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Disrupting Injustice: Principals Narrate the Strategies They Use to Improve Their Schools and Advance Social Justice


by George Theoharis — 2010

Background/Context: A group of educators have demonstrated success not only with White middle-class and affluent students but also with students from varied racial, socioeconomic, linguistic, ability, and cultural backgrounds. A reoccurring theme from these schools and from the literature on school change is that exemplary leadership helps create the necessity for change and helps make the realities of change happen. More specifically, leaders at these schools where students traditionally marginalized are thriving come to administration with a commitment, or larger “call,” to focus their leadership on issues of equity and justice.

Purpose: Scholars and administrators alike have called for “constructive models” of this kind of leadership. This article provides examples of these accomplishments in practice. It also provides insight into the realities of leading for social justice by revealing what principals sought to accomplish and how they approached that work.

Participants: This article focuses on 6 principals—2 elementary, 2 middle, and 2 high school—who (1) led a public school, (2) possessed a belief that promoting social justice is a driving force behind what brought them to their leadership position, (3) advocated, led, and kept at the center of their practice/vision issues of race, class, gender, disability, sexual orientation, and/or other historically marginalizing conditions, and (4) had evidence to show that their work has produced a more just school.

Research Design: The qualitative study in which these analyses are grounded used a positioned subject approach. The method of data collection took place over one school year and included in-depth interviews with the principals, a review of documents and materials, site visits, discussions/interviews with school staff, a detailed field log, and a group meeting of the principal participants. This article is a focused discussion of aspects of a larger study, using the principals’ voices to illustrate key themes.

Findings: These leaders narrate the strategies they used to disrupt four kinds of school injustice: (1) school structures that marginalize, segregate, and impede achievement, such as pullout programs; (2) a deprofessionalized teaching staff who could benefit from focused staff development; (3) a school climate that needed to be more welcoming to marginalized families and the community; and (4) disparate student achievement levels.

Recommendations: A series of lessons emerged from this research: that social justice in schools is more than rhetoric—indeed, it can be achieved; that inclusive schooling is a necessary and enriching component to enacting justice; that increasing staff capacity is essential to carry out a comprehensive agenda focused on equity; and that creating a climate that deeply values racial, cultural, and economic diversity is a key strategy to enacting justice.



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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 112 Number 1, 2010, p. 331-373
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15842, Date Accessed: 4/26/2017 11:26:10 PM

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About the Author
  • George Theoharis
    Syracuse University
    E-mail Author
    GEORGE THEOHARIS is an assistant professor in educational leadership and inclusive education at Syracuse University. He is a former principal and early childhood/elementary teacher. His interests and research focus on issues of equity, justice, diversity, inclusion, leadership, and school reform. His recent publications include “Toward a Theory of Social Justice Leadership” (2007) in Educational Administration Quarterly and “Oppressors or Emancipators: Critical Dispositions for Preparing Inclusive School Leaders” (2008) in Equity and Excellence in Education. He has a forthcoming book on school leadership and social justice with Teachers College Press.
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