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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Have You Ben Bass Fishing?

Have You Ben Bass Fishing?

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

The first time I’d Ben Bass fishing was a few days ago.

My wife Wendy and I felt like elementary school children in a grocery store happening across one of our favorite teachers from school.  Through our eyes, it wasn’t an educator at all; in that context, it was a MOVIE STAR.

Well actually, it was. 

As we passed U.S. Customs and rounded yet another corner in a labyrinth of a pedestrian holding area in Toronto’s Air Canada International Terminal, I said quietly, “Honey, you might want to get your camera.” 

After “Why?” and a few looks here and there, she saw coming our way, American screen and television actor, Ben Bass most recently Sam Swarek on ABC’s Rookie Blue with a history of great acting since the 1980’s.

As we approached, I leaned across the rope and quietly extended my hand, mentioning that Wendy and I were fans of his work.  His response was warm, one of affability and thereafter, delightful conversation.  Admittedly, we took a picture.

When the next pass brought us together, Ben asked about our careers at Indiana State University and particularly, our trip to Tokyo, and as lines later reconstituted at the metal detectors, we were provided a bit more time to discuss his most recent production project, which sounded really cool, by the way. 

My point in the Leadershop today is to discuss stargazing, in terms of its connection to education and our children.  Star treatment, as well.

I would like to ask educators, admittedly with a play-on-words that sounded more profound with jet lag, “Have you Ben Bass fishing lately?”

We walked away from meeting Ben feeling better than we walked into it, even exhausted from a whirlwind trip to Tokyo with my own presentations, day-long sessions, and a 12-hour flight.  At one point, we rose at 2 a.m. to get in line for the famed early-morning Tuna Auction at the Tsukiji Fish Market, as only 120 spots were available. 

Ben listened with interest as we shared what we learned about Tokyo, especially the part about seeing only two police officers among what seemed a million people -- a city where crime isn’t fashionable.  Indicative of this was the safety of our midnight ride from subway-to-subway after visiting the Tokyo Tower (13 meters taller than the Eiffel Tower, by the way).

We ended our conversation quickly, yet not-at-all in a hurry.  No autographs signed; rather it was simply a situation of movie-star-meeting-fans in a public setting, unexpectedly – sort of like an elementary student seeing his or her “movie-star teacher” out and about in town.

One might assume that the harried nature of anyone’s day could adversely affect a star’s receptiveness with fans grateful to be in the moment.  Not so with Ben.  His day had been long; in fact, weeks prior were as well.  Still, he took the time and interest that a superstar, as I define it, would.

When we hire teachers and school leaders for schools, can we say that we have Ben Bass fishing? 

Do we “catch” those who, when discovered in contexts out-of-school, show as much interest in those discovering them as the persons star-struck? 

How often is “movie star” in the job description?  After all, isn’t oftentimes the local convenience store parking lot, Hollywood Boulevard?

I remember intentionally carving out an extra hour in Wal-Mart each week while a K-12 Principal and Superintendent.  Wendy and I still fondly remember how shopping trips used to be; I was stopped at least two-to-three times per visit by students and parents wanting a chat.  Sometimes I was the leading man like Ben; from time-to-time, the bad guy – yet, always, one whose starring role listened with interest.

I see my own children star-struck every time they see teachers “Mrs. Engle,” “Mrs. Noble, “ or “Mrs. Johnson,” in public.  It’s a BIG DAY when we see their principal, “Mrs. Cassell.” 

In those contexts, my colleagues in K-12 are truly movie stars, and like Ben Bass, I’m grateful that these fine educators show interest in their fans, understanding the import of their actions in the moment. Their time is truly an autograph; the consideration of their signatures, indelible.

Can we say this of all in our schools?

Will we be able to say upon retirement that we had Ben Bass fishing, each time we made a K-12 hire, reeling-in another for a 30-year career?

Imagine if students continued wanting those autographs, as they matriculated through middle school and beyond.


