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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Bare-Knuckled Nonversation

Bare-Knuckled Nonversation

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

As I have many times prior, I learned something unique from my dad last week. He shared a term he had heard used on television: “nonversation, ” which led to a nice conversation and a bit of reminiscence.

From online sources, the term, nonversation, is described as follows: “A completely worthless conversation, wherein nothing is illuminated, explained, or elaborated upon. Typically occurs at parties, bars, or other events where meaningful conversation is nearly impossible” (

Merriam Webster notes similarly, from its Top Ten User-Submitted Words, Volume 5, “A conversation that seems meaningless or without logic (

Yet, that’s not how I thought about its potential definition.  It’s not how my dad did either.  What if nonversation could also have Definition #2: “A conversation that took place, but never officially did”?

That would seemingly apply more toward the struggles school leaders have in leadership, wouldn’t it?

Under the second definition, nonversation would be what we all speculate happens in smoke-filled caucus rooms, teachers’ lounges, and/or at coffee shops prior to the BIG votes at school board meetings.  It might even be what many of us do when we shut the doors to our offices.

Leaders with organizational acuity know how to detect and decipher nonversation, conversations “not” officially taking place in schools and in local communities. Further, our best leaders know that nonversation is also in many cases, more powerful through both its stealth and substance -- more dangerous as well, really packing a wallop.

This week’s question:  Should school leaders, themselves, use the power of bare-knuckled nonversation?

To avert a worst outcome in a complicated situation?

To unearth the weakest link in an imposing force?

To encourage liars to tell the truth, when honesty would serve them better?

To speak in another’s language, one who only understands something really “direct”?

To be authentic, when public record (and political correctness) dis-incentivizes this sort of behavior?

To explore the pavement beneath some bloviator’s posturing?

Or even, to find humor amidst idiocy, something school principals aren’t typically allowed in public?

Or conversely, is nonversation as a tool, forbidden in a de jure or at minimum, a de facto sense, in K-12 leadership?  Said differently, is the use of nonversation unfashionable for those trusted with the care and feeding of our nation’s school children.

One could argue that once we are anointed to serve as role models for children, the practice of sharing something that by definition, we’ll never admit to saying, would beacon “conduct unbecoming of public stewards, where principals would shed their principle?”

Others could argue that by putting themselves out there, principals who make judicious use of nonversation demonstrate, in actuality, the courage to step-up and do what needs to be done, slugging it out in a world where children need someone willing to throw down for them, fighting the fight the way it is brought to them.


Dr. Ryan Donlan would encourage all K-12 leaders to [content of what he would share in nonversation deleted] and can be reached at (812) 237-8624 or at for conversations more prone to parsed words and political correctness.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Elegance of Disproportionality

The Elegance of Disproportionality

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

My daughter, Katelyn, and I watched a young deer foraging through our back property a few days ago.  It had an odd gait and looked a bit shabby, yet was beautiful in its own way.  Later in the day, I watched my son chew a bit of wild onion from the yard as he picked a sprouting dandelion for my friend and colleague visiting from overseas. My colleague, in turn, shared what her culture views as the weed’s true value, in terms of teas and holistic wellness. 

I was appreciative of Sean’s exposure to a different perspective.  I don’t really like dandelions and haven’t really said too many nice things about them.

That same evening, I noticed how that same onion and dandelion protrude awkwardly over spring’s early arrival of a precious commodity, the grass in my lawn.  In fact, our entire property seems a bit out of proportion – grey trees dominating skeletally in one sense, yet at the other extreme, exposing much-too-much of the adjacent subdivision. Our ground is still more a patchwork of straw and clover, than anything attractive.

The point is that while things often look a bit out-of-proportion and even a bit rough around the edges, an overarching “plan” seems to be in place, serving as a harbinger of good times to come.  That is, if we have the patience to allow it.  The forgiveness.

As I’m reminded in K-12 of the gangly looking, pubescent child sprouting awkwardly into a teen or the B-film actor turning into a werewolf one protruding limb at a time, my thoughts are, as usual, with leadership.

Whether leadership in our schools, businesses, or among children on a playground, how often do we stop to appreciate the elegance of inelegance, the beauty of one’s leadership development when it looks a bit raw, a bit out-of-proportion, and even to some, a bit ugly.

