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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Differences in Differentiation: New Options in Leading Schools?

Differences in Differentiation: New Options in Leading Schools?

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

I once sat in an audience of over 1000 listening to a four-hour lecture on differentiated instruction.  Imagine that … the irony.
I’m a big believer in differentiated instruction, having “lived it” as a teacher long before much of the current literature was published.  Great writing and professional development on the subject, for me, simply put “science” to my “art.”  Shamelessly put – I was a natural.
A few years ago as a school leader, I was championing the need for differentiating instruction in a high school, doing so through what I considered an ideal blend of Bill Daggett’s Quadrant D Instruction (2004) and thematic instruction, to which I fashioned the term, “D-Matic Instruction.”  Though it required much collaboration for teachers to pull-off, I marveled at how an enthusiastic staff excelled at doing “what’s right by kids,” or at minimum, “what made their boss happy.”  Kids really seemed to be doing well.
It was after much celebration of what appeared to be student engagement, that a good friend and veteran staff member came to me and asked, “Really, Ryan … do you believe we are doing kids any favors here?”
Dan was an incredible teacher, one of the best I have had the pleasure of working with in 20 years of K-12 education.  An intellectually astute, incredibly humorous, politically savvy social studies teacher (and self-proclaimed “Coach of Everything Athletic”), who would oftentimes argue his version of “life’s meaning,” treating the faculty lounge as his perennial, personal philosophy class.  He reveled in his own caricature and was truly the world’s best sport when rebuffed by his colleagues for debating the merits of the most recent election or haranguing about the plight of American’s youth.  Hence, I didn’t know if he was serious or just posturing for another faculty lounge debate.  He was serious.
Well, enough about Dan.  His point?
Simply this:  As educators, we can study the best research about effective classroom instruction, taking into consideration student learning styles, multiple intelligences, needs for differentiation, and even using the most incredible of styles in delivering it to children … yet in doing so, are we actually doing students a disservice, as we have not built within them the efficacy to survive and thrive in didactic instructional environments? 
Have we done students an injustice because we have not allowed them to build within themselves the resilience to successfully navigate a two-and-1/2 hour lecture?  After all, didactic instruction is what they may find, at times, in higher education.  And isn’t that our goal nowadays – to send most if not all students to college?
This is not an indictment of didactic instruction by any means.  It’s simply a healthy batch of questions to be asking.
Since those conversations with my former colleague, I have begun thinking differently about the notion of differentiation, something now that I consider more of a transactional differentiation  --  a style of differentiated interaction and communication, one that has a focus on meeting the psychological needs of students through certain perceptual frames, so that they build within them the energy to communicate – and even to learn – in modes that are not their preferred (Kahler, 2008).   
Kahler’s contemporary models of communication derive (with corporate and educational applications) from his Process Therapy Model® and share concepts similar to that of Transactional Analysis (Berne, 1964; Harris, 1967). Kahler’s own clinical discoveries, resulted in his being awarded the 1977 Eric Berne Memorial Scientific Award, honored by 10,000 of his peers in 52 countries (Kahler, 2008).
In a sense, the strategies I am posing for our thought and consideration are methods of differentiating so that one does not always have to differentiate, if that makes any sense at all.  They help students to learn from a didactic delivery style (or any style that is not a match to their “preferred”), more so than they are now.
“Riddle me this” (as Dan would say, with a style reminiscent of Frank Gorshin, 1966-68): If I have a teacher who lectures all day long, yet has such great communication that students feverishly devour the “didactisms” with rapt interest and an ability to apply learning beyond the classroom, is this a bad thing?  I would argue, “Not.”
Recent presentations of these perspectives, along with a demonstrations of targeted methods of enhancing communication and relationships to educators at Indiana State University and the Indiana Association of School Principals State Conference, have received rave reviews for not only the content of the sessions, but also for the potential relevance, or at least interest, of such to practitioners who are being asked to do so much, with such finite resources, and with such high standards of accountability. 
Something needs to “give” – something needs to be unearthed – to make things more efficient for today's Superheroes in education -- the hardworking faculty who are meeting society well-more-than-halfway in making a difference.  A new method of differentiation could be “just that.”
In meeting today’s demands and tomorrow’s challenges as scholar practitioners, we must turn our minds around the commodities of efficacy and resiliency that we must develop in our children so that they can survive and thrive as lifelong learners under any conditions.   At present, are we producing strong, capable learners with current efforts to differentiate, or as an unintentional result of our best efforts, are we producing smart, yet resiliently deprived kids who have trouble reaching beyond their optimal circumstances for learning? 
I once sat in an audience of over 1000 listening to a four-hour lecture on differentiated instruction.  Would our graduating students have the resolve?


