How professional development of rural school leaders can separate the good leaders from the great
In both urban and rural settings, successful school leaders are able to lead in ways that are responsive to the context in which their school is situated. By definition, rural schools are situated in communities that have small populations and are located some distance from urban centers. In such a setting, the school is often the center of the community.
It follows that the barometer for success among leaders in urban and rural schools might generally be similar, but the routes to success are markedly different. In the same vein, the methods of coaching to develop school leaders and by extension the teaching and learning in those schools can vary remarkably.
What makes a good leader specifically in a rural school?
Defining what a makes a successful rural school leader, and more importantly how to develop one, has been a career pre-occupation for Hans Klar, associate professor and assistant department chair in Clemson’s educational and organizational leadership development department. The department is housed in the College of Education.
Klar, along with Kristin Shawn Huggins of Washington State University, has compiled a decade of experience on the topic into a new book, “Developing Rural School Leaders.” The book focuses on rural education and school leadership development to illustrate how the teaching and learning conditions in rural schools can be enhanced through leadership coaching.
Klar says the book is full of examples of how rural school leaders can embrace a school’s defining aspects and strengthen its bond to the community.
“The successful rural school leaders that I have encountered are able to leverage their school’s place as the center of a community to create excitement about the school’s successes,” Klar says. “They ensure that the community is part of the school and the school is a part of the community.”
What challenges do rural leaders face in comparison to urban leaders?
Klar says many rural communities feature populations that are becoming older and more diverse, with fewer employment opportunities. This can lead to lower tax bases for school funding, a further decrease in younger, working families, and eventually school consolidations. When educational policies are developed with larger, urban districts in mind, their one-size-fits-all approach can also make it difficult for rural school leaders to meet some policy requirements.
“This can all negatively influence the learning environment, lead to heavier workloads for school leaders, and increase teacher and leader turnover,” Klar says. “Unfortunately, this also increases the need for the professional development these leaders require to succeed in their roles.”
Leaders are asked to make decisions based on data. Are there data that rural school leaders should prioritize?
Today, most educators are familiar with terms like “data-driven” or “data-informed decision making.” However, many educators and other education stakeholders consider the data which can be used to inform decisions to be limited to results on annual standardized tests. Klar says the challenge for school leaders is to help teachers and other stakeholders understand how this data can be used more effectively. This can be accomplished by school leaders working closely with teachers in a collaborative and supportive environment.
“These interactions would include modeling and asking questions that help teachers critically reflect on some of their assumptions about the root causes of problems and how they can be addressed,” Klar says. “When school leaders work closely with their teachers in this way, it is not long before the teachers begin asking for more data or for more regular meetings with other teachers in the school to assess their students’ work.”
What are some leadership practices in rural schools that have proven to be effective?
Klar argues that school leaders should lead in contextually-relevant ways. This means being able to accurately assess the critical contextual influences on the school environment and respond in an appropriate time and manner. This also means not being a victim of circumstances but taking action to reshape the context to make it more conducive to teaching and learning.
“To me, the irony of rural school leadership is that some of the characteristics that define and challenge rural schools are also the assets that can be leveraged by successful school leaders,” Klar says. “For instance, school leaders can use the school’s centrality in community life to focus attention on the achievements of students and teachers, while simultaneously developing networks among community members to assist in meeting challenges.”
What can rural school districts or individual schools actively pursue to develop current and next generation leadership?
Schools can institute established models of leadership development that pair senior and junior leaders in a school or district, thus improving leadership as a whole. Klar has enjoyed great success with this approach with district partners in the upstate and midlands regions of South Carolina since 2012. A two-year pilot study of the model, dubbed the Leadership Learning Community, showed that university-based and district partners working together to address and study district gaps can yield positive, lasting results.
One of the goals of Klar’s book was to describe the Leadership Learning Community model, provide examples of the materials used and explain how the partners collaborated to make it work. The initiative was inexpensive and focused on developing the capacities of people already working in schools and districts. Klar also wanted to highlight potential benefits of universities and districts working collaboratively to address the challenges faced by rural school leaders every day.
“We learned quickly through visits with leadership coaches and leaders that just giving these individuals a forum to share their experiences—many rural leaders don’t have an equivalent in their day-to-day work—was incredibly powerful,” Klar says. “It reminded me and other researchers about the importance of providing rural school leaders professional support and development opportunities. Just getting people talking to one another can be a huge first step.”