Leadership in rural and remote schools with Professor John Halsey

John Halsey is emeritus professor at the College of Education, Psychology and Social Work at Flinders University.

He has researched and published extensively including his review into regional, rural and remote education for the Australian government in 2018. His extensive academic work in rural and remote education is informed by his experience as a school principal and his work as a senior bureaucrat in the South Australia Department of Education.

In these 4 videos, Professor Halsey explores how to best prepare for and commence a leadership position in a rural and remote school as well as how to sustain yourself over time.

He also examines the importance of educational leadership for vibrant, productive rural and remote communities for the future of NSW.

Effective and committed school leaders play an important role in rural and remote communities.

The importance of rural and remote school leadership.

For well over half a century now I’ve had a life of professional education, if I can put it like that. And for the vast majority of it, it’s always had a very strong rural, regional and remote focus on it.

And this is underpinned by an enduring belief of mine, that vibrant productive, rural communities, both in Australia and indeed in other parts of the world are absolutely vital. They're central to the wellbeing of our country if I can put it like that, and if anything they're going to grow in importance into the future.

And requires ensuring that there are top quality human services available for those who live and work and enjoy life in these locations. And of course, education is right at the heart of that.

I think fundamentally, why we need a dedicated focus is firstly because of the very significant role that rural, regional and remote communities play in the life of our nation. They have historically played a critical role, they currently play a critical role and they will continue to play a critical role.

And as such and given that, education is such a central human service to enable people to have the capacity to make a contribution to society and to live rich and rewarding lives themselves.

In those communities, typically, schools are far more than just schools. They offer a range of services for the community, in particular the students. But they are much more than just places where students go to learn.

And they both have a practical role to play, and a very powerful symbolic role to play. And the powerful, the symbolic role is that schools signal a sense of life, a sense of hope and a sense of future.

Secondly, that schools in rural areas are often the largest organisation in a location. Not always, but very frequently. And certainly in places of between 500 and 2,000 people, you'll have a school, you'll have a range of small private enterprises, you may have another government outpost a health place, a communications location, a local Council, whatever.

But typically, the school is the largest organisation in the town. And it brings into that community an economic engine, both through its staff and the services it requires, which are both accumulated if you like, or acquired locally and further afield, and that cannot be under underestimated.

And so, when we're looking at a dedicated role or a dedicated preparation for rural educational leaders, there's that dimension to their role, which also needs to be taken into account.

But when you are talking about quite remote rural communities, remote locations, where the nearest other population centre of any significance is 100 to 200 km away, what you have locally is what you have. And it sharpens the focus on the quality of what is there:  the all-round quality, the nature of the relationships, the preparedness of those in the leadership roles to think expansively, generously, and as well as focusing on ensuring that the learning and the learning opportunities for students are the best it can possibly be.

As well as what I've said today schools in rural areas, and I've hinted at this, offer a suite of services to the community from safe refuges during say, for example, bushfires and floods, if they manage to escape, voting booths, vaccinations centres, community libraries, emergency meeting locations, as well as joint use arrangements say with sporting facilities, drama, theatre, visiting road shows etc.

And so they hit, they bring to the fore, if you like a vibrancy to the cultural and relational capital of the town, of the location, and that also has consequences for the preparation, the formation and the ongoing support of rural educational leaders and teachers.

How to make a smooth transition into leading your new school.

Starting in a rural or remote school

Be very clear in your own mind you've taken the role on, and be very clear about your values and what are the touchstones in your life that in both moments of great high and great lowness, if you like, will be sources of nourishment for you.

Know why you've taken the job on, right? And know what it is, that are your fundamental resources, your values, your touchstone, your beliefs that will nurture you through thick and thin. That's critically important.

Because it's quite likely, the first time you go into the local supermarket and someone asked who are you? They will ask two questions. One is where have you come from and why have you come here? There’ll be other questions, but that's not untypically what happens. 

The role brings with it great opportunities for working with students, and nurturing them, and creating meaningful worthwhile opportunities and futures for them as young people.

And also, and this is one of the distinctive features of leadership of a rural school, is what it is you can do not only through and with the young people but the community. What it is, your contribution, your legacy, for want of a better term, will be with the community.

