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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
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. 
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 or at 

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Helping Our Kids Succeed

Helping Our Kids Succeed

By Nada Almutairi
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

            Teachers think about different ways to raise their class’s test scores.
Leaders in schools think about different ways to increase their school’s test scores.
However, teachers are hardwired, more holistically, to think about making a difference in students’ social, emotional, physical, and academic success. They know that the most important duty of educators is to assist students in reaching their potential and inspiring children to discover their inner passions to learn and thrive in the world.  
            Today most schools and teachers use grading practices in school courses as a gauge to determine, and share information regarding, test-readiness and life preparation. But when educators focus so intently on an academic curriculum to increase test scores, the result runs the risk of kids’ memorizing a bunch of information that will be forgotten, long before it is applied.
            Life experience will not as readily utilize what is learned.  
            Also, with an overemphasis on grades and standardized testing, children may forgo the development of other skills they need, such as the soft skills necessary for collaboration in the workplace and the interpersonal skills necessary for positive relationships and friendships. Bookwork and tests may supplant deeper learning of things less academic, yet more “real.”
We believe that the perfect schools would blend the real world and that of an academic curriculum together, seamlessly. For instance, elementary students could simultaneously provide a flavor of learning in which the real world works in concert with any content’s core curriculum.
An expansion of student deskwork would be a good start.
Bell (2010) explained the use of Project-Based Learning, noting its use as a student-driven, yet teacher-facilitated, approach to inquiry, in which students could pursue information by asking questions stemming from each other’s curiosity. These questions could then guide them through research toward answers in line with their interests, aptitudes, and abilities.  Teachers would serve as guides, supervising students while they search for answers while work cooperatively with those who share their passion.
Collaboration, communication skills, and honoring each student’s learning style or preference are the keys in PBL.  Students are expected to solve real-world problems by designing their own explorations, planning their learning, and organizing their research. Teachers motivate each individual, as well as guiding and supervising each student (Bell, 2010).  We think of how children, worldwide, could benefit from an expansion of learning using constructivism, individualization, and activity.
This is no new concept to the Leadershop audience, we realize.  Yet why are we trying to tease out a bit of discussion, this week, on PBL?
As leaders, we believe that sad facet of education in both the third world and in countries quite developed is that defined by “teaching to the test.”  And a lot of this is occurring.
In this set-up, students may learn facts and ways to solve book-and-pencil problems, yet they fall short in developing connections between these facts and the real world in which they live.  When this happens, we believe students lose the value of learning.
Certainly, the value of lifelong learning is missed.
As we think of ourselves as relatively progressive in our pedagogy, pacing, and assessing, are we “on watch” to ensure that much of what we do in education today is not relying upon lower-level knowledge acquisition, dependent upon memorization without necessarily understanding? For instance, education in the Middle East oftentimes focuses on teaching students test-taking strategies, with much of the world thinking the United States is encouraging students to develop their discovering and thinking.  
Is much of the world correct in this assumption?
Probably not.
Surprisingly, education in the United States (USA) is moving toward a memorization paradigm, furthered certainly by No Child Left Behind (NCLB), yet in reality borne of an accountability movement predating.  A movement touting learning for all students unfortunately was derailed by a political and economic agenda that hasn’t worked out too well.
Ravitch (2013) noted No Child Left Behind’s standardized testing can provide useful information about students, yet as soon as the scores are tied to a staff’s job security, extrinsic motivators and scare tactics such as bonus structures and schools threatened with closure, the measures become goals, no longer indicators of how learning is occurring.
Good point, she has.
We may be starting, however, to turn things around. 
We’ll see.
Could an expansion of project-based learning be a nice start?
It might be, if states and local communities are encouraged to take risks, do things their own, way, and explore (as a model that students, themselves, could emulate). 
We know that project-based learning is important in that it teaches students by asking questions that pique their natural curiosity.  This choice will increase the joy of learning.  Also, we believe that project-based learning techniques will develop students’ self-efficacy during their school days, as well as their years in K-12, and thereafter. 
Could the same be said for the adults, if encouraged into projects of their own?
Admittedly, teaching students how to take tests is also important for their future. We adults know that.  It’s a part of life, and arguably a fairly important one.
Students after graduation from high school will face many standardized tests.  These standardized tests are for different careers that students plan to purses. Even our English Language Learners (ELL students) are required to prove their language proficiency by obtaining a TOEFL - Test of English as a Foreign Language, or an IELTS - International English Language Testing System.  Yet once doing so, we’re all asked to demonstrate real-world competencies and soft skills in a collaborative workforce . . . in a collaborative society.
Thus, all things considered, let us call for a more equitable balance of academic and human capital development in our schools today.  Let us use creative strategies of lesson and content delivery to ensure our students will perform in all sectors of life, in all sectors of demand.
A balance of human development discourse in the context of uplifting academic achievement might be a viable pathway to pursue, if we wish to help our kids succeed, from where they are to an even better place. 
Wouldn’t we all prefer this for our children?


