What are the Challenges of and Opportunities for Rural School Leaders?

Rural School Leadership Challenges

The four contextual factors described in the previous section, political, economic, demographic, and socio-cultural, influence leadership practices in all schools. However, the unique characteristics of rural schools means that these factors can result in greater impacts in rural than non-rural schools, resulting in greater leadership challenges and opportunities for rural school leaders. Many of the challenges relate to the nature of ruralness itself. That is, by definition, rural schools are situated in communities that have small populations and are geographically isolated (Gagnon, 2016). The irony of rural school leadership is that these same characteristics can become the source of opportunity to be leveraged by school leaders who find themselves at the center of many community activities.

We begin this section with an examination of some of the professional and personal challenges impacting rural school leaders. The professional challenges include accountability demands, limited resources, a heavy workload, community relations, and limited professional learning opportunities. The personal challenges we explore are the high level of visibility within the community and feelings of personal isolation.

Professional Challenges

The neoliberal philosophy and global economic influences that affect education policies at the macro level also influence education at the micro level, in schools and in classrooms. These policies, which can result in significant changes to curriculum and require the reporting of standardized test scores as measures of school effectiveness, impact all educational leaders. However, they have a more significant impact on rural schools and their leaders. The greater impact is due to the fact that such policies tend to be one-size-fits-all (Mette et al., 2016; Starr & White, 2008) and typically written with larger, urban schools and districts in mind. Leaders of rural schools can find it challenging to implement changes in curricular content, teaching and assessment practices, and school improvement processes with the limited support structures characteristic of rural schools. Implementing these changes can become even more problematic in cases where the local communities, for whom the curriculum may no longer be relevant, do not support the changes (Downes & Roberts, 2018; Hansen, 2018; Preston, Jakubiec, & Kooymans, 2013).

School leaders situated in nearly every locale have to confront issues of limited resources, whether they be fiscal, human, physical, or curricular. Yet, in all of these categories, rural school leaders face additional burdens. As Starr and White (2008) noted, rural school leaders have limited resources and simply “have to do more with less” (p. 4). Rural school leaders face a double financial burden in that they must meet the same accountability standards as non-rural schools with fewer financial resources due to a smaller tax base, lower per pupil funding (Olsen, 2017; Starr & White, 2008), and increased costs for things such as travel and professional development (Preston et al., 2013). In a study of the leadership experiences of six novice, rural public school principals in the midwestern United States, Wieczorek and Manard (2018) found that principals’ limited resources negatively impacted their abilities to maintain instructional programs and recruit teachers.

Recruiting and retaining personnel, both teachers and leaders, is a perennial concern for all school and district leaders. However, it is a significant challenge for rural school districts. In a study of the United States teaching force from 1987 to 2016, Ingersoll, Merrill, Stuckey, and Collins (2018) found that rural schools have among the highest turnover rates. Across the United States, and in other countries with significant rural school populations, such as Australia, researchers and practitioners regularly report challenges associated with recruiting and retaining teachers. Downes and Roberts (2018) stated that the high turnover rate in rural, remote, and isolated Australian schools is an area of significant concern.

Challenges recruiting and retaining teachers for rural schools can be due to the limited pools of available teachers in school catchment areas. The effects of this limitation are compounded by the lack of experienced teachers willing to travel to rural areas to teach. Strange (2011) reported that “the challenge of luring a teacher to a small, low-wealth rural community with limited amenities, poor housing, and few college-educated peers, and keeping that teacher there beyond the first beckoning from a better situated district, is simply daunting” (p. 12). Significant levels of teacher turnover can result in school leaders spending considerable time and effort recruiting and supporting inexperienced teachers instead of supporting the development of teachers already working in their schools.

School personnel shortages also relate to school leaders, with higher levels of principal turnover in rural districts (Hansen, 2018). In their study of principal turnover in Texas, the state with the largest number of rural schools, Pendola and Fuller (2018) found that turnover was the highest in rural schools. The relatively higher rates of turnover for principals in rural schools was due to a variety of factors, including many of the challenges discussed already in this chapter that also influence teacher shortages, including isolation, limited resources, high expectations, a heavy workload, and limited salaries (Preston et al., 2013). Many of these challenges, which contribute to a small number of potential leader applicants (Lock, Budgen, Oakley, & Lunay, 2012; Wood, Finch, & Mirecki, 2013), are described in the following pages. As with shortages of experienced teachers in many rural schools, shortages of rural school leaders can lead to rural school students being disadvantaged by the inequitable distribution of experienced and effective teachers and leaders (Sullivan, McConney, & Perry, 2018).