Dr. Ryan Donlan often wonders what would inspire teachers and principals as much as the stars of television and movie screen do for all of us.  Capturing a bit of this transcendental experience might do well for all of us, vicariously helping our children move from where they are to a better place.  Please help him discover this by writing him at or calling him at (812) 237-8724.  He’ll pass this along to his Ph.D. students, who can then pass it along to those they hire.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Coaching the Invisible, Invisibly

Coaching the Invisible, Invisibly

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

Having my dad and other family members in town for our ISU Sycamore Homecoming Weekend was a treat!  My students even gave me the weekend off, so that I could enjoy some quality time, which consisted mostly of good food, football, covered bridge festivals, and reminiscing. 

What was particularly interesting was my dad’s recollection of a childhood coach, my second coach actually, whose actions were indiscernible to himself, yet made an indelible impression on me.

I was a quiet kid, not much a fan of the sport I was playing, yet played because I thought I should.  Not bringing much game at first, I had the blessing of my first coach’s care and attention.  He helped me elevate my game to a level that rose above the waterline of my initial embarrassment.  I believed in myself and more importantly, believed that hard work and effort would bring improvement and enjoyment.

Fast forward to the next year, where I had a coach who would do anything to ensure a win for “his boys.” 

That was the problem.

He wasn’t overtly critical.  He wasn’t mean.  He simply, through action and inaction, did not help those who were average and below, those less apt to advance the score.

It is interesting how the quiet disenchantment I had for this man as a child caught the attention of my father.   And stuck.

Albeit now with a gate less spry, my father has not lost a step in his own recollection of how his son was treated nearly forty years ago by a man devoid of any understanding of how he came across.  A man who did not notice the invisible.

After all, this coach went to the mat for “his boys.”  I’ll bet he was at every sporting event, every scouting event, every school event, and every social event. 

For those he noticed.

To be honest, this coach’s neglect gave me a convenient opportunity to opt-out of a sport that I didn’t enjoy, an opportunity to do other things that served more as platforms for life interests. 

Interestingly, my dad often asks as we talk, “What was that coach’s name?”

It is no surprise that the negative has figurative reservations at the table in the forefront of an elderly man’s recollections, as he thinks about his own children’s experiences that at times, were devoid of a kind word, a bit of attention, and more certainly, visibility.

My dad is not a fan of invisibility where his own children are concerned.  I’m not sure I know too many parents who are.

As school leaders, we have invisible students as well, who probably hope that they matter.

Will we notice?

Will we take the opportunity to identify them, even if it is not the most efficient use of our time, so that our more invisible students feel better about themselves after we interact with them, than they did before we noticed? 

Will we be like my first coach and help children rise above inconsequence toward personal growth, even if they don’t add to our win?  Or will we be like my second coach who truly cared for “his boys,” yet made it very clear who was visible to him, through actions and inactions he did not even see.

How will we be remembered in the golden years of parents’ lives for what we did for the invisible when we had other things, like school accountability for instance, on our minds?


Dr. Ryan Donlan’s mentor, Dr. William A. Halls, was a champion of the “C” student.  As such, he made a lifelong impression as one who made a positive difference in the lives of students who to some, were invisible.  If you are also this champion, please consider reaching-out and mentioning such to Dr. Donlan who can be reached at (812) 237-8624 or  He would like to meet you.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Transnational Teachable Moment