What does this look like in schools?  A rookie principal trying on a new leadership “suit” for both size and style, or that late-career teacher fumbling haphazardly with instructional technology, or even a brand-new Board member micromanaging the details of every instructional supply purchase, much to the chagrin of one’s business manager, when we know the real agenda is to fire the soccer coach.

“What a pain!” some may say.  

While craggy on the surface, these disproportionalities, when viewed by those a bit more seasoned and forgiving, appear instead a predictable phenom of natural development of unnatural things, and thus, are deserving of a chance to make their own way.

Can we forgive inelegance in advance?  Reminds me a bit of John Legend’s perspective on giving one’s all to something or someone else, when he sings, “Love your curves and all your edges. All your perfect imperfections.”

Similarly, can we give our all to developing leaders by appreciating the elegance of their disproportionality, and meanwhile, forgive in advance the proportional inelegance of those who do not, so that they can learn from our example?


Dr. Ryan Donlan is a bit disproportional, himself, at times and can be reached for comment or conversation at (812) 237-8624 or at  He would love to have a chat.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Blissness as Usual

Blissness as Usual

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

Earlier today, Department Chair Dr. Steve Gruenert and I were facilitating a conversation with two groups of Ph.D. students, one from the Selaphoom district of Roi-Et, Thailand and another from Indiana State University’s Bayh College of Education. 

In the room sat the Dean of Roi Et Rajabhat University’s College of Education and other distinguished guests, including an Associate Professor of Teacher Education from China and a Director of a university program in Communication who was visiting as part of a classroom observation exchange in professional development. 

Our activities were leading into Round Two of the Leadershop debate that Dr. Gruenert and I had a few weeks back on Collaboration (I hear from honest folks that Dr. Gruenert won the initial exchange, so a rematch was ON).  During a sidebar, we mentioned to each other that we couldn’t believe we were actually getting paid for doing this.


Dr. Gruenert and I were facilitating a three-country, multi-university discussion on leadership.  Just doesn’t get any better than that!  Class adjourned, and I turned to thoughts on what I would offer in the Leadershop this week. 

Blissness as Usual just sort of just came to me, and in a serious way that I’ll now share.

Leadership is a challenge.  It can extend our health and happiness or seriously curtail both.  With such a heavy weight placed upon us each day as lives are entrusted to us, if we do not ensure that our “day jobs,” as much as possible, foster Blissness as Usual, then I fear we are positioning ourselves for eventual degeneration, and most certainly regret.

Thinking back to my first principalship, I remember strolling through the gymnasium with a textbook sales rep, watching groups of students shooting baskets during a long winter’s lunch.  A long-haired crowd rocked with ACDC from a P.A. system that I had provided for them in the gym’s mezzanine.  Our athletic director joined us, and I remember sharing, “The principalship just doesn’t get any better than this!”  When Blissness as Usual faded, I found it elsewhere (in fact, a few times). I often describe my eleven-year experience as a superintendent as one of Camelot, with a 9-0 board in a community that I loved.  Yep. Blissness as Usual. 

I’m pretty sure I have found it again.

So what comprises our litmus tests, as we gauge whether or not we are experiencing Blissness as Usual in our professional lives and leadership?  It certainly cannot be equated with the continual receipt of good news or uninterrupted success in all that we do.  That would neither make sense, nor would it describe true leadership, by anyone’s definition. 

Here’s how I am thinking about it, by asking some questions that might apply:

Would we do in our spare time what we are doing professionally each day, if not required?  If so, we might be experiencing Blissness as Usual.

Do we lose track of time and wonder where the day has gone?  If so, we might be experiencing Blissness as Usual.

Will we tend toward confluence, as opposed to compartmentalization, without overdoing it (see September 17, 2013 Leadershop)?  If so, we might be experiencing Blissness as Usual.

Are we smiling as we drive to work when no one else is looking, thinking of the upcoming day, or even when we envision the challenges placed upon us?  If so, we might be experiencing Blissness as Usual.

When we experience failure, are we encouraged to fail forward, to learn, to be transparent, and to try again?  If so, we might be experiencing Blissness as Usual.

Do we have an immediate supervisor whom we respect and trust?  If so, we might be experiencing Blissness as Usual.

Are we finding meaning in our work, yet not our entire identity?  If so, we might be experiencing Blissness as Usual.

