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Thursday, August 4, 2016

In "Alex's" Class: On Tour, Where All's Good


In “Alex’s” Class:
On Tour, Where All’s Good!


By Dr. Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University


            Two days ago, I stood face-to-face with something that got my attention. 
On a trip with family at Rocky Mountain National Park near Boulder, Colorado, I was traveling in an 8-passenger rental vehicle that I would be using to drive nearly 12,000 feet above sea level, on a narrow, winding dirt road with steep ravines, thousand foot drops, and no guard rails.
            Even to this formerly active skydiver, the notion of driving my family up such a path was intimidating.
            I was a bit pensive.
            Tour guide “Alex” from Alex Rocky Mountain Tours offered to drive if I wished, and while respecting his skills and expertise, I opted to keep my hands on my own wheel and let Alex tend to his craft: Guiding and storytelling. 
He was AMAZING.
            I’m not sure why I do not possess the rush for incidence that I once had . . . possibly a result of marriage and child-rearing, or just plain accumulated wisdom about what one should and should-not-do, naturally. 
            Driving large vehicles up narrow paths with no guardrails, thousands of feet in the air: typically a should-not-do, from my perspective.

Thus, I made no hesitation in asking a series of questions to an incredibly patient “Alex,” as he offered us options on which trek to take – the exhilarating trek or the still-cool-yet-admittedly-more-mild-pathway.
My words, not his. 
He made each sound like an adventure.
I began the negotiations with the “still-cool” option.
Pretty firm on the safer option, with a gentle nudge or two I was provided kind assurances that the more-exhilarating dirt road was, in fact, a more learned option . . . even a one-way path for our safety, with little-to-no chance of oncoming Winnebago’s careening toward us around tight curves.
Ok, so I capitulated to my much-more-adventurous family.

            Fast forward past our incredible tour and ascension up the mountain – the awe-inspiring views, Alex’s great stories, humbling geographic formations carved by once-glacial activity, and wildlife (from small, yellow-bellied marmots, to the towering 700 pound Elk just up the hill). 
Fast forward as well past the lunch at the top, gifts purchased, and a descent that was as unsettling (to me) as the climb (paved, yet with two-way traffic, still bereft of guardrails). 
Fast-forward past the family recount of what was the coolest part of the trip, and what else came close. 

            What happened next in reflection was fairly predicable to those who know me . . . my thoughts went to P-12 leadership, and more particularly this time, teachership.
It was borne of my initial worry as family protector.

            You see . . . Alex was, in a sense, our teacher. 
And we were his students.

            Alex was providing to us a day in school, and we were experiencing things that were a bit unsettling, things that were totally unfamiliar, yet things good for us.
           
Probably sounds like your first few weeks in school this year, doesn’t it? 
Or . . . your first few weeks to come.

            Here is what really stuck out, to me.
            Can you imagine what might have been going through the mind of Alex!?!?

            Who am I meeting today?
            Are they patient, or demanding?
            Are they receptive, or are they know-it-all’s?
            Can I teach them?  Will they learn?
            Will they apply what I share to their lives, and to others’?

            Here’s something else. 
Alex had the courage to hop into an 8-passenger vehicle, soon to be heading up a mountain to an altitude of nearly 12,000 feet, with an unfamiliar driver he had never met (me) and a narrow winding dirt road with steep ravines, thousand foot drops, and no guard rails.

That took guts!
Alex did all of this without any of us ever seeing him sweat.
He even took care of the "little things" that would be a distraction to most (or left of radar), and these were greatly appreciated!
And it is quite possible all-the-while that he was sweating . . . yet again and if so, invisibly.

            I now realize that Alex had no idea if I were to be demanding, accepting, a good listener, or a know-it-all.  He did not know how I would handle stress.  Alex didn’t even know if I could drive that well, because to be quite frank, passing a driver’s test is a pretty low bar, given the climb we were about to make and the road upon which to make it.

            Yet, Alex hopped in the Tahoe. Alex is a great teacher, and that is what the best do!

            How many of your teachers, despite the dangers they face – those to their professional reputations for taking chances, with job security determined by high-stakes accountability systems – hop into the Tahoe and take that ride???

Do we as leaders stop and ponder what is happening in each of our 29-passenger Tahoes, up those steep ravines? 

We are so fortunate each day that our teachers teach much like Alex, where everyone is ON TOUR with learning, and ALL’s GOOD!


