Common Challenges Faced By Rural Principals: A Review of the Literature

Jane P. Preston, Brittany A. E. Jakubiec, Robin Kooymans


Within this article, we thematically present common challenges associated with the role of the rural principal. In this literature review, we delimit our search to work published from 2003–2013. A limitation of this study is that it represents data predominantly from American, Canadian, and Australian rural settings, restricting a global applicability of results. Findings highlight that many rural principal candidates face a hiring disadvantage if they do not have a historical connection with the community advertising a position. Additional challenges include juggling diverse responsibilities, lack of professional development and resources, gender discrimination, and issues surrounding school accountability and change. This information is beneficial for researchers, policymaker, senior educational leaders, principals, vice-principals, teachers, parents, and community members interested in school leadership within rural communities. We conclude that to be successful, rural principals must be able to nimbly mediate relations within the local community and the larger school system.


Abbott, M. L., & Rossiter, M. J. (2011). The professional development of rural ESL instructors: Program administrators’ and instructors’ views. Alberta Journal of Educational Research, 57(2), 204–219.

Anderson, M., & White, S. (2011). Resourcing change in small schools. Australian Journal of Education, 55(1), 50–61.

Arnold, M. (2004). Guiding rural schools and districts: A research agenda. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from

Arnold, M. L., Newman, H. H., Gaddy, B., & Dean, C. B. (2005). A look at the condition of rural education research: Setting a direction for future research. Journal of Research in Rural Education, 20(6), 1–25.

Ashton, B., & Duncan, H. E. (2012). A beginning rural principal’s toolkit: A guide for success. The Rural Educator, 33(1), 37–47.

Auerbach, S. (2012). Conversations with community-oriented educational leaders. In S. Auerbach (Ed.), School leadership for authentic family and community partnerships: Research perspectives for transforming practice (pp. 233–247). New York, NY: Routledge.

Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2011). Australian Statistical Geography Standard (ASGS). Retrieved from

Australian Government. (2013). Rural, Remote and Metropolitan Areas (RRMA) classification. Retrieved from

Bard, J., Gardener, C., & Wieland, R. (2005, April). Rural school consolidation report: History, research, summary, conclusions and recommendations. National Rural Education Association. Retrieved from

Barley, Z. A., & Beesley, A. D. (2007). Rural school success. What can we learn? Journal of Research in Rural Education, 22(1), 1–16.

Bartling, E. M. (2013). Female high school principals in rural Midwestern school districts: Their lived experiences in leadership. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Milwaukee, WI. Retrieved from

Baxter, J., Gray, M., & Hayes, A. (2011). Families in regional, rural and remote Australia. Australian Government. Retrieved from

Bizzell, B. E. (2011). Professional development of school principals in the rural Appalachian region of Virginia. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, VA. Retrieved from

Blakesley, S. (2012). Juggling educational ends: Non-Indigenous Yukon pinricpals and the policy challenges that they face. International Journal of Education Policy & Leadership, 7(3), 1–14.

Bollman, R. D., & Alasia, A. (2011). A profile of self-employment in rural and small town Canada: Is there an impending retirement of self-employed business operators? The Daily, 9(1), 1–38.

Bottery, M. (2004). The challenges of educational principalship. London, UK: Paul Chapman.

Bowen, G. A. (2009). Document analysis as a qualitative research method. Qualitative Research Journal, 9(2), 27–40. doi:10.3316/qrj0902027.

Brooking, K., Collins, G., Court, M., & O’Neill, J. (2003). Getting below the surface of principal recruitment ‘crisis’ in New Zealand primary schools. Australian Journal of Education, 47(2), 146–158. doi:10.1177/000494410304700204

Browne-Ferrigno, T., & Allen, L.W. (2006). Preparing principals for high-need rural schools: A central office perspective about collaborative efforts to transform school leadership.Journal of Research in Rural Education, 21(1), 1–16.

Browne-Ferrigno, T., & Maynard, B. (2005). Meeting the learning needs of students: A rural high-need school district’s systemic leadership development initiative. The Rural Educator, 26(3), 5–18.

Budge, K. (2006). Rural leaders, rural places: Problems, privilege, and possibility. Journal of Research in Rural Education, 21(13), 1–10.

Canadian Council on Learning. (2008). Closing Canada’s rural/urban literacy gap. Retrieved from

Canales, M. T., Tejeda-Delgado, C., & Slate, J. R. (2008). Leadership behaviors of superintendent/principals in small, rural school districts in Texas. Rural Educator, 29(3), 1–7.

Chance, P. L. & Segura, S. N. (2009). A rural high school’s collaborative approach to school improvement. Journal of Research in Rural Education, 24(5), 1–12.