The Transnational Teachable Moment

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

This past week, I sat in the Milwaukee Brat House eating my 2nd “Loaded Brat” for the week with two new friends and colleagues from across the ocean.  We were attending and presenting at the first International Transnational Conference in Education and Learning.  The brat was incredible, a Milwaukee staple, as was the hospitality.
Particularly noteworthy about our conversation was our thankfulness that international conference organizers had the foresight to run with the suggestion of a presenter earlier that day that resulted in their completely turning the conference on its head, on a dime.
After rather lengthy ballroom introductions at the opening of this conference with attendees from what I counted among five continents, a collective interest in what each presenter was planning to share seemed present.
The question was posed to all presenting: Would you be willing to do something different?  Further: Would we be willing to set aside what had been advertised and planned? Would we be willing to change what we had prepared to present, ourselves?
The answer, “Yes,” was heard ballroom-wide, much to the delight of participants and organizers. 
A decision, thus, was made to allow all presenters to attend ALL presentations, rather than breaking things into concurrent sessions as had been planned for well over a year.  Admittedly, this was a bold move, one potentially fraught with pushback from those who had been readying in many cases their international presentations for hour-and-one-half timeslots.
Thank goodness my presentation was on Day Two.  I could adjust that evening.
Upon reflection, a well-planned conference morphed into something immeasurably more meaningful for the group, who many years hence will remember how the collective will of an international group turned something from “good” to “great,” with individual needs to showcase wares and provide home-court commercials set aside. 
In short, as Regier and King (2013) noted, conference-goer’s seemed to have a collective will for universal effectiveness over that of individual justification.  We each gave a bit of ourselves (quite a bit) to allow for a bigger part of us all. 
I’m not sure I have ever seen something so collectively “OK” that was as uncomfortable for some as it was.  Presenters traveled from Europe, Africa, Asia, and South America to offer their sessions, at quite the time and expense, not that those from North America didn’t.

As leaders, I’m asking you today to do a simply math problem.  Count the number of teachers in your building that would set aside and/or completely revamp something that they may have been planning for many months to deliver, with great resources expended, in the most public of venues, so that the collective learning of the group “might” be improved. 
Further, how many of them would do it the same day it is to be delivered?
How many of them would allow for the equivalent of that transnational teachable moment I experienced this past week?
Then after counting, think of one thing you can do to double the number you came up with here.  Think about how you can encourage the adults in your buildings to step beyond themselves, when it is uncomfortable for them.  What could you provide for them, so as to invite them into that “most-cool place” to be?

In thinking of that transnational teachable moment, I reflect upon the number of countries, cultures, ethnicities, races, and world perspectives that came together on a decision having to do with teaching and learning that seemed quite simply, to “make sense.”
 No back-channel conversations to speak of; no caucusing, no dinnertime regrets.  In fact, it wasn’t even the opposite; no one celebrated what a good decision it was, really (with possibly the exception of me, in this writing). 
We just moved on and enjoyed the learning, not saying a thing.


Regier, N., & King, J. (2013).  Beyond drama: Transcending energy vampires.  Newton, KS: Next Element Publishing.


Dr. Ryan Donlan is looking worldwide for answers that will help take our schools from where they are to a better place.  If you would like to share something from his homeland or from yours, please feel free to contact him at (812) 237-8624 or at

Monday, September 29, 2014

"Calling" 4th and Inches

“Calling” 4th and Inches

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

            The Indiana State University Sycamore Football Team competed this past weekend against the Liberty University Flames.  At one point in this fairly close game, the Sycamores were “4th and inches.”  The typical decision here is to either take a risk and “Go for it!” with the run, or punt the ball more conservatively and rely upon your defense to hold the other line. 
The Sycamores “went for it” all right, in fact, deciding surprisingly to throw down the field, gaining sweet yardage and positioning themselves for an eventual score.

            I couldn’t believe they did that!!
            That’s risk-taking.

            In golf, we might do the same in taking a pin shot instead of laying-up, amidst complicated hazards in high winds.  I’m sure other analogies would fit us well, whether in sports, gambling, fine arts, or the world of business. 
            What I’m not so sure about is whether risks this big should be taken in education, as children’s live are involved.  It’s one thing to have “4th and inches”; that’s just our business.  It’s another to decide, “What’s next?”

I once took such a pin shot in a teaching hire, adversely affecting for a time the classroom instruction of children.  Felt remiss and took full responsibility.

I once threw down the field with a program of faculty professional development and ended-up glad my Board didn’t look too closely at the return on investment (regretted meeting that sales rep at the national conference).

I once put it all on red in a decision regarding student discipline and ended-up weighing the benefits of one who wasn’t at all interested, over the others who were adversely affected.   Not my finest hour.

