Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

Degree Granting Department

Educational Leadership and Policy Studies

Major Professor

Vonzell Agosto, Ph.D.

Co-Major Professor

William Black, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Zorka Karanxha, Ed.D.

Committee Member

Brenda Walker, Ph.D.


Disability, Education Leadership, Identity, Involvement, Phenomenography, Social Constructionism


This qualitative study focused on retired school principals’ involvement in special education. More specifically, it explored various ways former principals conceived of their leadership identity and accounted for their level of involvement in special education and with students identified or identifying as disabled. The following research question guided this study: How do former principals account for their involvement with special education and/or disability? The study’s subquestions were: What are principals’ accounts of being, becoming, and remaining involved with special education and/or with disability?; In what ways do principals attend to special education and/or disability?; and How do principals conceive of their leadership identity given their accounts of involvement with special education and/or disability?

Narratives shared by former principals regarding what it means to be involved with special education and/or disability and relationships between conceptions of involvement and identities served as the primary source of data. These conceptions included, but were not limited to, perceived ways principals’ viewed their attentiveness and commitment to special education. In this study leadership identity was understood as a professional identity in relationship to one’s identities and in response to others’ identities. Employing a phenomenographic approach, findings were grouped into pools of meanings, labeled as categories of description, and presented in an outcome space—a visual representation of results illustrating how participants experienced and attributed variation in meaning to the research phenomenon.

Findings revealed former principals accounted for their involvement with special education and/or disability through professional responses, risk-taking, and working toward the social transformation of their schools. Participants experienced involvement as active presence, critical reflection, advocacy, and resistance. Findings suggested principal involvement in special education is influenced by their experiences with disability and relationships with individuals with disabilities. Furthermore, participants experienced identity through compassion, learning, spirituality, and dis/abled-ness.

This study also revealed a nexus between participants’ confidence and involvement, suggesting the greater participants’ confidence to lead in special education, the more directly involved they were with and among students with disabilities; the less confident, the more they assumed a “supportive” role leading in this area. Personal experiences with disability—that was, participants having a child with a disability and/or having a disability themselves—facilitated increased leadership involvement. Participants who conceived leadership identity through a sense of spirituality and dis/abled-ness were more inclined to take risks and work toward socially transforming their schools. Discussion of how leadership preparation programs can recruit and prepare school leaders by focusing conversations around role expectations associated with leadership in special education is provided. Future research should consider how a leader’s identity affects leadership of students with disabilities and address the unique positionality of principals who are also parents of children with disabilities.