And it's not that you're looking for a plaque on the wall or something down the main street at all, what it is, is engagement with the community and with the school together, as well as your primary role as principal of the school. 

Remember that as the formal leader of the school, the principal, or indeed a significant other leadership position, wherever you are in the community and whatever you say and do in the end of the day will be seen and interpreted and made sense of through the lens of, you are the principal of our school or you are the deputy principal of our school. 

Remember that even though you go into the pub as, and you think you're going in as just one of the citizens, you are the principal of the school. And while it is true the local farmer goes in there, the local hairdresser, the plumber, the doctor, the accountant, the lawyer, it's still the case that because our primary work is with the up and coming generations, with young people, there's a an added ethical and moral dimension to that that has significance.

And it has a degree of visibility and profile in rural communities, which is not always the case in urban locations, where people can blend into an anonymous crowd.

You are the principal, the leader, indeed the teacher and your behaviour, what you say and do, has consequences. 

As an educational leader curiosity is a very powerful contribution to your own formation. It basically goes with, you know, so what else might be happening here? So what else might I do as an educational leader? So what else might I contribute to the thinking of the community?

And sometimes in the formation of educational leaders and in their preparation things like curiosity gets put down the back of the agenda. When really in my view they should be right up near the front you know they dance and sit very well with things like hopefulness. Like a sense of inquisitiveness, like a preparedness to be vulnerable but not to fall for anything.

Because if you go in with a very rigid or predetermined set of understandings and a set of indeed marching orders as some people might want to put it, what you do is you shut down possibilities.

And so what I have always advocated and very pleased to advocate in terms of the School Leadership Institute program is the significance, the importance, the centrality of leaders, having a sense of curiosity.

But also surrounding that if you like, or nurturing that with well-grounded, well-founded information, their own values, their perspectives on things, their beliefs about teaching and learning, but always this curiosity to activate an energise that, of course, along with a number of other things. 

Prof Halsey discusses steps leaders can take as they prepare for their new role.

Preparing for rural and remote school leadership.

The short answer to your question, are there things leaders can do to prepare themselves, is yes. And I think one way of thinking about the yes is two dimensions, the personal, and the professional.

And by the personal, I'm particularly not only referring to themselves and starting to get their head around moving to a location, which is likely to be quite different to where they are and quite distant from the capital city or a large regional city.

But also often we find that educational leaders have family considerations to take into account and there are domestic matters, very personal matters, which need to be attended to by leaving one home and setting up and creating another home.

Those sorts of personal things are particularly important because they create in the family environment, assuming there is a family environment of some kind, both opportunities for a great excitement and freshness, if you like and almost a sense of new beginnings, and they can create sometimes points of tension, which need to be worked through.

So that's the first lot. The second one is what I've called the professional area and I think there are again, sitting within that there are two domains or two elements.

The first is a suite of information about the school or the setting they're going to and it's not just a matter of being forearmed, or forewarned is being forearmed. It's good sense to get a sense of where you’re going and this is, you know, perhaps obvious but enrolment and enrolment trends of the school, the nature and the composition of the student cohort, the current staff profile, assuming there are a number of staff, both teachers, leaders ancillary staff or support staff.

Are there any apparent issues or challenges and sometimes these need to be sensitively found out from a regional director or perhaps a colleague network. Basically, what are the facilities and resources like? 

The second element of the professional is the contextual intelligences about the location. You know, what are the demographics of the town and the location? Are there any influential community leaders, who will want to both advise and try and shape what you do?  You could look up local media sources.

But within all of that, of course, bringing your own values and perceptions to bear. Because there are opportunities here for both grandstanding, overstating the case, and also the silencing if you like unintended often, of voices that also need, that should be heard.

What are the other services like in the area? Are there partnerships with the school, are there opportunities for the partnership and what underpins the local economy and is there potential for the school become involved in there?

What role might it play? So those things are particularly important, I think, getting some literally intelligences about the school itself, its staff its facilities of resources, its written hopes and aspirations, its track record.

And then something about the local community, which enables you to come into the place with a degree of understanding, with some conceptual frameworks to begin to negotiate and navigate your way in.

