Department of Educational Administration


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Walls, J., & Zuckerman, S. J. (2023). Rural district leaders and place in the shadow of the pandemic: Refining the conceptualization of leadership of place as caring. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 31(115).


The COVID-19 pandemic heightened the tensions between rural community needs and politicized state-level school closure mandates. District leaders faced competing demands of meeting the basic needs of vulnerable families, supporting the mental health of students and teachers, protecting the health of all community members, and creating new opportunities for learning. This study examines how rural district leaders responded to these challenges through the lens of caring. This lens highlights how district leaders responded to their contexts, as well as their perceptions of student, family, and staff needs in ethically grounded and politically savvy ways. We draw on semi-structured interviews with 12 rural district leaders in eight districts. District leaders in this study described caring as something that is intentionally enacted and identified several aspects that contributed to a caring district: a welcoming culture, taking an interest in individuals, prioritizing wellbeing, developing relationships, extending empathy and grace for people, and helping individuals see themselves as part of a larger community. Leaders made efforts to set the tone for and model care, build relationships with students, teachers, parents, and community members, and enact servant leadership to support others. We conclude by examining the ways that applying an ethic of care illustrates how leaders identify needs and the strategies they use to respond to those needs in a responsive, place-attuned way.