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Research award-winner Chris Knowles took winding path to education

Being selected as a top doctoral student researcher in the field of special education through an internationally competitive review process is a pretty big deal for Chris Knowles, but she hasn’t really stopped to take it in. She’s deep into working and planning her dissertation, preparing to get her doctorate this spring, and already accepting interviews for academic positions at other colleges.

Knowles easily acknowledges her own talent and hard work in earning the 2016 Council for Exceptional Children-Division of Research (CEC-DR) Doctoral Research Scholar Award. However, she also freely gives credit to the College of Education’s (COE) nationally ranked special education program for putting her in the position to excel at such a high level. The annual award is presented to the top 10 international scholar researchers. “I’ve been really happy with the support that the COE has provided me through its scholarships,” she says. “Actually, the scholarships I’d received contributed to my journey to secure this award. I used the scholarship awards to pay for the cost of two different research studies during my program. It was those research experiences and the proven ability to conduct my own independent research that helped get me noticed and recognized.”

It hasn’t been a typical, or even a particularly straight path for Knowles. As a child, she told her educator Mother, “I’m never going to be a teacher!” That attitude remained as she pursued other interests as an undergraduate at Seattle University gaining her BA in psychology and English. “I wrote poetry and had some published in college. Before that, I put on rock ‘n roll shows.”

After college, she had what she describes as an “existential crisis” and found herself working in a salmon processing plant in rural Alaska. After leaving Alaska, Knowles received an opportunity to work as a paraeducator for students with special needs. Those experiences helped her understand that as hard as she’d tried to avoid it, special education was her calling. Choosing a graduate school wasn’t nearly as difficult a choice. “My Mom went here (COE) and it is rated one of the very best in the country for special education. I applied to a few other places, but the University of Oregon was always my first choice.”

After securing her MS in special education in 2007, Knowles spent five years as a special education teacher in a specialized program for students with behavioral challenges. Despite funding challenges and the documented poor outcomes for students in these placements, her students thrived and were continuously able to be included in general education. Knowles finally knew her career needed to revolve around finding better ways to reach and serve these students. That need for researching new and better solutions led her back to the COE in pursuit of her doctorate.

The area that Knowles focuses most tightly on is relationships. She says that although the relationship between teacher and student has certainly been studied before, she is looking to revise the standard descriptors typically used in education, inspired by the initial work of Dr. Jessica Toste. She hopes to transfer a concept called “working alliance” that has proven highly “predictive of success” between therapist and client into educational settings for students with emotional or behavioral challenges. “Working alliance looks closely at the working relationship rather than just the emotional aspects because teachers and students are working together, not just buddies.”

Knowles certainly hasn’t chosen the easiest path. Her work primarily focuses on students deemed too violent or disruptive to remain in mainstream classrooms. She laughingly describes her research, and her philosophy as “hippy-behaviorist”. The poetry-spouting rebel of her youth is “still a part of me, but my focus on science has become a part of me as well.” She explains that the COE special education program is highly scientific and helped her to develop those aspects of her professional outlook along with the guidance of her advisor, Wendy Machalicek, and her dissertation Chair, Christopher Murray.

Knowles, once she embraced her calling to work in education, has excelled. In addition to the prestigious CEC-DR award, she has won 11 other awards and scholarships, published frequently in numerous refereed journals, presented at numerous international and regional conferences and participated in many other research projects.

Jeff Bolkan - COE

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