            While I guess I could give myself credit for not being a K-12 coward when circumstances called for leadership decisions, at times I feel remiss that I didn’t approach particular situations with a bit more wisdom and conservancy.
            It would have been smarter as a building principal or superintendent to employ a building-level risk-benefit analysis when “bringing game,” much like I would imagine our fighting Sycamores did last weekend, eventually winning 38-19.  
            Unlike sports, however, in which I deeply respect the sacrifice and commitment of all involved, our profession is more a high-stakes obligation of human service, where every decision runs a risk of making lives better, or conversely, making lives worse through our every gamble. 

Sometimes, we don’t get another chance at the ball or a halftime in which to regroup.

            It is a rare day in K-12 education that circumstances would justify throwing on 4th and inches, when a whole lot of folks are trying to knock us down, and our children as well – many without protective gear or even a desire to be in the game. 


Dr. Ryan Donlan love a taking risks, yet reflects back upon the impetuous of his youth in striving to make a positive difference on behalf of children.  He strives today to encourage K-12 leaders to remain sharp, risk-tolerant, and creative in “bringing game,” while smartly coaching themselves to understand the consequences of every 4th down they face.  If you would like to help this non-athlete better understand sports analogies, or even the realities of today’s K-12 practitioner, please consider contacting him at (812) 237-8624 or at

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Natural Order of Things

The Natural Order of Things

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

Thank goodness for grandparents who have taken on the responsibility of raising their children’s children – their grandchildren – when life happens and circumstances necessitate.  A special place is reserved for those folks, from my perspective.

Yet, with much respect for their altruism, I can’t help but think that grandparents’ raising their grandchildren (more often than not) is not in the natural order of things.  Something is just a bit too onerous about it, for all involved, albeit of critical importance, as “someone” must do the raising.

I feel the same way about principals in schools who take the predominant responsibility for raising their students.  Thank goodness someone is doing the heavy lifting, yet it’s not really the most optimal arrangement. 

What do I mean by principals’ raising children? 

Principals have a tendency to “raise” children when they focus on “students first.”  In an indirect fashion, they raise children when they prescribe the HOW of instruction.  Principals more directly raise children when they prioritize the needs of students over the needs of the adults in the school buildings.  None of these situations bring about the most optimal results in K-12 education, from my perspective.  

Principals in the most ideal sense serve as programmatic grandparents. 

When principals have done their jobs providing for the care, feeding, and education of their teachers and staff (i.e. parenting the adults), a principal’s own children (faculty and staff) are able to serve as well-adjusted, programmatic parents to their students.  When grandparenting supplants parenting, something is just not right, albeit well intended.

With bad teachers, a principal’s parenting of students might be necessary, just as in the case when a child’s parent is not functional in the home, or Heaven forbid, in a tragedy.  Someone must step-in, for the best interest of the child.  Yet, with good hires and sound stewardship of faculty and staff, the proper order of things can be maintained, and school wellness can be the result.

My proposition is that the adults in our schools must focus on needs of other adults FIRST, giving each other encouragement so that they have the energy to parent.  It’s an adult-relationship thing – a social-capital thing.  In other words, from the standpoint of professional staff members, schools must really be about adults FIRST, if schools want to be about children MOST.

How often do we see children suffering in households if the parents are not well-adjusted.  Broken adults rarely help broken kids, or even those well-put-together.

Our best principals serve as grandparents – lights of continuing wisdom and inspiration for the adults directly raising the children in the building.  As grandparents, our best principals stop by classrooms from time to time to offer the hugs, smiles, and niceties that grandparents can offer, leaving further care and feeding of the students to their programmatic parents, with children energized from the experience, yet without too much spoiling.

I would certainly hope that the image of their grandparents our children see is not one affixed to a tablet, scripting how a teacher focuses on classroom-specific tasks that are devoid of parenting, albeit scoped, sequenced, and standardized.


