Sarah - 34After a five-year journey in the Urban Education Leaders Program at Teachers College, my dissertation was just published last night in ProQuest.

My acknowledgments are below, followed by the abstract. Click either link above to check out the finished work!

First and foremost, I wish to acknowledge the commitment and care of Eleanor Drago-Severson. As my dissertation sponsor, Ellie was with me in the difficult and exhilarating moments of inquiry and sensemaking that constituted my dissertation research and writing process. Ellie’s work stirred a curiosity in me about how professional learning environments might provide transformational learning opportunities for the educators who struggle to successfully teach diverse learners in American schools. I am deeply grateful for Ellie’s compassion, intellect, and expertise and have benefitted in immeasurable ways from the opportunity to walk together on this journey over the last five years.

Maria Torres-Guzmán joined our team as my second reader in the fall of 2011; Maria shared her passion for theoretical explorations and the discipline of academic writing—two gifts which have anchored my writing and thinking processes over the last two and a half years. I also want to thank Lyle Yorks for giving me the opportunity to conduct the pilot study the preceded this dissertation and for serving on my committee as it has been an honor to learn from his methodological expertise.

Other professors at Teachers College have also played important roles in my journey to complete this project, including the two directors of the Urban Education Leaders Program, Carolyn Riehl and Brian Perkins. From the first phone call in 2009 when I learned I had been admitted to Teachers College through to my last semester five years later, in every interaction with Carolyn, I felt her deep commitment to my success and to the success of all the students in our program, and her dedication to us and the wisdom of the research she exposed us to in our first years at Teachers College benefitted all of us in so many ways. Brian Perkins in so many ways has given me the space to lead and to learn at Teachers College, and his confidence in me has helped me to see the ways in which I can make important contributions to the work of district leaders and the ways in which I can give back to the Urban Education Leaders Program at Teachers College. I want to also thank Professor Jay Heubert for his guidance early on in how to approach the dissertation and the lifelong challenges of choosing how to lead and contribute in meaningful ways to the field of educational leadership.

I have the deepest respect and admiration for each of the members of my cohort in the Urban Education Leaders Program at Teachers College. The ways in which we grew to think together and forge new visions for leadership within urban school districts filled me with hope and inspiration. We created a community of learners that incorporated the rich diversity of our professional and personal experiences and that pushed all of us to become better leaders, better scholars, and better human beings. I have been motivated and inspired by Ramon Gonzalez, Linda Curtis-Bey, and Carol Birks—the trailblazers who finished first in 2013, the humble and generous friends, the cheerleaders and task-masters, the fierce intellectuals, and the trusted colleagues who were with me in body, mind, and spirit. Others within my cohort—Clover Codd, Arnetta Rudisill-Young, Ruby Ababio Fernandez, and Scott Crawford—shared their passion, strength, intelligence, humor, encouragement, and tenacity. Having them as mentors, friends, and colleagues supported through the five years of our program.

I also want to thank friends and colleagues who have joined me on my journey to complete this project. My coach Kate Scott has been with me over the last year in the trenches of this work. Kate’s questions and observations helped me to find a path through my last year of data analysis and writing; she has been invaluable to my learning process and to my ability to complete this work. In my last few months, I have also benefitted from frequent conversations with my friend and colleague Rosa Delgado whose fortitude, determination, and brilliance inspire me and greatly enhance my own thinking and learning. I also want to acknowledge Alysa Turkowitz who was my weekly dissertation partner at the very beginning of this project. As I intensively wrote my dissertation proposal, Alysa finished her proposal, collected and analyzed her data, and wrote her dissertation. Her determination, her thoughtful questions, and her successful defense pushed me to approach this project with a seriousness and intensity that matched her own. In this last year, my dissertation partner, Jed Lippard, was there with me knee-deep in the trenches of data analysis and sensemaking. Our weekly phone calls gave this project momentum. The spontaneous synergy between the research questions and concepts across both of our studies created a singular and irreproducible space for extending and deepening my thinking and writing. I could not have found a better match, and I could not have finished this work without Jed’s insights, questions, guidance, and encouragement.

Finally, my friends and family. Brinda and John Tahiliani, Sharlene Yang, Steve Laniel, Sonali Chakravarti, Sanford DeVoe, Peter Murray, Bethany Robertson, Rachel and Jason Mumford, Ben Tiven, and Judy Ditner—I appreciated each of you for always asking about my work and caring for me while I completed this project. To Linda Rincon and Caitlin Byrne I express my deepest gratitude for caring for Solomon while I hid myself away in various libraries to finish my data analysis and writing. I want to also thank both my family and Joe’s family for supporting us through this entire process; thank you for being there for me, for Joe, and for Solomon.

Joe and Solomon. You anchor me, and I love you both every moment of every day. The joy and love that define our family are also at the heart of this work. Thank you for always being there for me and with me; you have inspired me and kept me whole. My deepest appreciation to you.

Finally, to the generous and inspiring school leaders and educators who opened their schools and lives to my research project, thank you. Kate and Sol (pseudonyms), you facilitated my entry into your teachers’ lives and model what is possible when leaders are able to prioritize the growth and leadership potential of the adults who educate children. Vanessa, Robert, Nadine, Hillary, Rebecca, Kalvin, Casey, Sofia, Lauren, Rachel, and Sara (also pseudonyms), you have forever changed the ways in which I think, work, and act in the world. Your choice to share your experiences with me and engage in this research project enrich and extend my understanding of teaching, learning, and leadership. We are so fortunate to learn from your experiences. Thank you. SBSD



Little is known about how engaging in the learning-oriented leadership model (Drago-Severson, 2004b, 2009, 2012a) can support educators to address the adaptive challenges they encounter in their day-to-day work teaching English learners. My qualitative study examined how 11 educators whose school leaders implement the learning-oriented leadership model described and understood the adaptive challenges they encountered teaching English learners; how they described and understood their experiences engaging in the pillar practices (i.e., teaming, assuming leadership roles, collegial inquiry, mentoring) of the learning-oriented leadership model; and in what ways, if any, these educators described and understood those experiences within the pillar practices as supportive to their efforts to meet their adaptive challenges.

I conducted three one-hour interviews with each of 11 participants (teachers and specialists) from a public elementary school (n=7) and a public charter elementary school (n=4). I selected sites based on the school leader’s experience with and implementation of Drago-Severson’s learning-oriented leadership model and the number of educators who taught English learners. Data analysis included: 1) writing analytic memos, 2) transcribing interviews verbatim, 3) coding, 4) crafting profiles, 5) categorization, 6) within-case and cross-case analysis, and 7) creating matrices.

I found that participants understood cultural proficiency, partnering with families, and English learner programming as adaptive challenges they encountered teaching English learners. Furthermore, all participants understood adaptive challenges involving English learners as opportunities for growth and development. The overwhelming majority of participants experienced the pillar practices as a holding environment for their growth and understood that building-level and district-level leaders played a pivotal role in creating an infrastructure for the pillar practices to support their growth. Key features of the holding environment participants described included: provision of information and access to expertise; time and space for reflective discussion and/or collaborative problem solving; and opportunities to pose questions, consider others’ perspectives, and offer alternative perspectives.

Recommendations for principals, superintendents, and policymakers include: employing the pillar practices of the learning-oriented leadership model to support educators in their work with diverse learners, specifically English learners and providing financial and human resources to support educators and principals to gain expertise relating to English learners.

with grace


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