by Melissa A. Sadorf. Ed.D.
Ten years ago I was hired by a rural school district in Arizona to serve as Superintendent. In my first year, I was learning the intricacies of the superintendency, was responsible for mentoring a first-year principal, and was learning the roles of Business Manager and Federal Grants Director. Nothing in my educational background and coursework prepared me for the many hats that I would be required to wear. In fact, when my husband learned I would be responsible for managing an $8 million budget, he looked at me askance and said, “You can’t even balance your own checkbook!”
Rural administrators also face a host of unique challenges. Many rural administrators do not have strong mentorship or assistance once they are handed the keys to the building. In fact, due to often remote and resource impoverished locales, these rural leaders often leave their positions within the first three years. Exit studies have shown that the reasons for the exodus include lack of preparation and a lack of support once seated in the position. This turnover is damaging to the system as a whole and comes with negative consequences for rural students. The difficulty in attracting applicants to positions of leadership within rural schools and districts is further exacerbated when coupled with retaining them over the long term.
It was my good fortune that I had a forward-thinking Governing Board President that offered to commit to a mentorship with the previous superintendent that set me up to thrive. That mentoring included a formalized and highly structured relationship that lasted for two years. Without that support, I doubt that I would have had a successful launch as a rural leader. The breakdown in the rural principal pipeline is evident in Arizona where I live. As the President of the Arizona Rural Schools Association, I initiated a collaboration between ARSA and Grand Canyon University to create a Rural Leaders Network (RLN) for the leaders across the state that had limited or no access to resources and support. This last year we had 25 administrators from across the state that met with us virtually over six sessions. We introduced the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) Building Ranks framework for instructional improvement and hosted round tables in order for participants to get to know each other and build their professional peer network. Several topics such as grants and budgeting in Arizona that came out of the conversations needed more in-depth time and focus and were turned into optional sessions for learning. Survey results from the participants were exceedingly positive and all would recommend the RLN to their rural peers. Looking forward, I will be collaborating with California and Utah to offer the same structure next year for 75 participants from those three states.
Mentoring matters. It removes the anxiety of feeling like an island with no one to turn to for help and guidance. It can have a powerful impact on retaining rural leaders in their positions. And ultimately, it’s the rural students who will benefit from having a leader who feels comfortable in their ability to effectively lead their school.