Dr. Ryan Donlan is keenly interested in how adult-to-adult relationships in schools can enhance and augment the teaching/learning experience.  If you would like to discuss this with him further, please do not hesitate to contact him at (812) 237-8624 or write him at

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Patriot Day 2014

On this Patriot Day 2014, the ISU Ed. Leadershop would like to sincerely THANK the proud men and women of the United States Armed Forces, as well as the educators, public safety heroes, and human services professionals in this great nation and beyond, for working to make our world a better place in which to live, as well as to celebrate diversity and the freedoms provided to us.   

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Laboring on Projects

Laboring on Projects

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

Labor Day earlier this week brought with it a national celebration of the American worker.  It also served as a gift that families could use to spend time together before recommitting to careers and education for the fall season.

Our household served as a hub of activity, as much of my extended family stayed for the weekend.  My nephew Jenner, now attending Rose Hulman Institute of Technology, brought his family to town for the big move-in. Other in-laws were passing through on their way to Kentucky.  We also had our neighbors stopping by, as well as our friend and colleague from China, Dr. Fenfen Zhou and her son, sharing some of their culinary expertise and good company.

At the intersection of these visits was something that reminded me of what happens in schools each and every day: folks “laboring over projects.” 

In our case, it was the addition of an attic ladder to an existing 34” X 23” opening in our garage ceiling.  Thankfully, my father-in-law is a retired contractor and although a few years past his heavy lifting, is always eager to complete something for his daughter and her family.

I’m a pencil-pusher, pretty much useless in these projects, or one step above, yet have a positive outlook and will try to learn anything.

Here’s how we labored over project:  In examining the opening, roughly eight feet above the garage floor, my father-in-law said immediately, “Who cut that hole?!?” 

What I didn’t know at the time was that most attic ladder door units are manufactured at least 48 inches in length; ones available for purchase locally were 54 inches.  The hole wasn’t nearly big enough.  After grabbing whatever tools I had around the garage, we set to work.

There we were, my father-in-law, the seasoned veteran, with more knowledge forgotten in construction than most amass in a lifetime, yet no longer one to lift, pound, or carry all too much.  I’m there with a handful of hand-me-down, garage sale tools and “no game,” to speak of.  My wife, Wendy, much better at construction than I, is her father’s daughter, so that helped.  Thankfully, my brother-in-law returned from Rose Hulman about half way through the project, just in time to see me trapped in an attic, wondering how lag bolts worked, if that isn’t any indication of my expertise.  This was after all the electrical re-routing, re-wiring, cutting, sawing, climbing, and hammering to make a new hole in an existing garage roof.  With my brother-in-law’s rescue, we got the job done.  It was pretty difficult but a lot of fun.  We had a cheering section, and most of all, we were family.

I thought of some parallels to our schools.

Something (or someone) presents itself to us, having been cut the wrong size, shape, and utility level by people who created it without a clue.

We’re in charge of adding the proper features and attributes to make it useful, yet everything that is available to add is neither the right size nor the right shape, and we must do a lot of cutting and rewiring to even get things to fit.

Folks who have the expertise in doing this sort of thing are for the most part are retired and no longer perform most of the heavy lifting.  When available, however, they are willing to share what they know and can even pinch-hit when all else falls short.  They care deeply yet now live afar.

Others more enthusiastic are on-the-job every day yet might not have the expertise or the wisdom to tackle the toughest projects.

Many of the tools are antiquated and don’t work.

Someone repels-in from time to time and provides some quick answers that help in the short run, yet is usually from out-of-town and isn’t a regular.

Thankfully, we have people who love to work with one another and support each other to get the job done, as best they can.

Each day, another project presents itself, designed wrong, yet not through its own fault.  Those who built it no longer seem to hold as much responsibility, as they have moved on with their lives.

It’s up to us do the best we can with whatever we have available, working relentlessly to protect our investment from depreciation and our neighborhood, thus, from declining property value.

It seems that the folks working hardest in our American public schools are continuously laboring on projects, in a way eerily similar to the quality time spent with our families this past holiday weekend.


Dr. Ryan Donlan enjoys strolling around, finding parallels to the challenges educators face in American public schools.  He can be reached for conversation or commentary at (812) 237-8624 or at