SOE News

Fitzgerald retiring after long career of leadership

Photo of Jill Fitzgerald

Jill Fitzgerald

When Jill Fitzgerald sought a reset for her career, she went back to school – all the way back to first grade.

In 1996, after teaching at the School of Education for 17 years and establishing herself as a beloved teacher and as a leading researcher on literacy issues, Fitzgerald wanted to try practicing her preaching.

She took a break from duties at UNC-Chapel Hill and taught first-graders at a school in a neighboring county.

“Bringing to bear what you know from practice, especially with undergraduates, is really critical,” said Fitzgerald, who taught in elementary schools during the first seven years of her career.

The year in first grade helped Fitzgerald recalibrate the way she taught her School of Education students, putting more emphasis on learning to teach through the spontaneous moments that happen in classrooms.

The experience proved so valuable that she regularly took her UNC students into local classrooms where she would teach elementary school students in front of them and beside them, then discuss the things that happened in the classroom.

It’s that kind of innovation, and devotion to the craft of teaching, that marked Fitzgerald’s 32-year career at the School of Education.

Fitzgerald is retiring from UNC-Chapel Hill to assume a position as distinguished research scientist at MetaMetrics, a psychometric research organization based in Durham. She will be involved in research on reading and writing as well as literacy for second-language learners.

“I’m very excited,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s a new chapter and an opportunity to join a group of investigators who have special interests in helping students to be better readers and writers.”

Fitzgerald has been a leading researcher in emergent, early school and bilingual literacy for more than 25 years, publishing many scholarly articles in leading literacy journals, books and book chapters.

It’s work for which she has received many honors and awards.

In May at the International Reading Association annual conference she was inducted into the Reading Hall of Fame, an honor that recognizes researchers who have made extraordinary contributions to theory and research in the study of literacy. 

In 1998, she received the American Educational Research Association’s Outstanding Review of Research Award and, with colleague George Noblit, she received the 2000 International Reading Association’s Dina Feitelson Award for Research.

Fitzgerald has also served her field of study, contributed service to various federal groups as a review panelist and presenter for bilingual and English-language learners' literacy issues, including the Office of Education's Office of Bilingual and Language Minorities Affairs and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Dixie Spiegel, who retired from the School of Education in 2005 as a professor of literacy, called Fitzgerald a “Renaissance woman” because she is an excellent teacher, a top-flight researcher and a devoted community member.

“Everything she writes becomes an instant classic,” Spiegel said. “She’s not afraid to tackle difficult areas of research, such as English language learners, and she conducts both quantitative and qualitative research, which has made her an excellent doctoral advisor and mentor to young faculty.

“She has high, high standards, with high, high results in the quality of her own research and that of her doctoral students,” Spiegel said.

Fitzgerald recalled that when she completed her Ph.D., she was attracted to join the School of Education in 1979 largely because Spiegel and Jim Cunningham, who retired as a professor of literacy in 2003, were here.

“I knew how much they valued teaching, and I wanted a place where both the teaching and the research would be valued,” Fitzgerald said. “You couldn’t really say that at every Research 1 institution in the country at the time. Teaching then was not valued as much as it is today.”

Fitzgerald, Spiegel and Cunningham went on to form a collaboration that was envied by peers across the country, Spiegel said.

“Jill, Jim Cunningham and I had over 25 years of wonderful comradeship as the three literacy faculty,” Spiegel said. “We got along so well. We genuinely were friends. We respected each other and each other's work. Folks at other universities were jealous that the three of us had such a wonderful relationship.”

Fitzgerald is not only an excellent teacher and researcher, Spiegel said, but also a devoted member of the School of Education and UNC-Chapel Hill community.

“She always volunteered to do more than her share in the School of Education,” Speigel said. “She was reliable, followed through on her commitments and on time, and was supportive to other faculty.”

Fitzgerald’s managerial abilities led her to be asked to serve in leadership positions within the School, serving as senior associate dean and chief academic officer, director of graduate studies for the School, and as interim dean.

Fitzgerald said her work as interim dean gave her insights that she never would have achieved otherwise.

“It gave me a greater sense of the importance of external relationships—how the School is situated in relation to people’s perceptions across campus, and how the School is situated in the state perspective,” she said.

Fitzgerald said some of the most gratifying work she has done at the School was her work with students – undergraduate, master’s and doctoral students.

“I really enjoyed working with all of them,” she said. “I learned so much through that work.”

“The undergraduates are so enthusiastic about the newness of teaching, researching and writing. They want to absorb everything. I also love mentoring doctoral students,” she said, adding that she will continue to advise two doctoral students and one master’s student.

She said she was not surprised that she spent her entire higher education career at one institution.

“I remember a mentor in my doctoral program saying this was a good fit for me,” she said. “He was right. It was a good fit for me from the get-go.

“I’m going to miss the students, staff, and colleagues in the School of Education,” she said. “UNC is a great institution, and it’s been an honor and a privilege to be on the faculty.”