Despite idyllic nineteenth-century pastoral scenes that the phrase “rural school” may conjure, the twenty-first-century’s globally disruptive forces, such as interlocking economies, digital and information proliferation, profoundly affect requirements of leadership for rural schools. Given the prior late twentieth-century’s apparent urgency surrounding reform efforts about urban education and even though rural schools shared some such issues, the needs of rural youth, their opportunities, and their support systems and communities differ from more densely populated towns, suburbs, exurbs, and metro complexes. By extension, differences among locale-based assets and constraints implicate the work of rural school leaders. Leadership for rural schools engages an entanglement of instructional and socio-economic forces in a geophysical, place-based context of schooling with a formidable mission to enlarge individual students’ and their communities’ futures.
Rural schooling is a global phenomenon sharing characteristics across continents and nations. Research about characteristics among rural school leaders points to a set of conundrums. For example, studies highlight the isolation of role holders while coupled with evidence of collaborative and capacity-building strategies among successful leaders. Rural school leaders also face a simultaneous lack of privacy while isolated in their roles due to their small communities’ high expectations about being accessible public role models. Even though acquiring a position as a school leader is associated positively with pre-existing networks and relationships in the locale, recruiting and growing personnel from within has proven difficult. International studies show rural school leaders tend to be younger males with little classroom experience and perhaps no experience as assistant or vice principals. They often serve in combined leadership roles at more than one school or carry a mix of school and district level responsibilities. Internationally, studies show that successful rural principals focused on a location-based, overarching community identity with strong instructional leadership that utilizes collaborative and empowering approaches to school reform, decision-making, and problem solving.
The research-based differentiation between the work of rural and urban principals points to rurality as a contextual factor for scarcity, isolation, and geophysical challenges in access and delivery of educational and social welfare resources to students in remote areas (Biddle & Azano, 2016; DeYoung, 1987; La Prad, 2015). Such challenges in turn affect the tenure of both teachers and principals, who tend to leave rural districts early in their careers often to move into higher-paying, more densely populated school systems. Thus, the challenges for rural schooling include a recurrent chain of building capacity among educators for place-based instructional strategies only to lose it and begin again within a few years. This roiling pattern ensures that rural students experience teacher and administrator turnover at multiple points over their school years. Thus, the effects of rurality vector from scarcity, isolation, and access-delivery challenges into unpredictable patterns of disruption in professional capacity due to recruitment and retention problems. While pay does not seem to play a large role in this cycle of capacity investment loss, the dynamics of collegiality and collaboration make a difference in retention of both principals and teachers, but perhaps, more notably with teachers depending on their principals’ finesse in sharing power and decisions rather than adopting a more authoritative, command approach. Rural school leadership demands a strategic and creative approach and awareness of how to leverage place-based assets to address locale-associated constraints.