Cathy Toll, Ph.D.

Associate Professor, Graduate Program Coordinator
Leadership, Literacy, and Social Foundations

Doctor of Philosophy | Pennsylvania State University (1998)

Areas of Expertise

  • Literacy coaching
  • Educational coaching
  • Professional learning teams/communities
  • Teacher professional development
  • Literacy leadership
  • Learnership: School leadership for learning
  • Administrator support of literacy learning
  • Administrator support of coaching and professional learning teams/communities
  • Literacy program evaluation and development
  • Literacy assessment
  • Planning for literacy learning
  • Literacy instruction PK - 12


I was born in Fond du Lac and knew from a young age that I wanted to be a teacher, inspired by my own experiences with those who helped me learn. I began my professional life as a classroom teacher in northeast and central Wisconsin and taught students in elementary, middle, and high schools. During that time I accepted opportunities to serve as a teacher leader, thus expanding my goals to include making a difference for teachers as well as students. This work continued as I became a curriculum leader, reading specialist, school principal, university professor, grant director, state department of education specialist, and consultant. In several of these roles, I began using coaching tools as I partnered with teachers and supported them to meet their goals.

When it was time to pursue doctoral studies, I knew from the start that I wanted to focus on teacher professional learning. My attention centered upon questions about how to support teachers’ learning, as well as questions about why so many efforts toward “professional
development” were unsuccessful. At that point in my career, I had no doubt that teachers were the key people in helping students to succeed in school, and I knew that I wanted to devote the rest of my career to considering how to support teachers’ work.

An exciting turning point in my efforts occurred when I began coaching educational coaches. In this capacity, I found myself helping teacher leaders to partner with teachers in ways that were unique to my work. I recognized that I had a book “in me,” a book to help literacy coaches understand coaching and develop strategies for effective coaching. This book, The Literacy Coach’s Survival Guide: Essential Questions and Practical Answers, became a best seller, and I discovered with joy that I was helping to define the field and the work of coaching in schools. I have since written five more books for educational coaches and those who support them.

My work has now expanded beyond educational coaching to include work with professional learning teams. As I have studied teacher professional learning and developed the Ancora Imparo Model (AIM) to describe it, I have come to understand that learning rarely, if ever, occurs in isolation. Rather, learning is often made possible and almost always enhanced when people interact with others. In the workplace, professional learning teams offer this kind of collaboration.

Overall, the task that is key to life in schools is learning, yet too often educators and students get distracted by other matters. Ensuring attention to learning and providing leadership for enhanced learning is what I call Learnership. It is the priority task of effective principals, curriculum leaders, educational coaches, and teacher leaders. The tools and perspectives for Learnership to succeed are in my book, Learnership: Invest in Teachers, Focus on Learning, and Put Test Scores in Perspective.

As a faculty member, I work with undergraduate and graduate students. I enjoy the enthusiasm and hope that those preparing to teach bring to the classroom. As well, I love the immediacy of graduate students’ learning, as they strive to make a difference in their classrooms at the very moment of their coursework. I want to help teachers and future teachers explore the questions they bring to class while gently stretching themselves to consider previously unexplored issues, practices, and qualities that may enhance their effectiveness and their growth as leaders.

As a scholar, I continue to test my AIM model of professional learning and its implications for teachers. In addition, I seek to better understand protocols for effective educational coaching. Recently, I have been applying the study of complex adaptive systems to the work of coaches and other school leaders, to consider how adaptive action can be taken to address difficult issues in schools.

As a member of the educational community in Wisconsin and beyond, I continue to look for ways to support educator professional learning through my work with educational coaches, professional learning teams, and school administrators.

Date of First Employment at UW Oshkosh: 1989 (adjunct); 2015 (tenure-line faculty)
Years of P-12 Experience: 16 Years

Classes Typically Taught

  • Literacy and Language for Young Children
  • Literacies of Early and Middle Childhood
  • Literacy Coaching
  • Educational Coaching
  • Research Essentials for the Literacy Leader
  • Leadership, Planning and Advocacy