Berne, E. (1964) Games people play. New York, NY: Grove Press.
Gorshin, F. (Actor). (1968, 1967, 1966). Portrayal of the Riddler [In television series episodes]. In W. Dizier (Executive Producer) Batman.  New York, NY: American Broadcasting Company.
Harris, T. (1967). I’m OK- you’re OK.  New York, NY: Harper & Row.
Daggett, W. (2004, June). American’s most successful high schools – What makes them work.  Symposium conducted at the 2004 Model Schools Conference Proceedings, Washington, D.C.
Kahler, T. (2008) The Process Therapy Model: The six personality types with adaptations. Little Rock, AR: Taibi Kahler Associates, Inc.


Dr. Ryan Donlan can be reached at (812) 237-8624 or at for questions or comments regarding the content of this post or anything educational that is one your mind.  Please feel free to share.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Building Management: An Endangered Resource?

Building Management: An Endangered Resource?

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

I would like to see legislation requiring all State Policymakers or Legislators to spend a week as a School Principal prior to sponsoring mandates that would earmark a certain amount of a School Leader’s time and attention for Instructional Leadership.  Just where has the awareness of the importance of Building Management gone?

Take for instance recent changes regarding the evaluation of teachers.  In some cases, state action has been helpful, such as the creation of statewide rubrics that assist Principals in doing their jobs. The ones I have reviewed are very thoughtfully constructed, and the technical assistance and training is of high quality.  It seems to me that most helpful efforts in top-down educational decision making pertain to “The What,” of what needs to take place in school re-imagination.  Policy making and “The What” complement each other well.
Yet, in other cases, statewide action has not been helpful, even with the best of intentions.  One example would be new mandates that pertain to the “How and Under What Conditions” of classroom observations or timelines in teacher evaluation.  The carrying out of these professional responsibilities should be left to the discretion of Principals, working under locally developed Administrative Regulations in line with Board Policy.  Policy making and “The How” do not complement each other well.
Mandating how often and under what conditions school leaders must perform their instructional leadership responsibilities can result in collateral damage. In this case, the “What” – i.e. a system of evaluation that can potentially uplift professional performance while allowing for a more expedient and effective dismissal mechanism of bad teachers -- is quite helpful, indeed (and some may say overdue), yet methodological standardization to reach this end is not a best fit for anyone.  I’ll grant that legislation typically offers provisions allowing for leeway in who actually carries out “How” mandates, such as through privatization or with outside consultants, yet with the realities of current economic conditions in schools, will this really help?  With finite budgets, the Principal will end-up doing most of the job.

Where am I going with all of this? 

Efforts to improve Instructional Leadership in our nation’s schools are valiant and should be applauded, yet only if they are measured within the context of our protecting and embracing a Principal’s duty of Building Management. Student learning does not occur when Management takes a back seat.  A pendulum may be swinging too far toward an in-vogue notion that Instructional Leadership is “all that,” while at the same time providing “Building Management” a bad rap.
A tacit assumption seems to pervade conversation that leaders who spend too much time with Building Management are oftentimes those who rose to positions of leadership through a path well trodden by good-ole boys or lackluster academic pedigrees.  Another is that those who earmark smaller amounts of time to Instructional Leadership are bad leaders. In reality, however, it may be that some schools simply are in need of more Management, even with the best leaders in place.  Local context decides.  The old adage, “Walk a mile in one’s shoes,” applies.
Yet trends in policy and legislation provide worry for me that with newly prescribed requirements for Instructional Leadership, an unintentional micromanagement of a leader’s job may adversely affect his/her ability to soundly Manage a building – all this while kids are not coming any easier to educate.   Am I alone here?
Let’s consider SODA in the context of our discussion. Policymakers and Legislators with an eye on the ball of truly improving Leadership in our nation’s schools would ensure a focus on the Safety, Order, Discipline, and Attendance (SODA) in a school building. Quality teaching and learning demand that SODA is provided before instruction can have value. 
            The litany of variables and circumstances that can affect SODA on a daily basis would run for pages, all of which necessitate an attention to Building Management for Principals and similarly  make Instructional Leadership at times difficult. I will present a few of the many at this time. These are presented not to indicate that Instructional Leadership is unimportant; they are shared to awaken interest, once again, on the importance of Building Management and how much TIME it takes.