___________________________________________________________ 

Dr. Ryan Donlan has the deepest of admiration for the thousands of P-12 teachers who are heading back into the classrooms this summer and fall.  Please consider following Dr. Donlan on Twitter at @RyanDonlan or contacting him at ryan.donlan@indstate.edu sharing a story of your “Alex” who is taking folks to the Alpine and back in one piece, with a newfound appreciation of things they are experiencing that might scare them, but in the hands of a good teacher, turn-out for the best.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Connecting the Dots


Connecting the Dots

By Dustin Jorgensen
Principal
Forest Park Elementary
Brazil, Indiana
Ph.D. Student
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University
&
Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

                  Playing “connect the dots” as a child is an experience that brings much joy.  Most of us can recall that when we were very young, the game started with a picture that had very few dots on it, yet a lot of solid lines.  We could pretty much tell what the image was before even setting crayon to paper. 
But the reward of connecting those dots was in looking at the final picture and saying, “Look what I drew!” 
Then, we get older.  The lines went away and more dots appeared. 
Still, this was pretty cool.  There was a bit of mystery in our not being able to tell what the image was when first looking at the page of dots.  Sure, there might be a hint or a category, but it wasn’t until we got halfway through (or toward the end) that we could actually discern the image. 
Still, there was great satisfaction.  We connected!
 It was always cool when the picture materialized and we had a sense of accomplishment.
In later years growing up, we still played these games, yet with a bit more of an academic flair, intentionally infused in the activity.  Remember placing the dots, ourselves, on a coordinate grid, after doing a bit of math?  Not only did we learn about mathematical concepts and relationships, we were actually applying what we know and still got to come up with a fun picture to color in the end. 
We have noticed, however, that in real life, connecting the dots has lost a bit of its luster.  And that is too bad, as it is very much an undersold developmental skill in terms of its importance to us in our lives. 
As we have avoided these connections once they became a little more work and a little less fun, we have done something to ourselves as a society. 
We now often live our lives as if the only dot we care about is ours.
We see one dot; not a bigger picture.
There is little room for a “we,” “us,” “they,” or “them,” atop a dot.
It’s this big: .
Author Robert Putnam (2000) might say that this is why we are now bowling alone, if we are bowling at all.
            We believe that it is time to connect the dots again. 
It is time to make it fun.
It is a time to help children make sense of the world. 
It is time that adults do as well.
Our professional lives seem to revolve around testing children in core subjects and trying to compete on international tests.  And because of this, policymakers and educational practitioners have put Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) programs and character education offerings on their back burners . . . with no heat. 
While we know that all children thirst for experiences that prepare them for gainful life in our society, are we giving them the help they need?  Think how many of them are dealing with the setbacks of troubled homes.  Elias (2016) pointed out that it isn’t just about parents helping their own children, but that any adult that interacts with children can affect their development.
As educators, we are called to embrace the most important of what society has abrogated.  But are we equipped?
We are not communicating.  And, it isn’t just educators. 
Parents share with us at times that they don’t know why their kids are misbehaving in our schools.  Could it be that we are all just too busy for a sit-down meal?  Oh, and living vicariously through our children’s parentally manufactured activity commitments, we didn’t get that homework done last night either because practice lasted until 10:00. 
What season is that sport??? 
Year round.  Duh! 
If it’s not sports, it’s dance, or something else, where some parents at times (and tragically) seem to show-up to participate in their own social-pecking order.  It seems (when we allow ourselves to “go negative”) that being at practice or a competition is enjoyed for the sole purpose of having a comfortable place to text, rather than to watch children . . . or so that we can over-share details about our lives with others within earshot.
What do you mean you didn’t see the picture of me at the game?  I posted it on Facebook, Tweeted it, and shared it!
            According to a recent study (Decarr, 2016), average participants visited social media sites 30 times per week.  This is a study of adults!  You can’t walk in the mall or down the street without almost bumping in to someone on his or her “smart” phone.   The same study found that the way social media was used led to maladaptive outcomes for some participants. 
Imagine if we put down this same media and ask our children how their days were and what they learned at school. 
To do so would be a viable option for better communication, and to be quite frank, might even lessen the probability that a picture of your family’s laundry would go “viral” accidentally.   It may even offer a temporary reprieve from the angst of someone “un-friend-ing” you because you stole someone else’s significant other (and heaven forbid the disappointment that no one “liked” the post that you spent a lot of time and effort posing for, at soccer practice).
This is very much where we are developmentally as a country:  Many of us standing upon dots, with no connections to help us show our children the way.  The 1300 “friends” you have on Facebook don’t count.
            We don’t put pictures under our armpits to develop them anymore. 
Images can be shared with one tap of a button or one click of a mouse.  And the damage can be life-changing. 
Yet, according to a recent report, most schools hire more security officers than school counselors (Education News, 2016), and schools are under increasing pressure to measure-up in two core content areas, with a disproportionate amount of time and focus attending to them, when we see our children’s lives with waning foundations and certainly few connections from which they can learn appropriately, and grow. 
With social media playing such a prominent role, shouldn’t we hire professionals who can intervene and counsel students regarding social issues, or at least allow those who are qualified to take the time?  A school counselor cannot afford to help create schedules and prepare kids for college, let alone police the standardized testing windows and embargo materials.
Our schools need to provide ambassadors for appropriate citizenship, shoulders to cry on, strong head toward which to turn , and someone who can help a young person deal with a world in which their parents are not currently living, and sometimes ones in which they “do,” a bit too much.
            It’s time to connect the dots! 
We need to help children deal with their real worlds, not ours.