When we need a comeuppance or a kick in the arse, does someone with authenticity offer us one, so that we do not need two?  If so, we might be experiencing Blissness as Usual.

Would we hesitate to accept other job offers at higher pay levels, even from organizations that appear to have fewer problems than our own?  If so, we might be experiencing Blissness as Usual.

Have we found balance in our lives, or at minimum, happiness in the imbalance?  If so, we might be experiencing Blissness as Usual.

A final thought on the importance of having this conversation with ourselves:  If we wish our grandchildren to know us from time spent with them, as opposed to a photograph of someone mom or dad tells them about, we’ll get serious about ensuring Blissness as Usual for ourselves, and through such, for those who appreciate our being around. 

I’ll close by asking, “Do some big decisions need to be made in our own lives and livelihoods, in moving us toward that end?”


Dr. Ryan Donlan is a regular ISU Ed. Leadershop contributor and considers his role as a teacher of Ph.D.’s blissful, indeed.  Please feel free to contact him at anytime at (812) 237-8624 or at

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Of Benefit and Burden, Leadership's Call

Of Benefit and Burden, Leadership’s Call

By Dr. Steve Gruenert
Associate Professor and Department Chairperson

Dr. Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor

Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

Of benefit and burden, leadership’s call. 

Often we find people using analogies to help us understand how leadership resembles other aspects of life. We hear such comparisons as:

Farming – Leadership is like leading cattle or planting seeds;
Military – Leadership is like taking a group into battle to accomplish a mission;
Orchestra – Leadership is like coordinating many pieces to make one opus;
Home building – Leadership is when we have a strong foundation so as to bring together independent contractors to build a unifying vision.

Is it possible that leadership theory can help us respond better to alternative issues in life?  Can it be of benefit in that regard?  Does leadership’s practical application create within us the tools for unlocking situations unrelated to its mainstream definition?

Further, does it make us better teachers, parents, friends, drivers, or bowlers? Does it support our efforts in playing golf, buying food, or planning a vacation? What about fishing or wine collecting?

Before we move deeper into the philosophical, think about how many uses a paperclip might have, other than that of clipping papers:

Unlocking a door;
Pushing the reset button on a remote WIFI;
Hanging an ornament;

Think similarly about the many alternative uses for a plastic bottle, other than holding liquids:

Cutting the top off and using as a funnel;
Filling with sand and using as an anchor;
Filling with air and using as a float.

Is leadership a paper clip?  A plastic bottle? 

The point is to think about something that has a more profound impact on what it was not intended for, than upon what it was. Yet, in doing so, that “something” might have an adverse impact on itself.  We could say that it has a burden that its benefit might beget.

What’s the point?

Helping others to become effective leaders is what we do.  If one registers for our classes, completes our assignments, and then never becomes a leader, did she or he waste time? Or conversely, are there positive payoffs come from knowing this stuff, even if not operationalized directly as coursework would suggest?

Principal interns who never become principals tell us that they are better teachers because of the experience during their final semesters.  They note developing qualities such as the following, even through the study of theory alone at times, and how each contributes to something different than our intended destination for them:


Yet, at the same time, Principal Interns who never seek the principalship mention that they can never really “go back.”  “We’re thinking differently than our classroom neighbors,” they say. 

Leadership: Of benefit or burden?

Think about the leadership skill-sets that might make one particularly successful in the following:

Selling a Car
Joining a Church
Going on a Diet

Yet, can leadership become as much one’s millstone as it does one’s magic wand?

Consider an airline pilot’s burden while not in the cockpit, yet while flying as passenger.  Or how Presidents age through knowledge of our country’s affairs.  Coherence is oftentimes borne of an aggravated acuity, offering weight among wisdom. 
Some contend the middle ground, a pedestrian’s existence, is actually preferred. They note being follower accords folks their “9-to-5’s,” yet more importantly, “their weekends.”  We know first-hand how difficult it is, for better or worse, to “turn it off,” and with that inability, sometimes we become the turn-off’s.  

Of benefit and burden, leadership’s call. 

Except in rare circumstances that we must accept as our millstones, we’re glad we answered the call, and hope you will too.


