Academic journal article Journal of Thought

More Fully Human: Principals as Freirean Liberators

Academic journal article Journal of Thought

More Fully Human: Principals as Freirean Liberators

Article excerpt


This article calls for an investigation into a new breed of urban school leadership consistent with Freirean notions of dialogue, praxis, and pedagogy (Freire, 1993) in work with youth. Critical theorists have called for educational practices that emphasize the political role that teachers and students play in the educational process. Their vision of education calls for students to locate themselves in the historical process that has left them with little to count on and to struggle against social reproduction that gives life to the inequality that is so pernicious in capitalist American society. The central question is: How can principals mold critical understandings about education into a coherent model of liberatory leadership? An examination of the work of these critical theorists begins the analysis.

A Central Paradox

Exploring the implications for liberatory practice on the role of public school leaders is a journey that finds within itself a central paradox: liberatory principals, with the responsibility of operating a state-sponsored school, must fend off the influence of the state and its attendant economic and social inequities. Critical theorists, almost by definition, are wary of traditional forms of power and tend to address teachers much more than principals in much of their work. This role of the teacher (not principal) as a "public intellectual" (Giroux, 1992) is the focus of much critical theory. The development of courageous, liberatory teachers who can navigate current political realities so that their students can read both "the word and the world" (Freire, 1993) seems to be the goal, not developing critical principals. To be sure, the role of the teacher in any liberatory project is essential, but scholars have also identified the inherent problems when a school leader does not support programs in his/her school (Hannay, 2001; McLaughlin & Mitra, 2001). If a school is charged with successfully educating a population that is seen by some as little more than fodder for the factories and prisons of a capitalist society (Willis, 1977), then collaboration among educators and educational leaders seems essential. Without it, courageous teachers swimming against the current soon become exhausted (Vibert & Portelli, 2000), or, even worse, fatalistic and hopeless (Freire, 1997). As Marilyn Frakenstein notes, "if the dialogical classroom experience is isolated ... then only fragments of critical consciousness can develop" (1987, p.201). There must be a role for principals in the liberatory project. As Friere (1990) notes:

   The above does not mean that in the dialogical task there is no
   role for revolutionary leadership. It means merely that leaders--in
   spite of their important, fundamental, indispensable role--do not
   own the people and have no right to steer the people blindly
   towards their salvation. Such a salvation would be a mere gift from
   the leaders to the people--and a breaking of the dialogical bond
   between them, and a reducing of the people from co-authors of
   liberating action into the objects of this action. (p.168)

Thus, it seems that both principals and teachers need to work in concert to develop critical consciousness in their students. If one or the other does not commit fully to such a mission, the results may suffer. So how then do critical theorists, often wary of traditional sources of power such as the principal, propose that school leaders align themselves with a school-wide mission to foster a pedagogy that will allow students to view themselves as agents in history with the ability to name and struggle against forces of oppression?

Bring Me Your Downtrodden

Peter McLaren, in a memorial to Jim Montgomerie, a principal McLaren encountered early in his teaching career, writes that Jim was "an ethical rebel, an educational outlaw" (2003, p.179). Among the characteristics the McLaren cites as admirable in this school leader are his love and respect for students, his humanistic approach, his disdain for those bent on maintaining the status quo, and his lasting desire to fight discrimination. …

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