Positive Social Change Special PhD Edition: Philosophy of Leadership

A new quarter brings a new PhD special series (or two). One of the courses I’m currently enrolled in is called “Evaluating Curriculum to Promote Positive Social Change.” Like last time, the instructor has us breaking down a rather lengthy paper into chunks. I present to you here one of the chunks!

I was asked to write about my philosophy of leadership. I know I’ve done this before on the blog, but it’s good to document how my thinking has evolved – if at all – thanks to new learning and insights. (spoiler: I don’t think it has, much. Maybe it’s more polished…)


In an education setting, there are many layers of leadership. Students, family members, community members, support staff, teachers, and administrators all play leadership roles in some form. Over the decades, the definition of leadership has shifted from one of authoritarianism to one of coach or “influencer” (Northouse, 2016). In systems with changing demographics, in which students, teachers, and communities of color come from more collectivist cultures, leadership needs to take a more collectivist approach to meet the needs of everyone in the system (Yi, 2018).

In Seattle Public Schools there is a movement to shift pedagogies from what Paolo Friere (1968) called “banking” education to culturally responsive teaching. In her book, Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain; Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students, Zaretta Hammond outlines how shifting from the “sage on the stage” to a facilitator of learning centers the skills, learning and cultural wealth of students, making learning more student centered and encouraging learner leadership, or what Hammond calls “independent learners” (2016). To achieve this goal, adult learners need to practice and model the same leadership style of collectivism and collaboration.

Types of Leadership in Seattle Public Schools

The leadership in Seattle Public Schools is hierarchical. Staff in different levels of the organization chart are actively discouraged, and sometimes forbidden, from interacting or collaborating with people higher than their position in the chart. Most of the leaders in Seattle Public Schools fall under the label “assigned leadership” because they have been promoted through the ranks instead of being identified and named as effective, inspirational leaders (Northouse, 2016). This is the systemic climate, but there are some leaders who buck the system.

Seattle Public Schools uses a “site-based” model of leadership. This creates different sets of hierarchies. There is a hierarchy among the central office staff and hierarchies in each school site. The central office consists of various departments, including teaching and learning, human resources, students support services, communications, etc. Each of these departments have chiefs who lead them, and these chiefs are part of the “small cabinet” that reports to the superintendent and the superintendent reports to the board of directors. Below the chiefs are executive directors, directors, and managers in that hierarchical order.

The author of this paper serves in a manager role and has been told they are not allowed to contact the superintendent or the board of directors. There is a chain of command one must go through to resolve issues and make decisions. Professional development is given to people lower on the organization chart by those higher on the organization chart or sometimes laterally. Those with more power in the hierarchy rarely collaborate with their subordinates, but instead instruct them on what to do.

At the school site, principals are seen as the leaders, and despite efforts by the education association to foster educator leadership, principals frequently interfere with these efforts. This is evidenced by the need for, and current implementation of, each building leadership team attending trainings on how these teams should be collaborative and not led by principals.

There are a few leaders at both the district and school sites who have chosen to be more transformational and collaborative in their practice. These leaders are the exception, however. They tend to be people of color or white leaders who have chosen to be anti-racist or social justice leaders. These are the leaders who collaborate with the educators and students in their building, provide leadership opportunities for both, and remove as many barriers as possible for their subordinates, often by managing up.

Opportunities and Challenges

There are many emergent educator leaders in Seattle Public Schools. There are many examples of educators taking the lead on racial justice, specifically. For example, when a family support worker planned to host an event in which Black leaders in the community lined the walkway to school to give students hi-fives, conservative media stoked fear and hate to the point the school received bomb threats. This family support worker, DeShawn Jackson, refused to back down and held the event anyway. After he went to other educator leaders for support, including Jesse Hagopian and an educator activist group, Social Equity Educators, thousands of educators in Seattle organized in support of the event and wore “Black Lives Matter” shirts to school and taught lessons about systemic racism. That was in 2016 and since then, educators across the country have joined in and established a national network of educator leaders. The day of action has become the “National Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action.”

Within the education association in Seattle is a program called the Center for Racial Equity. This program was founded the same year as the first Black Lives Matter day of action. This program fosters educator leadership specific to racial justice in Seattle Public Schools. The program has been instrumental in supporting the work of the national network, in the district’s racial equity team program, and in the emerging ethnic studies program. The district is beginning to partner with the Center on critical racial equity work, which is strengthening both organizations’ efforts and improving outcomes for all students.

With the site-based model of leadership, one challenge is the barrier principals frequently create to leadership opportunities for educators. If educators do not take the traditional path of teacher, building administrator, district administrator, they have little chance of obtaining a leadership role within the district. Most leadership roles are through union work. The fact educators are discouraged or prevented from collaborating with their supervisors or their supervisors’ supervisors also limits opportunities.

Proposed Changes

The first step to create greater opportunities for transformational and shared leadership is to dismantle the site-based decision-making model. This model galvanizes the hierarchy that prevents authentic collaboration and stifles emergent leaders. If there is a more fluid exchange between educators, building leaders, and district leaders, collaborative and shared leadership could be engaged in. This model would create space for leaders to learn from each other and from their subordinates. Additionally, removing barriers to collective leadership can lead to transformational leadership which inspires subordinates to have increased motivation and job satisfaction (Northouse, 2019).