This week’s Leadershop contribution by Dr. Steve Gruenert and Dr. Ryan Donlan is much like the conversations they inspire during class each week – Tools to invite transformation of one’s intra- and inter-professional journeys into something much different than when they began.  If you would like to unlock something disparate within you as you work to unlock others, please feel free to contact Dr. Gruenert at or Dr. Donlan at

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

"Trash" as an Independent Variable

“Trash” as an Independent Variable

By Dr. Steve Gruenert
Associate Professor and Department Chairperson

Dr. Brad Balch
Professor and Dean Emeritus

Dr. Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor

Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

I doubt most of us have super-clean cars; many of us may even feel a bit uneasy when someone whose car is immaculate offers us a ride. It’s not so much we feel remiss, as a bit out of place, yet admittedly, glad we didn’t offer to drive without some lead time. 
Even if we buy a new car, how long do we try to prolong that brand-new look? At some point, it is only natural to forego that new-car smell for something more natural, more fitting, as the preferred state for many things is one that is used, like a good pair of old jeans.
New cars, new houses, new friends, new jobs, and new environments – they all have a breaking-in period, a point that has an expected transition from “new” to “used” and thus, toward a state that is much more “user-friendly.”
Recently a qualitative study was conducted at one elementary school to explore potential themes that may help explain why this high-poverty school was having academic success. The investigator observed people as they went about normal routines. Yet, the unkempt condition of the surroundings was a distraction for him.  It was not really a terribly ‘junky’ place, but the level of “trash” (e.g. littered, or in a lived-in, inelegant state) did breach a threshold of attention beyond what an average school might display.
While interviewing educators at this school, however, the researcher found an abundance of affect for the school and one another. Leadership was praised. Respondents used the term “family” quite often. A collaborative school culture of trust, loyalty, and mutual respect among the adults in the building was evident (Fullan & Hargreaves, 1996).

A hypothesis:
“Trash” is good.

A question or two, to ponder:
Is it possible that students drop trash on the floor not in disrespect, but as a way to make it more like home?  After all, how many students go home to ultra-sanitary conditions? How many have bedrooms (where most homework is done) where it is difficult to find the floor? And when the floor cannot be found, who are the only ones who have most problems with this?  -- Those who oftentimes find it most difficult to connect the students (and those without the direct stressors of today’s homework) – their parents.

Does it take a sociological or anthropological imagination to consider: Could student achievement be strong at this school, not despite the litter, but because it is there?

Alternative theories tell us,
Research in higher education finds that students living on campus are more likely to be successful when they encounter living conditions that are approximately the same to that, yet not less, which they experienced at home.  Semi-private bathrooms, technology connectivity, and air conditioning are a few minimum expectations.  The question that this theory suggests to us is, “What does less mean?”  If less comfortable with respect to living and working conditions, then the trash hypotheses might have merit for a good number of our students.

The theory of Broken Windows tells us that people will sense permission to further trash a place that seems to already be a mess.  Is this a sign of disrespect, an attempt to “norm”-alize their behavior, or one of intentional interior decoration, with an eye toward a preferred ambiance, given what is familiar?