References
Decarr, K. (2016, April 11). Do Links Between Social Media, Depression, and Addiction Exist? Education News. Retrieved from http://www.educationnews.org/technology/do-links-between-social-media-depression-and-addiction-exist/
Elias, M. (2016, April 6). 5 Myths Working Against Character Education in Our Schools. Edutopia. Retrieved from http://www.edutopia.org/blog/myths-working-against-character-education-maurice-elias
Putnam, R. (2000). Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Scott, R. (2016, April 1). Largest School Districts Hire More Security Officers Than Counselors. Education News. Retrieved from
http://www.educationnews.org/k-12-schools/largest-school-districts-hire-more-security-officers-than-counselors/

_______________________________________________________________ 

Dustin Jorgensen and Ryan Donlan want to put the “real” back into the real needs of children in public schools.  If you would like to connect the dots while connecting with them, please feel free to contact them at jorgendu@clay.k12.in.us and ryan.donlan@indstate.edu. 


Thursday, June 30, 2016

An Illusion of Present


An Illusion of Present

By Dr. Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University
&
Dr. Steve Gruenert
Professor and Department Chairperson
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University


            Recently in considering notions of past, present, and future, we discussed an undergraduate Philosophy course of Dr. L. Nathan Oaklander at the University of Michigan-Flint, where students discussed whether time traveled from the past, through the present, and toward the future, or conversely, whether the past, present, and future were simply a series of “after this/before this” relationships. 
Deep stuff and an awesome professor!
            This came to our mind as we were traveling while spending a day in northern Indiana with a great group of educators discussing our book, Minds Unleashed. 
            Let us share a bit of unleashing with you today.
            As we reflected on the ride home, we talked of the notion of “the present.”  We’re not really sure the present really exists, …if we really try to point at it on a continuum between the past and future. 
If it does, it is a very short thing, indeed.
            Something fleeting.
            Something very much temporary.
            We often hear, “Be in the present” with others.  “Savor the present, because we won’t know what the future will bring.”
            We’re not sure this is possible.
            The present is actually just a split second, even if that.
            It’s our foot hitting the sand.
            Yet, as soon as the footprint is visible, the present is now the past.

            On a calm day in schools, one present moves to another, to another, to another, without too much urgency or even an awareness of what was happening at each point we were in the present.
            The immediate past is really all we perceive. And in schools, all we profess is the future (being prepared).
            On a harried day, the present is more like our shoe hitting the plank of a suspension bridge as we are running across a canyon, with each plank falling immediately behind us, into the chasm of consequence, as soon as “present” clicks into “past.” 
Second-by-second. 
No do-overs.
What you just read in now in the past.

So, when we hear that we should savor the present, isn’t it more true that we should actually savor what’s immediately in our past (our child’s smile that just resonated with us; the friendly pat on the back of a colleague that felt good, or the opportunity to say something kind to a parent that made a difference), before it gets too far in the past, or before something in the future skews that memory, or the reality of its impact?