The following are examples of Building Management priorities that present themselves and take even the best Principals’ TIME:

A Principal’s TIME spent greeting students each morning and following-up with parents who arrive at the door, those with concern over issues of student welfare or simply needing a leader’s time.  Rushing into Instructional Leadership may not be the most prudent course of action each morning. Building Management is needed so that teachers can teach, parents can parent, and so that children can learn.

A Principal’s TIME investigating the veracity of reports that cyber-bullying has occurred outside of school hours and that in-school retaliation may result.  The list of involved students often numbers “more than a handful,” some who take liberties with the truth when questioned, resulting in even more time spent.  Proactive safety investigations take time, and failing to act prudently can hamper a school’s security and negatively impact learning. Building Management is needed to head things off at the pass and to protect those who are vulnerable.

A Principal’s TIME maintaining an open door to his/her office during instructional periods, as teachers who coach after school may need to use their preparation hours for conversations with the leader. With the demands on faculty members for student achievement, frequent access to the building leader is a must and should be a sound part of any Principal’s Management plan.

A Principal’s TIME in coordinating and overseeing building security issues of varying magnitudes when events in community go awry. A principal oftentimes has a delicate balancing act in keeping a finger on the pulse of external events while focusing on internal tasks at hand. Building management is needed to maintain readiness and the proper state of alert.

A Principal’s TIME in keen observation of the macro-environment during instructional time, with vigilance in maintaining a presence in the hallways, commons areas, and study nooks.  This is especially important when students are traveling back and forth between the academics in classrooms and the research in computer laboratories or when moving to and fro from study areas for those engaged in pullout programs.  I would argue that a Principal too-often focused on the micro-activities of scripting lessons in direct observation misses much of the larger picture.  Building Management is arguably a much-needed form of instructional stewardship.

A Principal’s TIME dealing with an angry community member in the front office; you know, “That Person” demanding to speak with “Whoever is in charge, OR the TV News will be called.”  Any prudent Principal will tend to the urgencies of reputation management, as an air of public opinion gone south can certainly derail an institution’s ability to educate. Building Management is needed to manage the message.

A Principal’s TIME handling a situation where a teacher reports that two students have come back from lunch smelling of marijuana. Time is of the essence; as oftentimes, once the trail gets cold it is harder to ensure a viable chain of evidence and prevent distribution from occurring beyond what has already taken place. Building Management is needed as we “say no” to drugs.

A Principal’s TIME addressing a non-custodial parent on school property attempting to sign-out a child from school. This is a delicate legal situation, as always. Building Management is needed to feel one’s pain while possibly telling him/her “No.”

A Principals’ TIME cleaning and sanitizing the restroom or hallway after a “deposit” made by a sick child, as in this era of finite budgets and caps on services, we cannot rely on custodians to be on duty during the school day.  The same could be said for the intermittent plunging of toilets. We’ll not have the secretaries doing this! Building Management is needed as Universal Precautions are taken.

A Principal’s TIME handling “all other duties as assigned” by the Superintendent, as that is what smart leaders do who pay their own mortgages and feed their own children.  Building Management, as well as the idiosyncrasies of one’s boss, is needed to keep a job and to make school a great place for kids and staff.

