School leaders have the responsibility to exercise leadership that results in success for students. However, low socioeconomic status (SES) schools are complex environments for leading, teaching, and learning which presents unique challenges for principals. Teachers frequently face tougher challenges than their counterparts in other schools due to many students presenting with academic and emotional problems, disengagement with school activities, and/or mental health issues which result in low achievement and behavioral concerns. Many students are also lacking in the essential basic resources, namely, food, clothing, physical and psychological safety, and emotional support. In many cases, parents are disengaged from school life and fail to provide the necessary supports for their children. This is turn creates a negative perception by teachers toward parents as they feel that parents do not value education, which reinforces students’ disengagement and problematic behavior. The capability of staff to provide academic and emotional support for low SES students is perceived by principals as necessary conditions for school success. Principals exercise leadership by managing the school but their fundamental goal is to promote student achievement through the provision of professional growth of their teachers and by influencing the school environment to ensure greater opportunities for educational success. Time constraints caused by school-based issues involving students, staff, and parents often limit principals’ instructional leadership capacity. These constraining factors on instructional leadership engender stress and feelings of failure which impact principals’ resilience and self-efficacy, which in turn, deleteriously influences their leadership agency. However, principals react differently to school stressors as a result of their unique knowledge, skills, and attributes. It is the combination of the personal factors of the principal and their particular context that influences leadership action to create optimal conditions for change. This convergence of these factors leads to an examination of leadership in these highly multifaceted contexts, to discover where difficulties may exist for leaders in sustaining high self-efficacy and resilience which are requisite for effective leadership.
This research study investigated the influences on principals’ self-efficacy and resilience in low SES schools. This study encompassed four topics of interest conceptualized within the framework of Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory, a range of leadership theories, and relevant theories of change and change agency: the context of low socioeconomic status schools, leadership, self-efficacy, and resilience. The research design was underpinned by the pragmatic paradigm and encompassed a two phase, mixed method approach utilizing questionnaires and interviews with principals in low SES schools across the province of Alberta, Canada. Four major themes emerged in this study which indicated that principals in low SES schools were influenced by:
• the tensions they experienced in managing their competing leadership responsibilities;
• their teachers’ pedagogical expertise and relational acumen;
• the imperative to partner with and forge strong relationships with their community to better meet the needs of their students; and
• their capacity to employ appropriate coping strategies that promoted resilience, enabling them to persist in the face of these challenging environments.
A new model, the Quadratic Pathways Model, was conceptualized from these findings. This model was designed to identify and enhance the influences on principals’ self-efficacy and resilience in low socioeconomic status schools. This model is aimed at informing system leaders’ policies and approaches in more effectively supporting their principals within these challenging school contexts. Additionally, an expanded definition of instructional leadership is proposed.