More than a remote possibility: collaborative professionalism for rural principals

June 25, 2018
By Jane Macleod, STF Senior Manager, Research and Records

Instructional Leadership

How best to describe the leadership life of a teaching principal in rural Saskatchewan today? Given the number and diversity of rural communities across Saskatchewan, metaphors range from hero to workhorse, to street entertainer to fully charged batteries! And according to recent research out of the University of Saskatchewan, each of these aptly describes the unique and complex role of a large percentage of principals in western Canada’s rural and remote schools (Wallin & Newton, 2014; 2013).

Principals, as the recognized formal leader of the school, provide a vital link between the school and community. Across Canada, rural principals often have a deep “personal-historical link to the school community” (Foster & Goddard, 2003), a fact that contributes to their sense of ownership and/or responsibility as a local leader.

The Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation recognizes that most rural principals carry a teaching responsibility in addition to their administrative and management roles. Balancing the demands of this multi-faceted role requires dedication, patience, flexibility, creativity and professional support.

Newton and Wallin’s (2013) research highlights some of the challenges rural-teaching principals experience when stretching their focus between the diverse demands of their students and the local school system. Challenges such as balancing the demands of work and family, prioritizing and monitoring a never-ending to-do list, or accepting the lack of anonymity as compared to one’s urban colleagues; these challenges also surface in research out of Australia, the United States, Malaysia and New Zealand.

Alongside these challenges come unique opportunities. Principals in rural schools are well-positioned to develop positive relationships with the students and staff. Wallin and Newton’s (2014) research confirms previous studies connecting increased visibility of principals among students and reduced disciplinary issues within the school.

There are similar benefits to the principal-teacher relationship. Research supports that when teachers see that the principal is experiencing the complexities and demands of the classroom, they tend to be more willing to engage in school improvement initiatives.

Without doubt, rural schools are part of the Saskatchewan landscape and despite the tremendous gains in the availability of online and digital education platforms for student learning, rural schools will likely remain so for many years.

For educational leaders in Saskatchewan’s rural schools, feelings of professional isolation can easily take root. The question then becomes how best can we, as professional colleagues, support the instructional leadership efforts of school leaders and especially those in the smaller rural communities?

Earlier this month, I was fortunate to access a promotional chapter of, Collaborative Professionalism: When Teaching Together Means Learning for All by Andy Hargreaves and Michael T. O’Connor. Their description of networks of professionals sharing their knowledge and expertise “inquiring together and acting upon it” makes sense. Thinking about the challenges confronting principals across rural Saskatchewan, creating a culture of collaborative professionalism is an idea worth considering.

Imagine the sense of agency and confidence generated when groups of principals engage in deliberate and continuous collaborative inquiry on issues relevant to their context and in this case, their uniquely rural context. For example, when developing school-based programs to strengthen student engagement in a rural environment, imagine a group of principals openly sharing their stories of what works (and what doesn’t), or sharing observational data and student and teacher feedback, or sharing experiences harnessing community support and other innovative strategies regarding student engagement.

Imagine that this is not the first time this leadership group has come together to collaborate as professionals. Over time, the principals have developed a culture of professional collaboration characterized by “solidarity with each other as fellow professionals as they pursue their challenging work together” (Hargreaves & O’Connor, 2018, p. 5). Imagine the professional learning that is occurring.

Being a school principal, regardless of school size or location, is a demanding and difficult job. Arguably, each school setting is unique; yet the research is clear that Saskatchewan’s rural principals carry a distinct set of responsibilities, expectations and opportunities as the professional leader in their schools. Collaboration is a hallmark of Saskatchewan culture. For rural principals, collaborative professionalism can offer a valuable and viable means of support for the important professional work these principals do.