Another change would be to give more weight in decision making to emergent leaders who have demonstrated successful transformational leadership. These emergent leaders should be recruited into district leadership positions instead of pulling from the principal pool for the sake of maintaining hierarchies. Emergent educator leaders should also be supported in moving into principalships if that is their goal. The district should work with the education association, especially the Center for Racial Equity to identify these leaders and offer scholarships, training, and coaching to move into building leadership roles.


Transformational, collaborative, and collectivist leadership is instrumental to creating a learner leadership style. Strict hierarchies in a system inhibit this style of leadership and should be dismantled as much as possible. Fostering emergent leaders is key to creating systemic change and creating pathways for emergent leaders will encourage more to step forward. This leadership style will improve the outcomes for all students and model the type of leadership educators want students to engage in.


Friere, P. (1968). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York, NY: Bloomsbury.

Hammond, Z. (2016). Culturally responsive teaching and the brain; Promoting authentic engagement and rigor among culturally and linguistically diverse students. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Northouse, P.G. (2016). Leadership: Theory and practice (6th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Yi, J. (2018). Revisiting individualism-collectivism: A cross-cultural comparison among college students in four countries. Journal of Intercultural Communication, 47. Retrieved from https://eds-b-ebscohost-com.ezp.waldenulibrary.org/eds/detail/detail?vid=0&sid=6e42b728-f2ae-47ec-ad70-856a780e722f%40sessionmgr103&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWRzLWxpdmUmc2NvcGU9c2l0ZQ%3d%3d#db=edo&AN=130790524

PRIDE in My Child

I am the mother of three, and it just so happens that my youngest child, Elysia, is queer. For the month of Pride, I would like to tell you a little bit about them; how wonderful, kind, funny, and smart they are. I learn so much from them and have fun watching them become the person they are.

My Only Daughter

I have a strained relationship with my mother. That may be an understatement. I’m a fairly radical atheist and consider myself a far left anarchist who fights for racial justice. My parents are both Trump supporting Republicans. I don’t think I have to explain why our relationship is strained, but it’s more so with my mom for some reason. I never felt like I’ve been good enough for her. She’s white and my dad is Xicano, and my mom has had this “inside joke” she shares often with others and with me. It goes like this: “I always wanted a blond-haired, blue-eyed child. I guess I married the wrong man,” followed by laughter.


To make matters worse, my cousins – her sister’s daughters – are both fair skinned, one with blond hair and green eyes, the other with gorgeous red hair. My mom has always been very public about how beautiful she thinks they are. I honestly can’t remember my mom ever telling me I was beautiful, or even pretty. She used to always remark about the bags under my eyes that reminded her of my Grandma Chavez, or chastise me for wearing tight fitting clothes because my hips, butt, or thighs were too big.

My two oldest children, both male, were born while I was a teenager, and the doctors told me I wouldn’t be able to conceive after my second son because of serious hormone imbalances. I became pregnant with Elysia, or “E” as I call them, when my youngest son was 10. I was so ecstatic when I found out I’d be having a girl. I went out and bought fairies and frilly purple things for her room. It was more than just having a girl to complete our family; I wanted so badly to have a fulfilling mother-daughter relationship. I saw this as my chance.

People Change

From birth to around the time of the 4th grade, E was as girly as a person could be. Over time, though, things started to change. They started to hate wearing dresses. They wanted to cut their hair short. One day, while riding in the car, E said, “Mom, I think I’m transgender.”

short hair

“Oh?” I replied. “Why do you think that?”

We had a long conversation about a book they were reading about a transgender child and how they didn’t feel like they were really a girl. We talked about body dysmorphia, and E decided they were ok with their body, but not ok with gender stereotypes as they felt they didn’t fit into any of the assigned female roles. Luckily, my teaching partner also facilitated the Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA) and had some reading materials for me to share with E. After learning together, E has settled on a non-binary, or gender fluid identity.

In the 5th grade, E had a really cute “relationship” with a boy at their school. They were boyfriend/girlfriend until E moved schools in the 7th grade. Around this time, E started saying they were bisexual. We talked about what that meant, too, and E started dating girls at their school. They went from bisexual to gay, and when their girlfriend came out as trans, E discovered they are pansexual, and now they just refer to themself as queer, which is all encompassing of their gender expression and sexuality.

My Child Is My Teacher

I would like to say this has been super easy for me and all of these discoveries E’s experienced have had no impact on me, but that’s not true. Of course I’ve been supportive and love my child as they are, but it has stretched my understanding of gender and sexuality and encouraged me to educate myself on each. I still suck at getting the pronouns correct. It’s not easy when you’ve gone 40 years in a binary world, but I try my hardest and apologize when I mess up.

I’ve also had to defend E from attacks from their father and brother and my side of the family. While on vacation in Europe, I sent E’s father a picture thinking he would like to see E enjoying our trip. He went on a tirade about how I let his daughter look like a “dike.” So, not only do I have to defend E, I have to build them up to prevent these attacks from tearing them down. It hurts to see their tears caused by a person who is supposed to love them unconditionally.


Watching E’s resilience and openness gives me so much pride in and respect for them. They are unapologetically who they are and they love everyone with their whole heart. I haven’t lost a daughter. I’ve gained a happy and fulfilled child who fearlessly expresses their authentic self. That’s better than what I expected from the mother/daughter relationship I craved. Their unconditional love makes me want to be a better person. I wish I could have grown up in a household where love was at the center of all decisions made; truly at the center in practice, and not just words. I want all children to be able to explore and discover who they are without judgment. I see in E what is possible when that exists – Love and Joy.

Happy Pride Month!