What may be more important to us as school leaders is THE NOW, which might differ in a definitional sense from the present. 
“Now” might include something more than that instant of present; it is our active involvement regarding what’s happening, what just came into our mind, and even what might greet us in the next few moments, based on our intuition and that sixth sense that cause school leaders to imagine what’s around that next corner, before we turn it.
To be in the NOW requires a deep respect for what has come before, as well as what we remember and don’t remember about it.  We are humbled that we only have so much capability to deal with NOW, as our existential cup can only hold so much when we are asked to hold so much of everyone else’s. 
The NOW is very slim, though admittedly not as slim as “Present.” 
While slim, however, it is dense, both forgiving and unforgiving.
We envision NOW sort of like a statistical confidence interval around one’s particular score in life at that moment (that score existing as a “Present,” sort of like a student’s standardized test sore, at it is only a flash of what took place at that moment, and nothing more).  In fact, that interval will extend into the past and/or present – it has to since the construct “now” is an illusion and does not really exist.
Yet, the visual is that, indeed . . . confidence interval.
A certain degree of “give,” “flex-potential,” or “play” around a particular moment in time, where we are still savoring the immediate past and interacting with it, as well as going second, footstep-by-footstep, and interacting with what is around the next corner, through both science of leadership and intuition, as that is our immediate future.
It is a dynamic space in which management exists, and at times, leadership as well.  It is where “maybe so” and “might be” happens.

Why is all of this important in schools, even if potentially ridiculous to comprehend?

That moment in the hallway where we have something on our mind that is troubling us, and we look left to see a student who catches the grimace on our face . . . will that student think it was directed at him?  What should we do to mop up that impression that is already in the past of that student’s school experience?
Can NOW still retrieve it and offer a re-do?
We have immediate past, present, and the quickly discernable future within our grasp.  What is the hook?  Let’s examine with an example, regarding that grimace:
“I wonder if my principal likes me.  He didn’t look like it.”
That moment when in conflict, we either choose to take the first step toward amends, or choose to take another direction before reaching out with an olive branch . . . what second of “present,” or better said, WHAT EXISTS IN THE SPACE OF NOW, will make an indelible imprint in someone else’s immediate past, as she thinks about you that evening.
“And to think that once upon a time, I respected her!”
The NOW when a student hands us something completely unacceptable for an assignment, and we choose to make that first mark in ink.  NOW’s interval of our teachership, and the resulting volition involved, will not soon be erased with another’s memory of school, and how one felt when assignments were returned.
Best use of NOW???
“I’m really glad that Mr. Joseph didn’t go off on me for handing that in, like it was!  That really sucked, and he had my back, even when I didn’t have my own.”

If we were honest with ourselves, heading through life is really a matter of looking through the windshield and the rear-view mirror while paying attention to the dashboard as well.  All three comprise the NOW, but we are traveling very quickly. 
Not paying attention to NOW can result in an accident.
While in the interval, as in driving a car, our second-by-second movements, actions, and reactions (the present) are more a product of our training than any conscious decision that we have time to make in heavy traffic.
What has our K-12 educator driver’s training prepared us to do in heavy traffic?  When we’re IN THE NOW?
Will we leave behind us clear lanes and memories of joyful sightseeing, or rather skid marks and a few collisions that make others fearful of getting behind the wheel themselves.  We’ll create memories, either way. 
That’s NOW’s job description, even if the present doesn’t accord us any real opportunity to take action, other than the one that is now a blink behind us.

The present is misunderstood. 
We think we’re in it more often than we are.
We think we can control it. 
Past is where most present is conceived, without our understanding that once something moves into its space, we’re no longer able to get it under control, unless we have a firm grasp on the NOW and a willing invitation from the minds and hearts of those who own it in memory, to give us NOW’s chance, at that point.


________________________________________________________  

Ryan Donlan and Steve Gruenert are becoming more aware of the power of the NOW, and our obligation in K-12 education to pay attention to it.  With continual pressure to think about how the present will affect the future, they think it may be time to bring what is under-rated, or even undiscovered (NOW’s confidence interval) and give it some visibility. Please feel free to contact them at ryan.donlan@indstate.edu or steve.gruenert@indstate.edu if you would like to ponder with them sometime.

