teaching middle school or high school. Teaching adults is different, there’s a whole science behind adult learning. That said, I tell my graduate studies students all the time that this isn’t all that different from when I taught kids. I still get the same kinds of questions from adult students that I did when I taught seventh graders. ‘Is this good enough? What do I have to do to get an A?’”
The change of working in a quieter college setting instead of the cacophony in the halls of a high school took a bit of adjusting for Militello, but his previous experience working in schools gave him what he believed to be a significant advantage over some of his peers.
Being in different schools and communities Militello can implement and apply the concept of community learning exchanges to each location. He and his students are able to develop processes that find the solution that works best for each specific group.
“The basic principles of a lot of my research are around this notion of community learning exchanges. A community could be a classroom, school, district or a broader region. Community learning exchanges to me have this set of axioms that you believe in and abide by whether you walk into a meeting, a class or community engagement. One of them is that the people closest to the issues are the people you need to have at the table to seek solutions. Too often we come in as experts and try to impose,” said Militello. “The second is focusing on hopes and assets. Instead of deficit thinking, there’s always great hope even amid dire circumstances and there’s always amazing assets with people in the context of place, we just need to amplify it.”
After arriving at ECU in 2014, Militello created an online doctoral program in educational leadership. The three-year program has a dissertation coach meet with students in their work setting annually as well as facilitating a summer learning exchange in Bangkok, Thailand. While the program was born at ECU, the building blocks were formed prior to his arrival in Greenville.
“I had the initial idea for this program while working at N.C. State,” said Militello. “The international school market is a worldwide market that drives students to the United States for college and a number of leaders in these schools are American-born. When I went to Asia to visit international schools, I found that there were a lot of universities over there that were offering master’s degrees. When talking to a professor, he mentioned that while they have a lot of master’s programs, no one has an online doctorate in education program. It took around a year for me to investigate what it would take to start a program. Once I was hired here, I pitched the idea to the provost at the time. He liked the idea and gave me seed money to start the first year. I paid him back within eight months and the program has grown ever since. We begin our fifth cohort in June.
“There are several reasons why we chose Bangkok,” said Militello. “First, there are over 80 international schools just in Bangkok alone. Southeast Asia has the highest concentration of international schools worldwide. It’s a beautiful city and culture. Economically it’s feasible for people to get there and stay for a reasonable amount of money.”
Militello has the honor of placing the traditional academic hood on each of his students at graduation, and it is the success of his students that brings him the greatest feeling of accomplishment.
“I have the greatest amount of pride, not in the research I do, books I write, or grants that I bring in, but in the students when they receive accolades. Maybe it’s a product of that professor who tapped me on the shoulder long ago or the mentors I had, but I want to be a good mentor for these educators who worked with me. I take great pride in hooding students. This year alone, of the most recent doctorate in education students that we graduated, five are principals of the year and two have won dissertation awards. The greatest gift a student can give a teacher is when you see them when they’re not looking and doing the work that they worked on with you. The students are what keep me going.”
Name: Dr. Matthew Militello
Title: Wells Fargo Distinguished Professor in Educational Leadership, ECU College of Education
Hometown: Menominee, Michigan
Colleges attended and degrees: University of Michigan, Bachelor in Secondary Education; Michigan State University, Master of Education; Michigan State University, Doctor of Educational Leadership
Years working at ECU: Nine
What I do at ECU: Teach. I’ve always introduced myself as a teacher. When I was a teacher, school principal, and now a professor, I have always introduced myself as a teacher.
What I love about ECU: ECU has a small feel for such a big university. ECU has provided me with the time, space, and support to be innovative. The college and university leadership are both accessible and supportive in bringing initiatives to bear. The thing I love most right now is being able to visit my son Gabe, a junior at ECU!
Research interests: My research focuses on the concept of Community Learning Exchanges for school leaders. My colleagues and I wrote about the power of place and the wisdom of people, where previously silenced or marginalized voices are amplified so that solutions are generated from the populations who seek educational improvements.
What do you like to do when not working? Coach. When I first became a teacher, I coached middle school football, basketball and track. That passion for coaching remains. I just finished coaching a 12-and-under football team to a 6-2 record!
Last thing I watched on TV: Live sports! Especially University of Michigan football.
First job: Boat hand. Worked summers on a competitive racing sailboat. Sailed on the Lake Michigan circuit, including the Chicago and Port Huron to Mackinac races.
Guilty pleasure: I love to cook and eat. When I travel, I like to find out of the way, epic food experiences, like fired suckling pig on a stick in Bangkok’s Chinatown!
Favorite meal: Menudo
One thing most people don’t know about me: I’m a rabid U2 fan. I’ve seen them play since the late 1980s across the U.S. and in Mexico City and Amsterdam. Most recently, I saw them play at the Sphere in Las Vegas.