School of Education


Doctor of Philosophy


Tony Ryff


special education leadership, adult learning theory, transformative learning theory, leadership, inclusion


Educational Leadership


This transcendental phenomenological study describes how public school leaders experience learning and leading inclusive and special education programs. Two theories guided this study Knowles’s adult learning theory and Mezirow’s transformative learning theory. The central research question for this study was how school leaders describe their professional experiences in leading inclusive and special education programming. The 10 participants in this study were school leaders endorsed in administration and supervision K–12. A criterion sampling was utilized for participant selection across three school districts in Central Virginia. The phenomenological approach was applied during data analysis. Horizontalization and coding were used to identify common themes and patterns. The data collected through interviews, participant journals, and a focus group revealed the following four major themes (and one sub-theme): Leadership Experiences Motivate Acquiring New Knowledge (with the sub-theme Leaders Identify Gaps in Their Knowledge), Developing Leadership Style Based on Self-Awareness, Leading through Experiential Learning, and Leading a Diverse School Culture Using an Inclusive Mindset. The data were analyzed to develop textural and structural descriptions to arrive at the essence of school leaders’ experiences. Results showed that school leaders lacked formal training in leading inclusive and special education, which impacted their proficiency to lead inclusive and special education programs. The study found that school leaders indicated a significant need to collaborate when making decisions for inclusive and special education programming. Implications from the study revealed school leaders’ need to receive adequate preparation before leading inclusive and special education to improve student outcomes.