Clarke, S., & Stevens, E. (2006). Spatial engagement: The navigation of a novice teaching principal in a small rural community. Studies in Learning, Evaluation, Innovation and Development, 3(1), 12–26.

Clarke, S., & Stevens, E. (2009). Sustainable leadership in small rural schools: Selected Australian vignettes. Journal of Educational Change, 10(4), 277–293. doi:1007/s10833-008-9076-8

Clarke, S., Stevens, E., & Wildy, H. (2006). Rural rides in Queensland: Travels with novice teaching principals. The International Journal of Leadership in Education, 9(1), 75–88.

Clarke, S., & Wildy, H. (2004). Context counts: Viewing small school leadership from inside out. Journal of Educational Administration, 42(5), 555–572.

Corbett, M. (2007). Learning to leave: The irony of schooling in a coastal community. Black Point, NS: Fernwood.

Cortez-Jiminez, G. (2012). Leadership needs of California rural school administrators. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, San Diego State University, San Diego, CA. Retrieved from

Cruzeiro, P. A. & Boone, M. (2009). Rural and small school principal candidate: Perspectives of hiring superintendents. The Rural Educator, 31(1), 1–9.

Cullen, T. A., Brush, T. A., Frey, T. J., Hinshaw, R. S., & Warren, S. J. (2006). NCLB and technology and a rural school: A case study. The Rural Educator, 28(1), 10–17.

DiPaola, M., & Tschannen-Moran, M. (2003). The princpals at a crossroads: A study of the conditions and concerns of principals. NASSP Bulletin, 87(1), 43–65. dio:10.1177/01923650308763404

Dean, D. R. (2007). Thinking globally: The National College of School Leadership: A case study in distributed leadership development. Journal of Research on Leadership Education, 2(1), 1–62. doi:10.1177/194277510700200103

De Ruyck, T. (2005). Identifying and addressing the challenges of the rural principal. Retrieved from

Duke, D., Grogan, M., & Tucker, P. (2003). Leading schools in an age of accountability. In D. Duke, M. Grogan, P. Tucker, and W. Heinecke (Ed.), Educational leadership in an age of accountability (pp. 198–214). Albany, NY: Suny Press.

Dykes, F. (2009). RTI implementation challenges for rural elementary principals. Southeastern Teacher Education Journal, 2(3), 31–40.

Eagly, A. H.. (2005). Achieving relational authenticity in leadership: Does gender matter? The Leadership Quarterly, 16(3), 459–474.

Eagly, A. H. & Carli, L. L. (2007). Through the labyrinth. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Farmer, T. A. (2009). Unique rural district politics. Rural Educator, 30(2), 29–33.

Foster, R., & Goddard, T. (2003). Leadership and culture in schools in northern British Columbia: Bridge building and/or re-balancing act? Canadian Journal of Educational Administration and Policy, Issue 27. Retrieved from

Fusarelli, B. C., & Militello, M. (2012). Racing to the top with leaders in rural, high poverty schools. Planning and Changing, 43(1/2), 46–56.

Graham, L., Miller, J., & Paterson, D. (2009). Early career leadership opportunities in Australian rural schools. Education in Rural Australia, 19(3), 25–34.

Haar, J. M. (2007). Retaining experienced, qualified teachers: The principal’s role. The Rural Educator, 28(2), 28–34.

Hands, C. M. (2012). Supporting teacher leadership for partnerships: A case study of the school-community partnership process. In S. Auerbach (Ed.), School leadership for authentic family and community partnerships: Research perspectives for transforming practice (pp. 173–192). New York, NY: Routledge.

Harmon, H. L., & Schafft, K. (2009). Rural school leadership for collaborative community development. The Rural Educator, 30(3), 4–9.

Harmon, H. L. (2003). Rural education. In James W. Guthrie (Ed.), Encyclopedia of education, (2nd edition), pp. 2083–2090. New York, NY: Macmillan Reference.

Halsey, R. J. (2007). Constructing rural principalship: Thirdspace and three worlds. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Flinders University, South Australia.

Hellsten, L. M., Noonan, B., Preston, J. P., & Prytula, M. (2013). Principals’ perceptions of assessment leadership: A study of the assessment practices of school principals in Saskatchewan (Canada). International Studies in Educational Administration, 40(3), 57–74.

Hollingworth, L., & Dude, D. (2009). Race, gender, and school leadership in a state with shifting student demographics. Journal of women in educational leadership, 7(3), 175–194.

Howley, A., Andrianaivo, S., & Perry, J. (2005). The pain outweighs the gain: Why teachers don’t want to become principals. Teachers College Record, 107(4), 757–782.