Given the myriad variables that influence a school leader’s TIME, is it really inappropriate to ask that Policymakers and Legislators allow Principals to carry out the “What” of Instructional Leadership under their own “How and Under What Conditions”?  With greater autonomy, Principals could, for example, choose to spend more time holding faculty members accountable who are underperforming, or conversely to spend more time witnessing and sharing the expertise of the truly exemplary. 
Currently, the trend seems to support mandates that hyper-standardize the “How and Under What Conditions” of a Principal’s Instructional Leadership, not only to the expense of Building Management but also much to the chagrin of those who might have a more efficient and effective plan for managing their time. Let us give Principals the highest of performance expectations and stay out of their way. 


Dr. Ryan Donlan can be reached for comment or questions at (812) 237-8624 or at  He encourages you to comment on this Blog, especially if you wish to offer thoughtful ideas with respect to teaching, learning, or leadership in our nation’s scho

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

On Reluctance

On Reluctance

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

… Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season?

From Robert Frost’s
Reluctance, 1913

Amidst the “big-impact” decisions you make in your life and leadership, consider carefully those more infrequent that can be considered of “long-impact,” ones that will assuredly influence the quality of your life’s journey.  Long-impact decisions trigger deep questioning within ourselves regarding readiness, satisfaction, trepidation, and resolve … about current relationships, past experiences, and future opportunity. 

It is natural for good leaders to be taken aback by the depth of consequence of long-impact decisions and to ask themselves, “Is it time?” “Am I ready?”  “What will happen?”  “Will I regret?”  “What is the impact on others I love?”

Long-impact decisions can be (1) Educational – Enrolling in a Graduate Program … Selecting a Dissertation Chair … Changing a Major, (2) Occupational – Ascending to the Superintendency … Declining a Job Offer … Terminating an Employee, or (3) Personal – Proposing to a Significant Other … Adopting a Child … Scheduling Bariatric Surgery (just a few of the many examples). All could affect one’s leadership; all will change your life.

Long-impact decisions involve myriad variables that substantially increase eustress or distress, and because of such, leaders face naturally occurring feelings of “reluctance” as they address available options that at best, offer complexity amidst ambiguity. Reluctance in leadership is a “dis-inclination,” a lack of desire, a pensiveness or hesitance.  It is one of many barometric readings within us that should deepen our thoughts, as any decisions made on the near end of our life’s journey, positively or negatively impact our quality of life on the far end.

It is never easy and quite true that the ability to handle one’s reluctance toward positive ends varies from leader to leader.  One’s ability to handle reluctance affects the strength of one’s leadership.

How do you handle reluctance?

            A difference exists between those who use reluctance in long-impact decisions to move toward a vista of self-actualization and those who use it to deepen grooves of risk aversion and the status quo. The former harnesses and directs its energy through self-empowerment, moving forward on life’s terrain toward a destination of growth and accomplishment; the latter shies from the surge by metaphorically avoiding eye contact through a veil stitched of complacency and apprehension.

            I cannot offer advice on the decisions leaders should make as they confront situations of long-impact during their tenure, as without contextual detail and an intimate knowledge of circumstance, that would be imprudent.  I can, however, offer a philosophical framework useful for energizing oneself during long-impact decision-making, by turning Frost’s excerpt above into prose, a conversation that I would have with myself – thoughts that have helped me to navigate long-impact decisions for many years.

… Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
(Frost, 1913)

When considering what is really important on our life’s journey, we are committing an injustice against ourselves if we resign that we must accept the initial hand dealt or think that our present circumstance it is all that we deserve or can handle.  Our best leaders are efficacious; they shape, define, and interpret their future; they act not as sheep.

To yield with a grace to reason,
(Frost, 1913)

When considering what is really important on our life’s journey, we are committing an injustice against ourselves when we seek only those futures in which we calculate, to our satisfaction, a cost/benefit analysis before beginning. Our best leaders transcend what others view as customary if they see farther and feel deeper, needing no measurable certainties prior.

And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season?
(Frost, 1913)

When considering what is really important on our life’s journey, we are committing an injustice against ourselves if we accept that happiness is of finite temporality, or further, if we allow the our satisfaction to plateau by settling for a path of least resistance.  Our best leaders embody the warmth of Irish Proverbs and may even spar a few rounds for an evergreen tomorrow.

On Reluctance, in decisions long-impacting … “Where are you?”


