Challenges to Providing Rural School Leadership Development

There are numerous examples of large, urban districts providing school leaders with professional development opportunities that include both one-on-one and professional networks of support (see for example, Honig, 2012; Honig & Rainey, 2014). Nevertheless, school leaders in smaller and more rural districts have fewer opportunities to receive professional learning of this nature (Johnson, Kaufman, & Thompson, 2016). Furthermore, while all school leaders require ongoing professional learning opportunities, the additional, unique challenges that rural school leaders face increase the need for professional learning and support. For instance, rural school leaders hired with little administrative experience can find the challenges of wearing many hats and working in professional isolation while balancing school and community demands to be particularly challenging.

Though the challenges facing rural school leaders may warrant a greater focus on professional development, one of the additional challenges facing rural school leaders is the limited opportunities for professional learning. The limited opportunities for professional learning can be due to a lack of resources within smaller district offices or to having few other leaders at similar levels to provide technical or mentoring support. While these limitations mean that there may simply not be someone available to call for advice or to get critical feedback on an idea, other obstacles include the lack of funding and general infrastructure to provide training (Preston et al., 2013). Furthermore, when opportunities for professional learning are made available outside schools or districts, rural school leaders may be reluctant or unable to leave their schools to travel for meetings as they are less likely to have staff able to substitute for them during their absence. As a result, rural school principals spend less time collaborating with mentors or networking with other leaders than do their non-rural counterparts (Stewart & Matthews, 2015). Although connecting to mentors or peers via phone or video conference may ameliorate this concern for some leaders, limited phone service and internet access can preclude some school leaders from communicating in this way.

Given the important role school leaders can play in the success of their schools and communities, as well as the policy changes that encourage a focus on school leader development, many states in the United States are focusing their school improvement efforts on developing the capacities of school leaders. These development activities can include one-on-one mentoring and coaching as well as opportunities to learn with and from their colleagues. Despite the increasing use of these approaches to develop school leaders, not all school leaders receive the same levels of support. As noted in this section of the chapter, despite the enhanced need for additional professional learning opportunities for rural school leaders, states and districts often find it challenging to provide adequate professional learning opportunities to their rural school leaders.

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