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Competing Priorities and Challenges: Principal Leadership for Social Justice along the U.S.–Mexico Border


by David Edward DeMatthews — 2016

Background/Context: Previous research has focused on the importance of a social justice leadership approach to improve schools that serve marginalized students, but less attention has been focused on potential dilemmas associated with social justice leadership and the ways in which principals prioritize when dilemmas or challenges arise. Principals may be frequently confronting challenges and dilemmas when they lead for social justice, especially considering the pressures and unintended consequences of high-stakes accountability, dwindling school budgets, and increased teacher turnover rates. By examining the nature of social justice leadership in a high-poverty elementary school located along the U.S./Texas–Mexico border, this study explores how certain facets of social justice generate contradictions, tradeoffs, and dilemmas that have implications for marginalized student groups and communities.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: The purpose of this study is to explore one principal’s enactment of social justice leadership, particularly in relation to how emergent circumstances influence the way social justice challenges are identified, prioritized, and addressed.

Setting: Data were collected at one predominantly Hispanic serving elementary school located along the border: Saenz Elementary Schools (pseudonym).

Research Design: In this study, I employed a qualitative case study methodology and conducted ongoing interviews and observations with the school’s principal (Ms. Uribe) to see how she enacted social justice leadership over the course of one school year. Additionally, I interviewed and observed teachers, the school’s assistant principal, and other staff to explore alternative perspectives of Ms. Uribe’s leadership.

Findings: Findings reveal the specific leadership actions Ms. Uribe applied to create a more socially just school, but also highlights the complicated nature of social justice leadership. Contextual circumstances associated with the school and community, as well as Ms. Uribe’s own personal and professional experiences and worldviews influenced the way she identified, prioritized, and addressed the many social justice challenges present in her school.

Conclusions/Recommendations: Major conclusions and recommendations from this study include the importance to further explore the way school context and principal experience influence the enactment of social justice leadership, the importance of ongoing critical reflection for school leaders addressing issues of marginalization, and the necessity to further consider how principal preparation programs can prepare principals with the knowledge, expertise, experience, and habits of mind to recognize and grapple with competing facets of social justice as well as the challenges and barriers to educational equity.



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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 118 Number 8, 2016, p. 1-38
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21365, Date Accessed: 10/19/2017 7:38:20 PM

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About the Author
  • David DeMatthews
    University of Texas at El Paso
    E-mail Author
    DAVID EDWARD DeMATTHEWS is an assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of Texas at El Paso. His research explores issues related to school leadership, urban education, special education, and social justice. Recent publications include: DeMatthews, D. E., & Mawhinney, H. B. (2014). Social justice and inclusion: Exploring challenges in an urban district struggling to address inequities. Educational Administration Quarterly, 50(5), 844–881. DeMatthews, D. E. (2015). Making sense of social justice leadership. A case study of a principal’s experiences to create a more inclusive school. Leadership and Policy in Schools, 14(2).
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