Dr. Ryan Donlan can be reached at (812) 237-8624 or at Please consider sharing your thoughts, ideas, and perspectives on this Blog at anytime.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Marathons & Sprints - Our Race to Improve School Attendance, Part II

Marathons & Sprint – Our Race to Improve School Attendance, Part II

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


Last week, we shared information on running THE MARATHON toward enhancing school attendance for students.  This week, we concentrate on THE SPRINT – “What leaders and schools can do more quickly to increase attendance mindfulness, motivation and accountability.”  As some of these ideas involve intervention beyond what is typically offered by school leaders, please consult your School Board Policy, Superintendent, Insurance Carrier, and School Attorney before racing to implement.  Some are sticks; some are carrots, and some are just strategies we can use to enhance communication.  All have the possibility of making a positive difference; a few bring risk.  Use your own discretion and local circumstance in considering implementation.

Assemble and Advertise

Who tells your schools’ stories? Who advertises the value, and the values, of school? Hopefully, as a leader, it is you.  Storytelling helps articulate what the institution values, and by meeting regularly for purposes of rituals, ceremonies, celebrations, and communication, a leader can awaken all to the value of positive school attendance.  I suggest doing so in a Whole-School Meeting once per week. In considering what we celebrate during these events, please consider offering “those trending” with better attendance a pat on the back for a job well done, as well as those who operate successfully in our criterion-referenced world of “Perfect Attendance”?  When leadership values “what’s trending now,” they value the positive directionality in students that in some cases is more effortful than maintaining star performance. Select your language carefully, as students have mentioned that “Most Improved” language can appear to some as a title given to those who are “sucking up” or to those who were “losers prior.” This may not be the case in your school, but it is something to consider. Celebrating “Students of the Week” for classroom performance is also a nice idea during these events, done even better if each teacher can select one, each week (without veto from others), so that more students are celebrated. Students who feel that they “matter” are more positive in their perspectives on school attendance. Certificates for each celebrant and recognition in in whole-school meetings make for nice pats on the back.  “Mattering Matters.”

Create Fun through Chance and Incentive

Purchase a roll of raffle tickets, numbered in duplicate.  At times when attendance tends to wane (Monday mornings and Friday afternoons, as examples), wander into classrooms and offer tickets to those in attendance.  Divide this responsibility among your leadership team if the school is quite large. For those who arrive for your whole-school assemblies, offer them tickets as well.  This way, all in attendance at the assembly will have a chance at winning, and all who have been “caught being present” over the course of the given week prior will have an even greater chance.  Pull randomly from a bin as part of your celebration, and distribute prizes accordingly.  Ask local members of the Chamber of Commerce and business community to donate prizes. Hopefully, you have been busy building your social capital here. Other ideas for incentives include handing out makeshift dollar bills (sometimes with your picture as Principal on them), allowing students to collect these over time and purchase flex scheduling opportunities or items from the school store.  I even designed fictitious “paychecks” for the same purpose, in line with a “School is One’s Most Important job,” theme, mentioned later in this post. The key here is creating fun through chance and incentive for positive attendance and earned performance.

Walk Up and Knock

Every once in a while, we need to have a frank conversation with parents who may not be doing their jobs getting their children to school.  When we do so, are we on their turf?  Parents may need to share, in confidence, why their children are not engaged in school. A leader’s initiation of these conversations via telephone calls only increases the possibility of defense mechanisms. Meetings in our offices can be intimidating.  Thus, meetings at home are a viable alternative. During home visits, and while opening up meaningful dialogue, our eyes have the ability to scan left and right, unearthing a few of the reasons behind lackluster attendance, as much is revealed in the privacy of one’s home.  As home intervention brings with it a certain degree of potential risk and liability, ensure that your visits are smartly conducted, safety executed, and authorized by your Policy, Administrative Regulations, Superintendent, Insurance Carrier, and School Attorney.

Flex Schedules & Tear Down Walls

Education for some may work well during school hours; for others it may not. In rare occasions, it may work better at home than at school. As a leader you can flex schedules and tear down walls. Why not issue inexpensive laptops to those with attendance problems, if they are willing to work from home as part of their school day? Why not allow some students to Skype into class? It is unorthodox and incurs costs, of course, so offer it with discretion to students who seem to value the opportunity.  With the newest technology, it will become easier to flex each year. You may find that some at-risk students rise to the challenge and prove that they can learn and succeed in a different medium. Consider the proliferation of on-demand, anytime education for adults in this 21st century; students struggling with attendance are in many cases, no different than adults who need non-traditional options for bettering their lives through education.