Bell S., (2010). Project-Based Learning for the 21st Century: Skills for the Future. The Clearing House, 83, 39-43

Ravitch, D. (2011, March 20). Obama's War on Schools. The Newsweek/Daily Beast Company LLC. Retrieved from
Nada Almutairi and Ryan Donlan are concerned about global efforts to prioritize test-doing, over that of student development and lifelong love of learning.  If you like to join their conversation about ways we can re-evaluate how we’re measuring student success, and how we’re measuring our own, please be encouraged to contact them at or at  

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Transformational Leadership through Environmental Architecture

Transformational Leadership through Environmental Architecture

By Rehab Al Ghamdi
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

Instilling transformational leadership is essential in any educational setup.

We, as educators, work industriously to motivate and engage students, facilitating their learning, reading, critical thinking, creating, collaborating, and becoming life-long learners as well as leaders in their contemporary surroundings.

This is by no means an easy feat.

Consider the excitement elicited and how we smile when students dive passionately into a subject, ask for extra reading time, or form cross-curricular links that excite them genuinely.  This does not happen without a good deal of intentionality, some lying below the surface of what is typically witnessed as the business of school. In this case, trying to make both ends meet is not an easy task. One such example is when educational administrators work toward moving levers in a school’s climate. This, at a much deeper level, begins to influence a longer-term organizational culture that encourages and propagates continuous learning as well as growth of both students and teachers.

This is environmental architecture.

According to Simon Sinek’s (2014) Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t, the concept of ENVIRONMENT is noted. When the environment at work is that of encouragement and meets the primary human requirements to learn and live, individuals are bound to do more than just survive . . . they thrive, as they feel valued and important. Environment also influences their behavioral changes (Tyson, 2013) and helps them to cope with different situations. 

They soar to greater heights.

School administrators are the immediate architects of environment, or they should at least try to be, as transformational leadership requires a place suited to making it happen.  Leaders are to take-up this responsibility and mold the appropriate environment.

This is especially important, as people are oriented with different preferences.

Kahler (2008) noted the importance of environmental preferences, demonstrating that depending on a person’s goal orientation and one’s preferences toward involvement or isolation, particular environments suit people better than do others in the workplace.  Different people would prefer different environments in which they work best. Some prefer to work one-on-one; some in groups, some on the fringes of groups (getting the lion’s share of attention), and some prefer to work discretely alone.  Therefore, individualized provisions of such environment would prove worthy to individuals, according to their preferences.

Each person has a chance to perform.

With the right environmental preferences, people can perform better, as more of their foundational needs of safety and security are considered.  Our best leaders consider it their obligation to construct the right environment (i.e. conditions) to make this possible. This is particularly important in terms of what we find that we can and cannot control as we work to lead organizations and as part of this, to manage people and ensure provide each with suitable environment. For instance, management can allow employees to restructure an office without their direct approval. This creates an environment in which one feels part of the office and entire work process.

People do have the attitude to change.

According to Sinek (2014), we do not have the power to “change people.”  However, we can change what occurs near or around them, which may invite a certain degree of change within them a bit more indirectly.  We can create a circle of safety (Sinek, 2014), which is really an environmental concept, as well as one of basic needs-attentiveness.

Management matters a lot in carrying out responsibility.

We wholeheartedly agree that effective educational administration involves empowerment, motivation, genuine concern for others, and creating the right environment that is conducive to the well-being of the whole person, whether staff or student. Yet, what is the right environment, when people differ so tremendously?  Common to the notion of transformational leadership through environmental architecture are the following:

First, school administrators must use environment to communicate vision and moral purpose.  In this case, they have to act effectively. It is not sufficient for leaders to have or verbally convey a moral purpose; they should capitalize on the symbols and create comforts of the space in which everyone works, to convey it, illuminate it, and a request for the commitment of others to it.  In doing so, leaders would mindfully organize the space in which we work, consequently selecting its components and asking, “Do my colors and textures match the intentionality of my expectations and obligations?” 

“Do form, fixtures, and functionality intersect in a way that message the mission and validate the vision?” Probably, this will steer a sense of change and actualization of ideas.

Secondly, school administrators must understand that space is under critical influence of the words, tones, gestures, postures, and facial expressions of the persons in it. This concerns the administrators’ interpersonal and intrapersonal relationships. People create their own backdrop of environmental visibility.  Because of such, administrators and teachers must constantly work not only to develop but also to maintain an upbeat relationship with others by instituting trust, mutual respect, as well as a safe learning environment.  This will determine to what extent persons walk about comfortably or conversely with a certain degree of defense mechanisms, dotting the environmental landscape.  Environmental wallpaper is, thus, important to the success of internal and external relationships.