Howley, A., Howley, M., Hendrickson, K., Belcher, J., & Howley, C. (2012). Stretching to survive: District autonomy in an age of dwindling resources. Journal of Research in Rural Education, 27(3), 1–18.

Hyndman, J. O. (2009). Women and power in schools: Kentucky today through a historic lens. American Educational History Journal, 36(1), 105–120.

Ingvarson, L., Anderson, M., Gronn, P., Jackson, A. (2006). Standards for school leadership project: A critical review of literature. Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership. Retrieved from

Institute for Educational Leadership [IEL]. (2005). Preparing leadership for rural schools: Practice and policy considerations. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from

Johanson, J. C. (2008). Perceptions of femininity in leadership: Modern trend or classic component? Sex Roles, 58(11/12), 784–789.

Keddie, A., & Niesche, R. (2012). “It’s almost like a white school now:” Racialised complexities, indigenous representation and school leadership. Critical Studies in Education, 53(2), 169–182

Kitchenham, A., & Chasteauneuf, C. (2010). Teacher supply and demand: Issues in Northern Canada. Canadian Journal of Education, 33(4), 869–896.

Larson, W., & Howley, A. (2006). Leadership of mathematics reform: The role of high school principals in rural schools. Ohio University, Appalachian Collaborative Center for Learning, Assessment, and Instruction in Mathematics (ACCLIAM). Retrieved from

Leithwood, K. A. (2005). Understanding successful principal leadership: Progress on a broken front. Journal of Educational Administration, 43(6), 619–629. doi:10.1108/09578230510625719

Leithwood, K., Louis, K. S., Anderson, S., & Wahlstrom, K. (2004). Review of research: Howleadership influences student learning. New York, NY: Wallace Foundation.

Lock, G., Budgen, F., & Lunay, R. (2012). The loneliness of the long-distance principal: Tales from remote Western Australia. Australian and International Journal of Rural Education, 22(2), 65–77.

Lowe, J. M. (2006). Rural education: Attracting and retaining teachers in small schools. The Rural Educator, 27(2), 28–32.

Masumoto, M., & Brown-Welty, S. (2009). Case study of leadership practices and school-community interrelationships in high-performing, high-poverty, rural California high schools. Journal of Research in Rural Education, 24(1), 1–18.

Miller, K. (2004, November). Creating conditions for leadership effectiveness: The district’s role. Aurora, CO: Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning.

Montgomery, M. R. (2010). Small rural school districts in Nebraska: A case study of challenges and solutions. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, NE. Retrieved from

Msila, V. (2012). Rural school principals’ quest for effectiveness: Lessons from the field. Journal of Education, 48(1), 169–189.

Munsch, T. R. (2004, June). What is rural? A discussion with an American rural educator. Paper presented at the WA District High School Administrators’ Association and Society for the Provision of Education in Rural Australia, Toowoomba, Australia.

Novak, M., Green, B., & Gottschall, K. (2009). Situated leadership and rural schooling: Leading learning locally? In B. Green (Ed.), Spaces and places: The NSW rural (teacher) education project (pp. 339–364). Bathurst, Australia.

Partlow, M., & Ridenour, C. (2008, Spring). Frequency of principal turnover in Ohio’s elementary schools. Mid-Western Educational Researcher, 21(2), 15–23.

Pashiardis, P., Savvides, V., Lytra, E., & Angelidou, K. (2011). Successful school leadership in rural contexts: The case of Cyprus. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 39(5), 536–553. dio:10.1177/1741143211408449

Patton, M. Q. (2002). Qualitative research and evaluation methods. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Pietsch, B., & Williamson, J. (2009, June/July). Beyond the black stump: Dilemmas and tensions facing new principals in remote NSW. Abstract of paper presented at the Annual Conference of the Australian Teacher Education Association (ATEA), Albury, Australia. Retrieved from

Pizzoli, E., & Gong, X. (2007). How to best classify rural and urban. In S. Lenders, L. Lauwers, & E. Kerselaers (Eds), Rural-urban delimitation: A statistical analysis. Merelbeke, Belgium: ILVA.

Powell, D., Higgins, H. J., Aram, R., & Freed, A. (2009). Impact of no child left behind on curriculum and instruction in rural schools. Rural Educator, 31(1), 19–28.

Preston, J. P. (2008). School councils: A passing fad or a solid future? Policy and Practice in Education, 14(1/2), 65–84.

Preston, J. P. (2009). Educational reform via school councils: Saskatchewan’s School Community Councils as compared to an international precedent. Canadian and International Education, 38(1), 29–44.