Offer Curbside Service

Load the Frisbees; grab the footballs.  Stock the bottled water, and start your engines. Some schools have initiated road trips to awaken students nestled all snugly in beds.  Of course, one should smartly work this out with parents ahead of time, usually the same morning with a telephone call (and a great relationship prior).  Arriving at the residence, school leaders would first ask that the students be brought to the door.  Imagine if your principal was sitting out front, and you were sleeping-in?!? Leaders may even, if asked, go one step further and follow the parents/guardians to the students' rooms, inviting said students into the vehicle, patiently waiting as the weary (and often angry) students ready themselves for the day. As the excursions proceed, students can toss the Frisbee or football while leaders are otherwise occupied. Yes, this also one is good for sharing with your Superintendent, Insurance Carrier, and School Attorney.  Oh … and keep it gender-specific – same gendered staff member does the wake-up call to the same-gendered student. The other leader waits down the hall, but always inside.  Only consider this option if you have the parents as partners and if trusted relationships are already fostered and if sound and researched Board Policy supports you.

Shout, “School Quality is Job One!”

How many of our students at the high school level are working outside of school and consider their jobs at the fast food restaurants or car washes their 1st careers, as opposed to considering school their most important job?  Well, in many states, children under the age of 18 years of age have restrictions on how often and under what conditions they can work.  They need Work Permits.  Have you looked at the fine print lately to see if a school official must sign-off on these permissions?  If so, why not declare them null and void from time to time for non-attendance?  After all, why would we let students attend their less-important jobs if they’re not attending school? Word will certainly spread after you pull the trigger. Parents at times will even help advertise your actions as they arrive at school to boldly express their discontent. It’s all about realigning paradigms – Once one understands what the most important career is for a two-career teen, then work permits become much easier to keep.  School Quality is Job One.

Play Catch Each Morning

Are you as a school leader on the front porch, each and every morning, greeting students and waving to parents as they arrive?  When I was at my best in K-12 education, I certainly was doing so. That’s why I implore school leaders never to open their e-mails when they arrive at school in the morning; other items need their attention.  Kids need you on the doorstep.  There is no better location than a school’s outside entrance to diagnose what’s coming in the door and promote positive attendance.  Many of our struggling students will come to school, just so that you notice their need for intervention. It is one of your most important roles each day.

Hold Staff Accountable & Mean It

Teachers need reminders that a leader is aware of who is not attending their classes and that failure or disengagement may impact students’ decisions to attend school. An idea that gets attention is to pin the faces of all struggling students on a bulletin board at a staff meeting after report cards are issued.  Divide another bulletin board with teachers’ faces in designated areas.  Then ask staff members to go to the student bulletin board and transfer students’ faces (those whom they decide to “adopt or shepherd”) aside those of the teachers, so that all can see who wants to pay special attention to whom the next semester. This does not supplant a formal advisory program, of course; it is simply another strategy for adults’ taking informal responsibility to create meaningful relationships with students.  At the end of the next report card period, revisit the bulletin board of the teachers and celebrate the steps staff members have taken to make those students feel more productive. 
Another strategy has to do with staffing, as someone in your organization needs to be on the payroll each morning for the expressed purpose of calling parents and guardians of students who are not in school. Yes, each morning. A suggestion would be to hire this person is a brand new, part-time, hourly employee, one who would monitor attendance and confirm the validity of student absences and more importantly, to see to it that those students who are able, arrive the same day. The job could be envisioned as nearly one of “commission," or at least one of "incentive."  Hiring two part-time interventionists, offering more days per week to the one who is the most effective, is a nice way of create a friendly competition that gets results.  Again, check with your Superintendent and School Attorney to ensure that your employment and evaluation practices allow for this arrangement. 