Because, typically, what happens, is that a new educational leader coming into a rural community, particularly a small rural community, is an event. It is something that the community generally speaking is alert to and will begin virtually from day one to want to engage with. 

How to sustain your energy and commitment as a leader over time.

Sustaining leadership in a rural or remote school

The first thing I'd suggest is, be very clear why you're there and be very open to modifying that as you work through. And so it's that sort of balance between specificity openness and sort of blended with and encircled if you like, with curiosity about what are the possibilities and what are you doing, and tapping into the richness that young people and staff bring into your life day by day.

And also the richness of what the community brings into your life day by day. Now, in saying this, there is a tendency perhaps to downplay some of the challenges and issues. They're givens, if you like, they're always going to be with us.

And one of the things that I think helps with sustaining yourself over the long haul is to not dismiss those, but to not let them cast a large shadow over the optimism and the hopefulness and the energy and the possibilities that come through working with young people.

A cur community who values in varying ways, their school and education, and with staff, who fundamentally have at their core being a preparedness to engage in the lives of young people. That can be and is very rewarding and very nurturing and very sustaining.

And, of course, sitting around that is the significance of a relational approach to your leadership, your enactment of leadership and your ongoing formation. Relationships at all levels of all kinds, matter, and are central to sustaining your energy and your commitment over the long haul.

Another thing that I contribute is to understand that education and indeed change and development in education, progress if you like, takes time. It's not a fast-food industry.

We live in a world now where now is not quick enough. Well, one of the beautiful things about education is, is that now takes time and there's a lag time, and embracing that and speaking and capturing its power, and speaking back to those who want instant solutions, paradoxically, can be very comforting. Not only comforting, but supportive in terms of your role over the long haul.

Change and development of young people, engagement with the community, bringing about things which are worthwhile when they involve humans their relationships, their learning, their hopes, and aspirations, takes time. And that is a great source in my view of strength and of sustainability for the individual and staff.

A third thing I would share with people is a suite of what I call contextual understandings and intelligences. And getting inside of these is revelatory in terms of possibilities and also sources of renewal for yourself.

For example I can pick one. I can think of about a dozen I could share, but probably we don't have time. But one of the wonderful things in rural, regional remote commitment communities, is the proximity you have with the natural world.

Now, you have the natural world in urban areas, but it's more so the case and particularly if you're in a community, which is built around, an economy around primary Industries, whether of a fairly specialised kind or a diversity of kinds.

Or indeed around the natural world and its engagement with tourism, for example, or sustainability projects, or reclamation projects, the natural world and the cycles of the natural world, the rhythms, they can be a source of strength and renewal for you as an educational leader.

The natural world is a reminder of cycles of time, of change, of growth, decay etc. And those things can nurture your sense of worth. They help you locate yourself in the great scheme of things and they are valuable, in my experience, for bringing to the fore new possibilities and new understandings.

Sustaining yourself as you move in and through the community with your school community, with the Department, indeed, with the world more widely is to think of yourself in terms of three domains. Your personal world. Or three worlds as Karl Popper might talk about, the world of yourself, your personal world, your professional world, and your public world, and the intersection between those as you live your life out as an educational leader.

And the need, if you like, to have a core set of values, aspirations, a way of articulating what it is you're on about and why, and your openness to what might be possible. Thinking about those three worlds, yourself in terms of those three worlds and how they come together and how they also operate somewhat discreetly, is also a source in my view of sustaining your freshness and your ability to operate over the long haul.

And of course, finally, life as a principal is not all a bed of roses as they say. It's not always successful. There are very challenging times and they will press in on you.

And it is appropriate to reach out more widely into networks, into a trusted mentor. And indeed my advice is as well, is to read widely and deeply, not just within the confines of the educational, if you like, domain, and to reach out into literature more broadly.

And seek out sources of hope and nourishment for you intellectually and indeed spiritually. And I don't mean here necessarily spiritually in terms of the religious dimension of spiritually. But I mean that which nurtures who you are and why you are who you are.

It's the head and heart and indeed hand coming together to make you as a person and the contribution you can make, all the contributions you can make over the long haul.

Further resources

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