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

Published by

Tracy Castro-Gill

WAESN Co-Founder & Executive Director| 2019 PSESD Regional Teacher of the Year| Learning for Justice Advisory Board Member| PhD Candidate

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