A well-rounded team running the race toward increased student attendance needs more than carrots, sticks, and increased communication – i.e. THE SPRINT – to make it happen.  As Assistant Principal Ernie Simpson and I discussed last week, incalculably important to any effort is THE MARATHON, as deeper endurance through comprehensive school support and service delivery must be in play in order to tackle the demands of today’s student audience and a society that has become increasingly challenged with their individual circumstances. 

Best to you on your way to “the win.”



Dr. Ryan Donlan can be reached for comment and debate at or at (812) 237-8624.  He encourages you to offer your own perspective on the practicality of ideas noted in this Blog or to extend with meaningful ideas of your own as a leader in K-12 education.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Marathons & Sprints - Our Race to Improve Student Attendance

Marathons & Sprints – Our Race to Improve Student Attendance

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

I recently had the pleasure of responding to a post on Twitter, and through some inspiring follow-up conversation with Assistant Principal Ernie Simpson of South Vermillion High School, I had the opportunity of sharing a few ideas on enhancing Student Attendance.  What’s particularly impressive about Mr. Simpson is his depth in understanding what’s really relevant in our attempts to encourage students to attend school each day – he knows what works and what doesn’t.  I enjoyed the talk!

As we agreed that the subject was one of both importance and urgency, I proposed that our profession’s race to improve student attendance has unearthed two metaphors, the notion of a “marathon” and that of a “sprint.”  Ideas that were important, yet took a bit longer to implement, were of the former category; those that could be enacted tomorrow with urgency, “policy allowing and leadership willing,” were of the latter.  This week’s post discusses the marathon, as many of us have, even with our best intentions, miles to go before winning the race.  In future weeks, I’ll discuss the sprint. 

Five integral components that I believe over time, will allow us to win the marathon of improving student attendance in school, are now presented for your thoughts, consideration, and feedback.  Please let us know if you agree, disagree, or more importantly, if you have any other ideas to share.

In order to improve student attendance …

(1) Hire More John Wooden’s

Legendary Coach John Wooden cared so much for the welfare of his players that he would even teach them how to put on their footwear in order to avoid blisters.  Wooden made doing the business of basketball more “do-able.” His players respected and adored him as a father figure.  They knew he cared.  How do your students feel about their teachers?  Conversely, to what length will your teachers go to help students succeed?  Would they go as far as John Wooden?  Do they make the business of school more “do-able” for students? If not, hire more John Wooden’s, as without those like him, children’s needs will not be met, and they will not want to come to school.  School will be hard on them (which is different and much worse than “hard for them”), and if so, motivation to attend will wane.  Think of this: Students are with their teachers, on any given day, for as much time or more than they are with their own parents.  Are we providing the positive parenting that is sorely needed?  Are we breathing heartfelt life into the notion of “In-Loco Parentis”?  Children hunger for it.  It’s part of the marathon.  How many John Wooden’s do you have on staff?

In order to improve student attendance …

(2) Train Your Front-Line Soldiers

We all want parents on our side, as quality partnerships help foster positive attendance.  Monumentally important to this are the positive one-on-one interactions parents and guardians have with faculty and staff.  Unfortunately, the most frequent contact parents receive is in the form of a “bad news” call by a teacher, who in many cases, is virtually untrained in telephone messaging.  Do your faculty members know how to use telephone strategies to uplift frustrated parents who have given up hope?  Do your faculty members know how to use telephone conversations to better meet the needs of disgruntled stakeholders who oftentimes feel backed against the wall and perceive a school “unfriendly,” much as they did the one they attended 15 to 25 years prior?  Do you spend professional development time on this topic? Yes, I’m really talking about “PD on Telephone Usage.” Quality training in communication and compassion is worth the investment and is an integral part of any effort to develop partnerships that will increase attendance-mindfulness.  It’s part of the marathon.