What exactly are we trying to say here?
There may be a point where our efforts to keep everything hyper-tidy intimidates learners. An overly sterile, institutional climate simply may not enhance a robust teaching and learning environment.  Comfort, trust, respect, and a strong sense of professional family may be hindered. 
It may liken itself to one’s eating out in a five-star restaurant.  If this is not your norm, can you typically relax?  The expected formality, protocol, sense of quiet, adherence to long-standing traditions, and the disconnect from day-to-day reality is intimidating for many.  Unwritten rules that we do not even understand (what to do when the wine is brought for our inspection; which fork among the five arranged do we use; what to do with the cloth napkin if we need to use the restroom) can bring consternation, especially if we are trying to impress those with whom we dine.  And we’re well-adjusted adults.
What about those younger, less mature, more impressionable, and insecure?
An educational parallel:  Is it not interesting that the further one matriculates from kindergarten through twelfth grade, the further their classroom surroundings remind us of our bedrooms? 
We notice today the intentional, warm, and yes, the cluttered nature of many of our highest-functioning elementary classrooms.  Coats and book bags are hung haphazardly upon pegs on the walls, bins of supplies are stacked in myriad places, and colorful carpeted areas with rocking chairs abut congested tables with blocks, gizmos, and buildable apparatuses. 
Desks are found in different configurations, sometimes on a daily basis – atop them crayons, worksheets, books, and even at times now, technology.  With learning centers abound, tight spaces are arranged as best they can for up to 30 children at a time.  A visiting adult can barely find a spot to sit and typically has to settle for a diminutive chair near the wet and puddled, boot and glove section.
Yet children are happy.  Teachers are teaching.  Children are learning.
Routines are established.  All in these cluttered classrooms know where to look for the materials to do what teachers ask them to do.  Students proceed on cue to bins, cubbies, and supply shelves, handing out scissors, stencils, string, and Styrofoam.  They step over the stacks and walk through the piles; in their world, trash is a treasure.
Fast forward to high school. 
Bells ring.  Students arrive to sit in desks or at tables that are only theirs for an hour.  People are prompted to perform the parallelism of a perpendicular world.  With some exceptions we realize, walls are more barren, except for content-area reminders of theorems, theses, computations, and conjugations.  One might spot fire drill instructions next to the mission statement required by school administration, and possibly some motivation posters purchased during the bygone era of one’s new classroom smell.
Comfort and ownership as students age-out are the rarities.  When found, these classrooms serve as certain respite where those marginalized by the right angles of right answers seek refuge, when they need the comfort of home.
Why do we more often fumigate, while students matriculate?  Why not get a bit trashier?  Kick off our boots; put our feet on the desks, and live a little. Or at least, a little more comfortable, from a learner’s perspective.
We are not suggesting schools adopt unsanitary conditions, nor create environments where health and safety are compromised. We do not believe our world (inside or outside) is better when we encourage littering. In fact, schools are a reflection of their local communities, constructed and maintained with tax dollars.  As such, community norms will clearly influence building conditions. 
But how crazy is it to think that people would learn better during the instructional day when they are in an environment in which they are more comfortable -- if every scrap of paper raises the ire of hallway patrols; if every dropped pencil is deemed contraband?  If everything has its “place,” determined solely by adults who do not share the same values as students or come from their neighborhoods, does this contribute or inhibit our students from focusing and opening themselves to learning.
            To extend this further:  Could anything else in our students’ school environments create a disconnect or discomfort in the setting in which they are expected to arrive daily and perform academically?  Further, could we have a blind spot to things as disconcerting to our students as “trash on the floor” is to some of us?

How about the following:
·      Adults who wear suits, and thus, become suits;
·      Euro-centric instruction in a world of diversity;
·      After-school bells that drive kids from our buildings, those signaling the beginning of latchkey time and adult recess;
·      Children penalized for arriving at school late, when they arrive (especially if without supplies); and
·      Bullying, especially that performed by adults.

The question we have as we conclude this week is one of perspective.  Are we seeing what we should be seeing when something unsightly catches our eye on our public schools.  Rick Dahlgren and Judy Hyatt have encouraged us to ask three Classroom Integrity Questions of instructional fidelity when deciding whether to act, or not to act, when something paints our radar as adults working with children:

“Am I able to teach?”
“Are the other students able to learn?”
“Is the student able to learn?” (Dahlgren & Hyatt, 2007, p. 88)

Admittedly, they pose this more in the context of student behavior, but we think it applies environmentally as well. 
At present, would it be fair for us to assert, for critical conversation, that a hyper-vigilant quest for an antiseptic educational climate that meets the needs of adults may win us approval from our custodial staffs (and those whose names are on marble plaques of recent school renovations), yet it may inversely affect the levels of comfort, trust, respect, and strong sense of professional family that is critical to keeping the embers of elementary-level interest burning brightly into a flame of lifelong learning and contribution.
If this is too absurd to even think about, you may be missing the imagination needed to reimagine how we do school.
Said differently, shouldn’t we be just a little more trashy?


Dahlgren, R., & Hyatt, J. (2007). Time to teach: Encouragement, empowerment, and excellence in every classroom.  Hayden Lake, ID: The Center for Teacher Effectiveness.
Fullan, M. & Hargreaves, A. (1996). What’s worth fighting for in our schools? Columbia University: Teachers College Press.

Dr’s Steve Gruenert, Brad Balch, and Ryan Donlan encourage your comment and contribution to this subject.  Feel free to trash their perspectives if you like by joining our Leadershop conversation and offering thoughts of your own.  They can be reached at,, or  We appreciate your spending five minutes with us this week!