Finally, school administrators must leverage environmental architecture in how they set examples for others and the images they create for the institution. Such leaders not only model but also display the very attributes they wish to inculcate in their students and see in their coworkers. The servers are their own teacher-leaders of the way business is done through people, providing not only the pallet, but also the paint.  Effective leaders motivate others by not only communicating but also modeling commitment, enthusiasm, flexibility, innovation and integrity. All of this works out to create an appropriate environment for each of them.

Provisions for appropriate environment are, in turn, paramount.

Therefore, as Sinek (2014) alluded to using different terms, but similar constructs, the creation of the right environment through transformational architecture is bound to motivate everyone within.  School administrators who create a safe, open and welcoming environment, will notice readily that students will feel more at ease while learning and the teachers will perform their best, leading to achievement of excellent results.   Such kind of an environment will make teachers and students feel empowered to take risks and develop to the best of their abilities.

Change is inevitable.

 It is simple really: for us to transform others and ourselves through leadership, we need a certain degree of finesse with our environmental architecture.

In conclusion, our leaders have it in within arm’s reach.

Our leaders have the responsibility in their possession to provide adequate and conducive environments.  The administrators would then otherwise assess and establish the preferences people have and provide them to ensure maximum productivity.

If leaders “get it right” on environment, then their folks will have the capacity to achieve remarkable things, expanding their capabilities. As Sinek (2014) reminded us . . . In the Marine custom, senior officers eat last, while their soldiers eat first.  This then charges our leaders to work their level best, to ensure each individual is satisfied in their environment.  In this regard, the assertion can be that our leaders have the charge to provide transformational leadership by creating adequate and conducive environments for everyone.

We would like to encourage our professionals to make this a part of their school cafeteria’s environmental wallpaper, as well, and have everything at its best.

Kahler, T. (2008). The process therapy model: Personality types with adaptations. Little Rock, AR: Taibi Kahler Associates, Inc.
Sinek, S. (2014). Leaders eat last: Why some teams pull together and others don’t. New York, NY: The Penguin Group.
Tyson, B. (2013). Social influence strategies for environmental behavior change. Bloomington, IN: iUniverse, Inc.

Rehab Al Ghamdi and Ryan Donlan believe that leadership involves not only supporting the people working with us, but also providing an environment that allows everyone to play to his/her strengths.  If you would like to share ways you have leveraged environment to help someone on your team, please feel free to contact them at  or at 

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Power in "Believe It Or Not, I Care"

The Power in "Believe It Or Not, I Care"

By Aaron Hale
Director of Dual Credit & Honors Experience
Lake Land College
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

Imagine this child’s scenario . . .

I just moved to a new town this week . . . again. 
My dad’s an environmentalist for some big company, always on the move, which means, I’m always on the move.  And of course tomorrow’s the big day, another first day of high school. 
I’m nervous, so nervous that I cannot sleep.  I wake, but now I’m nauseous; I cannot eat my breakfast. 
My dad offers to drive me to school.  We pull out of the drive way, I look out the window, dreading for that moment when I have to walk in those doors and be, “The New Kid”, again.
  Dad drops me off at the front door, gives me a reassuring nod and wink and says, “You’re going to do great.” 
I walk up the stairs, slowly open the door and awaiting me, to my surprise, is a smiling face.  A senior.  He holds out his hand to shake mine and says, “Hi, I’m Brad.  You look lost.  I’m a student mentor here.  How about we find your locker and I walk you to class?” 
A wave of relief came over me; I nod “Yes,” crack a smile, and know that I’m going to be okay.