In order to improve student attendance …

(3) Serve-Up Rigor & Relevance

When interested and challenged in ways that are relevant, children perform. Consider the fact that many 2nd graders who struggle academically can still discern the intricacies of Bakugan Game Cards and regale the lineage of every Lego Ninjago figurine.  This is rigorous stuff, yet made relevant by a child’s interests, aptitudes, and abilities. In my day, children demonstrated their love for rigor through the spelling of every dinosaur’s names of by memorizing superhero origins, very relevant to those who wanted to grow up to be Batman or the Wonder Woman. For some of our most at-risk students, rigor and relevance manifest themselves in the artwork we see adorning trains at any given railroad crossing or the intricacies of the tangled webs they weave while simply trying to navigate life.  Not too many students, even those with low grades in school, are failing Driver’s Training, as another example, and even those with difficulties in the classroom are not experiencing too much hardship memorizing plays on the athletic field.  With examples abound of students’ stepping-up into their talent potential, we should take note of how we can replicate these experiences in the classroom. A good source of information on making academics both rigorous and relevant is published in the International Center for Leadership’s Education’s Rigor & Relevance Framework  materials (Daggett, 2004).  Consider accessing student  potential through rigor and relevance when running the marathon.  It will make school meaningful.

In order to improve student attendance …

(4) Supplant Membership with Membership

Kids seek out fun, freedom, love and belonging – their basic needs (Glasser, 1998).  When they do not have these needs met at home or school, they seek fulfillment elsewhere, either through inappropriate peer groups who do not identify positively with school or in the worst of circumstances, through gang membership.  Kids want to belong. Unfortunately, the availability of negative influences promoting membership opportunities is even more expansive nowadays as we consider the Internet. How can schools help?  By keeping children occupied positively, as children in classrooms nearly always do better than those who are not.  Great educators encourage membership in socially responsible ways; they fill voids and meet needs. Their positive membership supplants negative membership. They offer fun, freedom, love, and belonging. Great educators use what Sociologists refer to as “bonding,” fostering solidarity, with an expressed desire to offer “bridging,” bringing those who are diverse together with an appreciation of inclusiveness (Putnam, 2000). Are your educators savvy enough to understand the incredible importance of getting all children into every classroom, each day, and making them feel as if they belong? Creating membership opportunities is part of our marathon, as every child wants to be needed and needs to be wanted.  Will we provide it, or will we let students find membership, unbridled, with others very willing to fill a void.  This is a race to see who offers what first.

In order to improve student attendance …

(5) Unearth Unconditional Positive Regard

Unconditional positive regard for students, an incalculably powerful ingredient in successful teacher/student relationships, is integral to fostering a child’s connectedness with school (Dahlgren, 2007, 2008). It is true that “students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care” (Dahlgren, quoting Madeline Hunter, 2008, p. 62). Sadly, some places have unconditional positive regard; others do not. Some schools try to institutionalize it through specific, research-based models of inclusive education; others do so through the art of simply hiring the right people and seeing the natural results.  Simply asked, does your school have it?  Kahler (2008) refers to it as an “I’m Ok; You’re OK” philosophy. Whatever one calls it, a leader cannot simply assume that educators are operating with it; unconditional positive regard must be reinforced through modeling, storytelling, and ongoing dialogue.  It must become part of the culture – the way we do things around here … and beyond our behaviors and beliefs, it must be part of our values and assumptions, so that we are not just paying lip service to what most educators profess that they possess. This is arguably the most important leg of the marathon toward better attendance: having the right mindset, the right heart, for kids.  Some folks are fit to run the race, and quite possibly, others are not. 

Which brings us back to the John Wooden thing …

To be continued.


Daggett, W. (2004). American’s most successful high schools – What makes them work.  Conference Proceedings Presentations and Conference information disseminated at the 2004 Model Schools Conference Proceedings, June 25-28, Hilton Washington and Towers, Washington, D.C.

Dahlgren, R., Malas, B., Faulk, J. & Lattimer, M. (2008). Time to teach! The source for classroom management. Hayden Lake, ID: Center For Teacher Effectiveness.

Dahlgren, R. & Hyatt, J. (2007).  Time to teach: Encouragement, empowerment, and excellent in every classroom.  Hayden Lake, ID: Center For Teacher Effectiveness.

Glasser, W. (1998). A quality school: Managing students without coercion.  New York: Harper Perennial.

Kahler, T. (2008).  The process therapy model: The six personality types with adaptations. Little Rock, AR: Taibi Kahler Associates, Inc.

Putnam, R. (2000). Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community.  New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.


Dr. Ryan Donlan can be reached for comment or conversation at (812) 237-8624 or at