Friday, May 13, 2016

The Power of Empathy


The Power of Empathy

By Gina M. Pleak
Ph.D. Student
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University
Principal
Bartholomew Consolidated School Corporation
&
Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University



Be kinder than necessary because everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle.
--J.M. Barry

As school leaders, it is imperative that we have positive human relations with our school community members.  At times, this may be difficult.  However, if we consider Barry’s quote above during those times, it may help us focus our energy in a way that will lend itself to a resolution. 
How? 
Empathy.
Empathy is a powerful skill for school leaders to use in order to build relationships with others.  It is the ability to understand another person’s behavior through the lived experience of our own perspective.  It allows us to communicate in a way that lets others know we understand what they are feeling and that we understand how and in what manner they are communicating to us.
In To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee wrote, “You never really understand another person until you consider things from his point of view—until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”  The old saying of put yourself in another’s shoes applies. In reality, we may not totally be able to understand anyone’s situation, but through an empathetic lens, we are at least making an effort of doing so. 
Some say empathy is an art, because it does not necessarily conform to linearity or strict laws of nature.  In its dynamic and ever-adapting form (to another’s circumstance), it not only creates, enhances, and maintains positive relationships, it also resolves conflicts and offers a therapeutic option when conflict cannot be completely extinguished.  It moves stages of grief toward acceptance more quickly, yet naturally . . .  readily. 
A famous quote from Dalai Lama is “Listen with empathy and speak with compassion.”  When parents, staff members, colleagues, parents, or students come to us upset, defiant, or hostile, a natural response for even the best of us may include defensiveness, passing judgment, or sometimes equally inhibiting, a rescue, when others are better left to solve their own problems. 
Another option is to listen, empathetically. 
By recognizing and acknowledging others’ perspective, you offer them a chance to validate themselves through supportive reflection and empowerment.  You provide them an opportunity for another to see an issue from their perspective.  This might be the first time, in a very long time that this was offered to them. 
We are not suggesting that this be done from a superficial level in order to pacify individuals (admittedly most all in K-12 leadership have this ability), but rather to put forth an earnest effort to view the circumstance in terms of how they are feeling; what they are going through; what they need done. 
To acknowledge as fellow human beings that we may have experienced something similar, yet not necessarily with the myriad issues complicating this circumstance, goes a long way in connecting authentically and showing that we honor the uniqueness of the present.
A question sometimes asked of us is, “In using empathy, are there times where relating the current situation to our own experiences is appropriate?”  Yes, if handled with caution.  As time heals all wounds for someone, the person sitting across from you will not necessarily be in a place for cognitive reassurance.  Traumatic and life-changing events simply don’t provide for a natural shot of resilience, while they are taking place. 
A better shot in the arm might be a nod, an authentic affirmation, and our showing others that we are relating (rather than telling them that we are) and proving through example.
For great school leaders, empathy provides such an opportunity.
Let us examine empathy’s tool kit.
To be empathetic, listening without interruption is a must.  Nonverbal communication is more important than the verbal.  It is more the tones, gestures, postures, and facial expressions, than the words used.  Awkward pauses may, at times, be unavoidable, and in those circumstances, we may be tempted to jump-right-in with our own thoughts and opinions.  After all, we’re people-fixers.  Or at least that is part of what society expects of us.
However, the better choice is to “inact.”
A preferred alternative, where there is choice, is to be quiet, empathetically.
Making intentional our decision to give others extra time to talk, think, and speak will provide us with more information about what they are going through.  It will also let them know we are there to listen and support them—not necessarily to solve the dilemma. 
Let us be clear: Empathy is not sympathy, nor is it pity. 
Great school leaders know the difference. 
Further, empathy comes easier to some of us than to others. 
For those where it is more a stretch, can we learn to improve it?  YES, as empathy is a social skill, developed or enhanced with intentional practice and reflection.
As we reflect again on Barry’s quote,  “Be kinder than necessary because everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle,” we might also bring to minds the next desperate parent, the next tale of toil, or the next attempt to invite rescue.  Then, in visualizing what we can do, compassionately and empathetically, as an alternative that empowers others to take action and work through circumstance, we might work to build a better default position, of less advice and more support.
We might find that we are left with a default, less judgmental or defensive.
Empathy allows school leaders to develop, enhance, and maintain relationships.  It greatly influences our school invitingness, especially for those who find school is the only place they can tell their stories, even if with a bit of venom or snarl. 
Empathy is an opportunity for school leaders to capitalize on the next teachable moment, showing others what sincerity and an unconditional positive regard can do for those in a time of need.


________________________________________________________________  

Gina Pleak and Ryan Donlan believe in the old Irish saying, “The best looking glass is the eyes of a friend.”  Are we as school leaders the eyes of a friend, when others approach us?  Do we make time for their stories, even when we don’t have it?  Do we strive for authentic regarding, rather than feigned transparency?  If you would like to discuss any of this further, please do not hesitate to reach-out and have a conversation at pleakg@bcsc.k12.in.us or at ryan.donlan@indstate.edu.