“Disciplinary literacy is the ability to read, write, think, and discuss like an expert in the field,” wrote educator Paige Whitlock in her dissertation overview. Her dissertation, “Principal Leadership in Building a Culture of Disciplinary Literacy,” describes a world in which disciplinary literacy is embedded in classrooms, where students “read like a scientist, think like a historian, discuss literature like a critic, and write an original score like a musician.”

Whitlock was recently named winner of Virginia Tech’s 2021 Outstanding Dissertation in Social Sciences, Business, Education, and Humanities.

After earning her bachelor’s in English from Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, Whitlock taught English, Language Arts, Reading, and Applied Communications in Iowa, California, Texas, Missouri, Kansas, and Georgia. Along the way, she also earned a master’s in educational leadership from the University of Missouri.

Her career finally led her to Northern Virginia, where she worked with a group of central office specialists to define literacy in the disciplines, creating essential actions to embed literacy and classrooms and providing ongoing professional development.

“This experience, along with my time teaching in seven states, taught me that principals set the expectations and goals for their schools,” Whitlock said. “They must know enough about disciplinary literacy to recognize that reading, writing, discussing, and thinking must occur in each class across all disciplines. Principals do not have the time to be deep enough in all the disciplines, though; they must lean on teacher leaders to be models of practice.”

Whitlock applied that insight to her doctoral studies in educational leadership and policy studies in the Virginia Tech School of Education. Her academic base was in the university’s Northern Virginia Center in Falls Church.

“As a teacher leader, I was willing to try new practices to better serve students,” she said. “Many teachers also hold this belief.”

Walter Mallory, a member of Whitlock’s doctoral committee and formerly a professor of practice in the School of Education, noted that “her experience as a leader at the school and district level is apparent in her understanding of the complexity of instructional and cultural change in a school.” He further stated that her work would “be invaluable in developing a literacy culture.”

Whitlock remained employed full time with the Fairfax County Public Schools district as coordinator of Secondary Language Arts during her studies, and completed her doctorate in December 2020. She hopes to someday transition to an institution of higher education where she can support future administrators in applying a literacy lens in their leadership approach.

“I have learned a great deal from my research and life experiences,” she said, “but it means nothing unless it is put to use and shared with others. Learning with and from others, we can improve education for children.”

Written by Sharon Stidham