Leading as Learners in Rural Schools

In the United States, more than one-third of preK–12 schools are located in rural areas and serve approximately one-fifth of the nation’s students. Similar to schools located in suburban and urban areas, rural schools serve an increasing number of students who are racially diverse and live in households with a low socioeconomic status. Teachers and school administrators in rural schools contend with many common education challenges, such as achievement gaps, low levels of literacy, and poverty. Rural schools also have unique needs that receive limited attention in education policy or during educator preparation.

Distinctiveness of Rural Schools

Beyond educating students, rural schools have a distinctiveness that positions them as the economic and social center of their communities. In rural areas, school systems are generally the single largest employer. Rural school systems offer many stable, well-paying jobs, often employing multiple members of a family. The facilities of rural schools (both indoor and outdoor) provide spaces to host community and school-sponsored events. Regardless of whether or not community members have children who attend the school, they often attend fundraisers, meetings, performances, sports activities, and other events that take place during nonschool hours.

Although rural schools play a central role in their communities, they also face several challenges. Rural schools are geographically isolated, which can create a sense of professional isolation among teachers and administrators. Because of smaller staffs, rural schools’ employees often take on multiple roles and fulfill greater responsibilities. Additionally, rural schools frequently operate with limited resources and contend with infrastructure and staffing issues that may affect their ability to offer students high-quality educational experiences. Despite these challenges, rural schools are held to the same academic accountability standards of all schools required by their state’s education agency.

Professional Learning in Rural Schools

In order to meet the diverse learning needs of all students, school staff members need continuous opportunities to bolster their professional capacity. Thus, administrators must cultivate a school culture with a learning orientation and develop talent among their best teachers to create “knowledge-sharing networks.”

In rural schools, administrators often share leadership with teachers to facilitate various job-embedded approaches to professional learning. In professional learning communities, teachers communicate and collaborate with their colleagues, engage in practitioner inquiry, and offer advice and expertise. However, as teachers and administrators in rural schools continue to do more with less, an important question comes to mind: How can rural schools develop professional capacity without exhausting already overextended staff members?

Establish Partnerships With External Stakeholders

One effective way for rural schools to enhance opportunities for teachers and administrators to engage in professional learning is through partnerships with others beyond the school. Developing collaborative partnerships with external stakeholders builds professional capacity without exhausting already overextended school staff members. External stakeholders can help teachers and administrators in rural schools acquire better resources, gain access to fresh information, and widen their network of contacts.

Statewide educational interest groups that have a keen interest in advancing teaching and learning may be ideal partners. For example, the Texas Association for Literacy Education (TALE) supports professional learning in Texas by providing access to high-quality, open access, peer-reviewed publications, as well as in-person and virtual professional learning events. Rural schools might also reach out to educational interest groups, such as TALE, to appropriately tailor professional development to their specific needs.

Higher Education Institutions

Community colleges, four-year colleges, and universities are bastions of educational resources. Tap into those college faculty members who are experts in their academic fields and passionate about their work—this can be done in person or through virtual means. Many faculty members have a professional service component associated with their position and have access to a wide network of financial, human, and professional resources. For example:

  • Consult with college faculty to discuss possible solutions to current challenges.
  • Design and implement training sessions that take place after school hours or during the summer months.
  • Review student performance data, and create an action plan for improvement.

Cultivating professional learning partnerships between rural schools and higher education institutions draws upon the principles of “simultaneous renewal” and holds mutual benefits for both institutions.

Many rural schools may have a higher education institution that is located within a reasonable physical distance. While these institutions offer a convenient option, teachers and administrators in rural schools should also think beyond geographical convenience to identify potential higher education partners. For example, professional training events that bring groups of preK–16 educators together are excellent venues in which teachers and administrators can network and make valuable connections with faculty members affiliated with higher education institutions.

Informal Educator Networks

There are myriad issues that affect teaching and learning in schools. These may be perpetual issues, such as bullying and family factors, or unanticipated issues, such as natural disasters and swift changes in student demographics. More times than not, teachers and administrators do not receive sufficient training in their educator preparation programs for how to mitigate these types of issues effectively. Reaching out to other professionals who experience common issues is an excellent way for teachers and administrators in rural schools to draw upon benefits associated with informal educator networks.

As an illustration, Hurricane Harvey was a Category 4 storm that wreaked havoc along the Texas coastline in 2017. Thousands of students were impacted by the storm—some were homeless, others lost access to necessities, and some were placed in different schools due to a substantial number of school closures. As teachers and administrators grappled with helping students cope during the aftermath, informal educator networks provided supportive relationships to ask questions, learn solutions, and seek clarifications from others who have had similar experiences.

During this time, rural schools were able to access informal educator networks in person and digitally. For example, the nonprofit agency Communities in Schools Southeast Texas stationed counselors and other licensed behavioral health professionals in rural schools throughout the cities of Beaumont and Port Arthur. Similarly, the Texas Psychological Association created and posted an online database of state-licensed psychologists who agreed to provide three therapy sessions in person or by telephone to individuals who were affected by Hurricane Harvey.

Nonprofit Organizations

Nonprofit organizations include state, national, or international membership-oriented groups specific to the teaching profession, as well as organizations with an educational mission. Nonprofit organizations receive funding from grants, foundations, and a variety of other sources to support innovative programs and provide educators with access to professional resources and support. Establishing professional learning partnerships with nonprofit organizations is an excellent way for rural teachers and administrators to draw upon the expertise of other professionals who may be located all over the world.

For example, the Center for the Collaborative Classroom supports educators with helping students grow academically, emotionally, and socially through the use of research-informed practices. This organization offers a host of free virtual professional learning opportunities, such as a digital resource library, educator blog, Facebook community, and webinars. The Center for the Collaborative Classroom also offers schools and districts fee-based programs and services that may be customized to meet specific professional learning needs.

In rural schools, teachers and administrators make the most of available resources by leading school-based efforts, such as professional learning communities, to improve the quality of teaching and learning for all students. However, staff members in rural schools serve many roles and need opportunities to lead as learners. Establishing partnerships with higher education institutions, informal educator networks, and nonprofit organizations can help rural schools transcend economic, geographic, and social barriers and enhance the professional capacity of staff members through the expertise and experiences of other education stakeholders beyond the school.


Laurie A. Sharp, EdD, is an associate professor and the assistant dean of undergraduate studies at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, TX.


Sidebar: Defining Rural

There are several definitions for “rural,” which are based upon urban-rural classifications by the U.S. Census Bureau. Every 10 years, the classifications are updated when the census is administered to reflect changing settlement patterns. In 2010, the U.S. Census Bureau used the following classifications:

  • Urban: Two subcategories for urban classification were created.
    • Urban areas have populations of 50,000 or more people.
    • Urban clusters have at least 2,500 people and fewer than 50,000 people.
  • Rural: All housing, population, and territory that were not categorized as urban.

Sidebar: Sizing Up Stress

A 2014 Gallup study reported that 46 percent of teachers encounter high levels of work-related stress. When compared to other professions, this figure indicated that teaching was one of the most stressful occupations. Similarly, a 2013 MetLife study revealed that 48 percent of school administrators encounter “great stress” on a weekly basis and view their jobs as “too complex.” Chronic stress among educators generally leads to burnout, which is characterized by feelings of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion. Burnout also affects motivation levels and has the potential to reduce productivity at work.