Three Questions with New Dean Sara Helfrich

Meet the new UMKC School of Education, Social Work and Psychological Sciences leader

Sara Helfrich has joined the UMKC School of Education, Social Work and Psychological Sciences as inaugural dean.

Previously, Helfrich served as the interim dean of the Patton College of Education at Ohio University, where she oversaw four departments: Counseling and Higher Education; Recreation, Sport Pedagogy and Consumer Sciences; Educational Studies; and Teacher Education. In this role, she oversaw 125 faculty and staff at six campuses, serving nearly 2,000 undergraduate and graduate students. She received a Ph.D. in Instruction and Learning, Reading Education Cognate from the University of Pittsburgh.

Did you have teachers who inspired you?

I did, though not at the time. My third-grade teacher was terrifying. When I look back on it, it’s not how we would teach today, but she was a fantastic teacher of the whole person. She taught us to speak up for ourselves. The professor of my introductory education course my freshman year of college really challenged us to think about things that, at that time, were not talked about like they should have been and are today, like the gender assumptions we make about children, the toys we give them and how we expect them to play and act. She was very inspiring.

Why did you become a teacher?

From a young age, I just knew I wanted to be a teacher. I was drawn to it naturally. I liked working with people to help them learn and become better at something. My first teaching position was as a special education teacher. I loved the students, but I realized that I was unprepared to work with them because they all struggled with reading in different ways. As a second or third-year teacher, I didn’t know the best way to be helpful.

I decided to get my doctorate in literacy education. Pretty quickly I realized that I could have the most impact working with pre-service teachers. Teaching teachers meant that I wasn’t only helping the children in my classroom, but helping the children in all of my students’ classrooms.

What attracted you to UMKC initially?

When I was looking into the dean’s position, UMKC Forward was in process. I thought the programs that were coming together in the school were a really magical combination. They speak to each other, and they can stand alone. I was amazed at the possibility of the future career paths for our students and the opportunity for the faculty and the students to work together.

In addition, from the beginning, I was attracted to the university’s connection to Kansas City and its commitment to urban areas of the city. I grew up in an urban public school system. In college, I did some of my teacher training in urban schools, and it was great. I was excited that UMKC was intentionally focusing on placing students and graduates into urban schools and other clinical settings in the city. It’s a great give-and-take relationship. The things our faculty and students offer to the city are valuable, but the community offers as much to us. 

My goal is to spread the message of our outstanding programs and the opportunities available to our students and alumni. We are helping to create talented professionals in education, counseling, research and social work who are making significant contributions in their communities. In addition to their success, they are role models for the next generation.”


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