Educators in America are doing an incredible job raising and protecting our youth, yet are doing so with myriad challenges. 
The demands placed on school children today far transcend those that are academic, as their developmental needs often go unattended at home.  It is with this in mind that our best educators stand vigilant to unearth the needs of children that lie far beneath their outward veneer, and then do something about it.
Once such need is that of “self,” the self that is striving to maintain coping and resiliency through life circumstance.
King, Vidourek, Davis, and McClellan (2002) stated that self-esteem, perception of a positive school environment, and peer and family connectedness help students develop appropriate coping skills and decrease negative health behaviors.  We would argue that self-esteem creates some of the necessary building blocks to enhancing children’s self-efficacy, which allows them to transcend societal messages that one’s potential is determined by one’s lot in life dealt per status or circumstance.  Rather, efficacy allows one to believe that through hard work and a self-belief, success and happiness are possible.
Even through adversity, loss, and tragedy.
A focus on the care for the comprehensive needs of children is what we would like to highlight in this week’s Ed. Leadershop, illustrated by way of example in a particular program.
It is Sandy Austin’s, Believe It Or Not, I Care (B.I.O.N.I.C) program (2004).  
Through its influence, students all across the country are supported and encouraged, and as a natural outgrowth, are “stepping up” with peer mentoring. 
This program was started by Mrs. Austin at Green Mountain High School in Lakewood, Colorado 12 years ago in response to four student suicides at her school.  This student-led program helps students and staff through truly trying times.
While there are many variations of the B.I.O.N.I.C. program, at the core, four teams exist: Freshman, Transfer, Extended Illness, and Grief.  The Freshmen team matches up one Junior or Senior mentor with four freshmen mentees.  These students meet every Wednesday at a reserved table for lunch.  The Transfer team is comprised of a one-to-one ratio where mentors and mentees meet once a month for a free pizza party.  The Extended Illness team has mentors visit a mentee in the hospital or at home in order to provide companionship and to review missed classwork.  The Grief teams have several student mentors and at least one teacher drive to a home of a grieving student or faculty member, delivering a pie at the door, and saying brief condolences.  Grief team mentees are selected by having an anonymous peer put the grieving student’s information into one of four private lock boxes that a counselor will check discretely once a day.
While schools are welcome to make this program their own, a purely designed B.I.O.N.I.C. program is structured as illustrated above through the use various sub-teams.  Each of these teams has student mentors that have a specific interest or innate ability to work with peers who are struggling with fitting-in, bullying, homework, extended illness, loss, or tragedy. It comes first with adults doing their homework to ensure that the best boots are on the ground, of course.  Students are chosen through an application process, through instructor letters of recommendation, and through summer training.  These students take the task seriously and are genuinely interested in helping their peers. The benefits are in turn symbiotic, as the mentors grow socially and emotionally through the process (Blad, 2014).

One might say that this could transcend a school’s academic mission.
Thank goodness!
            In the years since its inception, we hear that over 800 schools with 100,000 students worldwide have worked to start their own, similar programs, if not to replicate hers.  After one of us reached-out to Mrs. Austin, we were better able to understand what is truly going on here.
            Ironically, a “Mrs. Austin” started this initiative.   
Those of you who have nearly a half-century in treadware probably remember a Commander by the name of Steve Austin, a television astronaut, played by actor Lee Majors in the 70’s series The Six Million Dollar Man.  Seeing him strapped to hospital instruments at the show’s beginning each week (barely alive after an aeronautics accident), we would hear a voice-over saying something similar to, “We can rebuild him . . . Make him better than he was before . . . Better . . . stronger . . . faster.”   
Steve Austin received bionic legs, a bionic arm, and even a bionic eye.  He then used his super-human powers to make our world a better place, flanked by a supportive team that offered camaraderie and a warm family feel, even if in a governmental agency. 
It’s really very similar to this B.I.O.N.I.C. program.
Surgeons . . . superpowers . . . warm feelings in a government agency.
            In Mrs. Austin’s school and others with similar practices, teams reach out to those having difficulty, from challenge to tragedy.  They then perform the necessary surgical procedures to stop the bleeding and promote healing, and as well, to offer a sense of camaraderie during the healing process.  They might even save the world, from time to time, for a child.
            I’ll bet in receiving such kind attention when needed, recipients may understand the need to pay this forward, as well.

To us, it is incredibly noteworthy that with schools today judged almost solely through factors of academic achievement (How often do we see one’s being kind, caring, and considerate on a school’s report card?), that ANY program would take so much time to focus its attention on the value of students’ helping students. 
It is an example of a positive belief in the efficacy of the next generation to develop a caring perspective and the skills to put that to best use.  B.I.O.N.I.C. is Mrs. Austin’s gift to students everywhere, and with it, students are paying it forward by accepting the challenge and “stepping up” with and for their peers. 
We might all pause for something non-academic, uplifting, and assuredly bionic.


Austin, S. (2004). Believe it or not, I care (B.I.O.N.I.C.). Creating a more caring climate in           schools worldwide. Retrieved February 10, 2016, from
Blad, E. (2014). Schools explore benefits of peer counseling. Education Week, 1(15), 11-14.          Retrieved February 15, 2016.
King, Vidourek, Davis, & McClellan. (2002). Increasing self-esteem and school connectedness through a multidimensional mentoring program. Journal of School Health, 72(7), 294-299. Retrieved February 15, 2016.


Aaron Hale and Ryan Donlan believe in the potential of our younger generation not only to let us know what it needs, but also at times (when we’re a bit short on ideas of what to provide), to help fill the voids and make a positive impact on its own generation, and generations to come.  If you would like to join them in their unabashed support of a brighter tomorrow through tapping the best resources of today, please be encouraged to contact them at or at