Compared to larger schools and districts, which are able to hire additional administrators and instructional or student service-oriented specialists, rural schools do not typically have access to such resources. This obstacle can result in rural school principals serving as the sole administrator and taking on multiple roles that extend well beyond the normal duties of a school leader (Hansen, 2018; Preston et al., 2013; Wieczorek & Manard, 2018). As a result of wearing a multitude of hats, principals’ workload demands are increased and can result in a much heavier burden and increased stress levels (National Association of State Boards of Education, 2016; Starr & White, 2008; Wood et al., 2013). These increased demands often result in leaders eventually leaving for more desirable positions (Hansen, 2018; Lock et al., 2012).

A key role for all school leaders is managing their school-community relations (Louis, Leithwood, Wahlstrom, & Anderson, 2010). The importance of school-community relations for rural school leaders is heightened by their prominence as one of the school’s main representatives and by the key role of schools in rural communities. Preston et al. (2013) noted that rural community members tend to be well connected and to have strong attachments to their schools. As a result, they argue, rural community members have a strong sense of “belonging, pride, and appreciation for their community” (p. 6). Due to this commitment, and their interests in maintaining harmony, community members can be resistant to change.

The impact of this level of community consciousness is the need for rural school leaders to actively cultivate and manage relations with the community. This can often be accomplished through leveraging a variety of media, and attending school and community activities to communicate school successes and needs to stakeholders. Given school leaders’ prominence in rural communities, studies of rural principals often report that they face challenges meeting their communities’ high expectations. These expectations can be for school leaders to be present at all community and school activities, such as sporting events (Wieczorek & Manard, 2018), and to be available to discuss school-related issues at any time (Hansen, 2018).

The burden of rural school leaders can often be compounded by feelings of professional isolation. Isolation, geographic or emotional, can result from principals not having regular professional contact with other colleagues, or being excluded from debates about education policy (Starr & White, 2008). Feelings of isolation, more prevalent in remotely-located schools, can play a significant role in principals deciding to leave their positions, especially when they do not have peers with whom to share successes or from whom to seek advice (Hansen, 2018; Wood et al., 2013). The lack of peer networks available to rural school leaders is in contrast to some larger, urban school districts, which are able to provide school leaders with structured professional support networks (Honig & Rainey, 2014).

The challenges faced by rural school leaders require regular opportunities for professional learning. Yet, one of the many challenges reported by rural school leaders is the lack of professional learning available to them. In their study of eight principals in remote schools in Western Australia, Lock et al. (2012) reported that all eight of the principals required more and better quality professional learning opportunities and became frustrated when they were unable to get assistance resolving specific issues. While there is a clear need for school leaders to have networks of peers with whom to collaborate for both ongoing and just-in-time learning needs, rural school leaders can find it difficult to develop professional communities or networks with other leaders (Preston et al., 2013). We further elaborate on the challenges of and opportunities for developing professional communities for leaders in Chapter 3.

Personal Challenges

Managing accountability demands, limited fiscal and human resources, increased workloads, high community expectations, and professional isolation with limited opportunities for professional learning can contribute to stress for rural school leaders. These factors can in turn contribute to turnover as leaders seek more desirable placements (Béteille, Kalogrides, & Loeb, 2012). In addition to these professional challenges, rural school leaders can also suffer from a range of personal challenges. One of these personal challenges, which can also lead to turnover, is the struggle to find a work-life balance between the needs of the school and the personal needs of the leaders and their families (Hansen, 2018). Rural school leaders who reside in the communities where their schools are situated can find this balance difficult to achieve due to their multiple identities as both community leaders and local residents. They are community leaders by virtue of the key role of their schools in community life, and they are residents who also shop at local stores, patronize local restaurants, and may even send their children to the same schools they lead. School leaders performing all of these activities do so with a heightened level of visibility that can create additional pressures for those seeking privacy and an escape from the challenges of work (Lock et al., 2012; Preston et al., 2013; Wieczorek & Manard, 2018).

Despite the quest for privacy, rural school leaders can also, ironically, feel isolated in their own communities. School leaders living far from friends and family may feel a sense of loneliness which is compounded by a lack of peers in the community with whom they can develop non-work relationships (Lock et al., 2012). This sense of isolation can be particularly challenging for women, leaders from groups underrepresented in the community, and those new to the community.

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