Preston, J. P. (2010). A school council’s influence on community involvement in a Saskatchewan community. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, SK.

Preston, J. P. (2012). A school council, community involvement, and a Learning Improvement Plan: A Saskatchewan case study. International Education Journal: Comparative Perspectives, 11(2), 45–57.

Reardon, R. M. (2011). Elementary school principals’ learning-centered leadership: Implications for principals’ professional development. Leadership and Policy in Schools, 10(1), 63–83. doi:10.1080/15700760903511798

Renihan, P., & Noonan, B. (2012). Principals as assessment leaders in rural Schools. Rural Educator, 33(3), 1–8.

Reynolds, C., White, R., Brayman, C., & Moore, S. (2008). Women and secondary school principal rotation/succession: A study of the beliefs of decision makers in four provinces. Canadian Journal of Education, 31(1), 32–54.

Robinson, V. (2011). Student-centered leadership. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Salazar, P. S. (2007). The professional development needs of rural high school principals: A seven-state study. The Rural Educator, 28(3), 20–27.

Schuman, A. L. (2010). Rural high school principals: Leadership in rural education. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA. Retrieved from

Sebastian, J., & Allensworth, E. (2012). The influence of principal leadership on classroom instruction and student learning: A study of mediated pathways to learning. Educational Administration Quarterly, 48(4), 626–663. doi:10.1177/0013161X11436273

Singh, P., & Gumbi, D. (2009). Resource management skills of high school principals in rural communities. International Journal of Learning, 16(6), 249–263.

Sherman, W. H., & Beaty, D. M. (2010). Using feminist phase theory to portray women in the principalship across generations in the USA. Journal of Educational Administration and History, 42(2), 159–180.

Skrla, L. (2003). Normalized femininity: Reconsidering research on women in the superintendency. In M. D. Young & L. Skrla (Eds.), Reconsidering feminist research in educational leadership (pp. 247–263). Albany, NY: Suny Press.

Spanneut, G., Tobin, J., Ayers, S. (2013). Identifying the professional development needs of public school principals based on the Interstate School Leader Licensure Consortium Standards. NASSP Bulletin, 97(1), 67–88. doi:10.1177/0192636512439230

Starr, K., & White, S. (2008). The small rural school principalship: Key challenges and cross school responses. Journal of Research in Rural Education, 23(5), 1–12.

Southworth, G. (2004). Primary school leadership in context: Leading small, medium and large sized schools. London, UK: Routledge Falmer.

Taole, M. J. (2013). Exploring principals’ role in providing instructional leadership in rural high schools in South Africa. Studies of Tribes and Tribals, 11(1) 75–82.

Thompson, C. M. A. (2011). Where does the small rural school stand? Exploring different perspectives. Unpublished master’s thesis, Queen’s University, Kingston, ON.

United States Census Bureau. (2013). 2010 census urban and rural classification and urban area criteria. Retrieved from

United States Department of Agriculture. (2013). What is rural? Retrieved from

Wallace, A., & Boylan, C. (2007). Reawakening education policy and practice in rural Australia. In N. Rees, D. Boyd, & E. Terry (Eds.), The 23rd National Rural Education Conference Proceedings. Collaboration for success in rural and remote education and training (pp. 15–29). Perth, Australia: SPERA

Wallin, D., & Sackney, L. (2003). Career patterns of rural female educational administrators. The Rural Educator, 25(1), 11–25.

Wallin, D. C. (with Anderson, H., & Penner, C.) (2009). Rural education: A review of provincial and territorial initiatives. Winnipeg, MB: Canadian Council on Learning. Retrieved from

Williams, D. T. (2012, November/December). Supporting rural teachers. Principal. pp. 26–29.

Williams, J. M., & Nierengarten, G. (2011). Recommendations from the north star state: Rural administrators speak out. Rural Educator, 33(1), 15–24.

Williams, J., Nierengarten, G., Riordan, K., Munson, B., & Corbett, D. (2009). Learning communities in transition: The voices of rural administrators. In Center for Rural Policy and Development (Ed.), A region apart: A look at challenges and strategies for K–12 schools (pp. 41–64). St. Peter, MN: Center for Rural Policy and Development.

Wildy, H. (2004). Small schools leadership study: Leading and teaching in small schools: Confronting contextual complexity in work practices. Murdoch, Australia: Murdoch University. Abstract retrieved from

Wildy, H., & Clarke, S. (2005). Leading the small rural school: The case of the novice principal. Leading & Managing, 11(1), 43–56.

Full Text: PDF


  • There are currently no refbacks.

Publication of the National Rural Education Association -

Report problems or questions about to the website to