Thank you for visiting the ISU Ed. Leadershop. Our intent over the past few years has been to field-test community-engaged writings for PK-20 practitioner conversation -- quick, 5-minute "read's" that help put into perspective the challenges and opportunities in our profession. Some of the writings have remained here solely; others have been developed further for other outlets. Our space has been a delightful "sketch board" for some very creative minds in leadership, indeed.

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Monday, March 26, 2012

A Delta Force of Leadership

A Delta Force of Leadership

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

I am particularly interested in school wellness, a notion that healthy conditions in education can be influenced by the structures through which we operate, the processes through which we make decisions, and the people with which we collaborate.  In consideration of that, I’m currently examining the notion of what I call a delta force of leadership, a factor of school wellness that is inherent in the relationship among the School Superintendent, Board of Education President, and the School Board of Education as a whole.  


When a symbiotic, complementary relationship of leadership exists among the three, strength is accentuated, and the school trends toward wellness.  When not, wellness wanes.  Possibly an old “three-legged stool” metaphor would suffice. Please note that no preeminence is intended with respect to the positioning of each on the model presented.

Let’s begin examining the notion of how these three leadership components interrelate with a brief job description for each pertaining to school leadership:

Boards of Education set policy, establish budgets, and hire and fire the Superintendents in school districts.  Oftentimes, they have the final say in all decisions of personnel. In many cases, School Boards have plenary power to determine the “what” of the education that will take place for the children of a given community.  State mandates and legislation, of course, provide parameters for this empowerment.  Board members serve as conduits for community conversation and concern about the schools and reflect the sentiments of divergent stakeholders regarding the general direction that education should take.  Boards of Education are empowered to act when they meet as a group in public to do business and have a quorum.

Superintendents carry out the policies of Boards of Education through administrative regulations to ensure the proper and prudent management and leadership of a school district.  They oversee the general “how” of the education that will take place for the children of a given community.  State mandates and legislation have recently provided more prescriptive guidance regarding their job descriptions. Superintendents serve as CEO’s of educational organizations, large and small; they are charged with being “the face” of the public schools in any given community.  Responsible for the educational achievement of each and every staff member and student of the district, Superintendents are held accountable by all.  They are empowered to act for optimal operation of schools and on behalf of curricular excellence of the educational program.

Board Presidents serve in a dually elected role in many cases – elected at large by the populace to serve as a member of the Board of Education and elected by fellow Board Members to serve as their leader in the Board’s business.  Oftentimes, the Board President chairs Board of Education meetings and has responsibility for determining what is to be discussed on each meeting’s agenda.  During Board Meetings, the Board President oftentimes takes a more active role in responding to community comments and concerns and guides both discussions and votes on actionable items on the docket.  Board Presidents oftentimes have more frequent communication with the Superintendent regarding school operations or situations that may present themselves at the Board level, and they more often shoulder the burden of responsibility for controversial actions that Board may take, those that run counter to special interests and specific community groups. 

In considering how these three leadership entities work together to advance school wellness, I would like to offer four components that I see as key to a symbiotic, complementary relationship: Trust, Deference, Assurance, and Humility.

Trust: Superintendents must trust that members of the Board of Education are a reflection of the community and are empowered to articulate the direction a community desires its school system to advance.  Boards are entrusted to set sound policy in line with contemporary community standards.  Once accomplished, however, Boards must be willing to trust that their Superintendents will design appropriate administrative regulations to carry out such and have the capabilities and efficacy to do just that.  Superintendents need to trust that the Boards can prudently design the “what” of the educational experience; Boards must trust that Superintendents can effectively and efficiently carry out the “how.”  Boards must trust that their Board Presidents and Superintendent communicate often regarding the interfacing of the “what” and the “how” so that every single discussion of impact need not reflect itself on each month’s Board Agenda.

Deference: Boards must be willing to defer to the judgment of Superintendents, in consultation with their Board Presidents, on complex operational issues when language of policy is vague or absent.  The responsiveness of the district will suffer otherwise.  Conversely, Superintendents must be willing to defer to Board Presidents and their Boards of Education in deciding to what degree Board Meetings become venues for community conversation.  After all, different communities have differing expectations of how much will be shared at Board Meetings and under what conditions the business of the Board will resemble more a “Town Hall.”  Some communities expect more lively and open Board Meetings; others are more subdued and business-like.  In either case, however, deference must be given to a Superintendent’s wishes that his administrative staff is not cross-examined in public and that concerned stakeholders should follow appropriate chain-of-command for the redress of grievances.

Assurance:  Board Presidents must give assurances to Superintendents that management authority will not be in question if frequent communications take place between the two.  Superintendents must, in turn, give assurances to Board Presidents that their inquiries will not be construed as micro-managerial, in that a partnership needs to be forged with continual communication, especially when circumstances have potential for reaching Board level. Both Board Presidents and Superintendents must give assurances to the full Board that in instances where tough decisions must be made, they will seek the advice of legal counsel on matters that have litigious potential.  Board members must give assurances, conversely, that Superintendents can contact counsel with Board support. Board Members must give assurances that they understand their roles and will not use individual status to influence faculty and staff, acting in their official capacity only when in posted committees or meetings of the whole.  Superintendents must offer assurances to Board Presidents and Board Members that ALL are welcome in the schools at anytime, yet Board Members should offer assurances that they will first report to the office as would any other visitor if they are on campus.

Humility: Each party must realize that he/she cannot do an effective job leading without continual communication and support from the others.  The power of this delta force is rich only when all are promoting wellness. Board members must recognize that in many cases, they do not have the specialized skills or advanced degrees to serve as Superintendents and that they represent the community at large, a body that is not, in and of itself, infallible.  Superintendents must humbly realize that they do not know the sentiment of a community as well as Board Members, who were directly elected to reflect the viewpoints and passions of those who offered their support.  Superintendents must also understand that at times, in order to go fast, one must go slow through dialogue, deliberation, and deep discussion, so that better decisions can be made.  Board Presidents may want to consider that it is both an honor and a privilege to serve in a dually elected role and must continually work to balance positively the needs of diverse constituencies – the Board Members and the public on one hand and the Superintendent and staffs on the other.  Oh yes ... and children's needs play a role. Board Presidents must accept with humility the responsibility for guiding continual collaboration and an interdependence necessary to foster, promote, and protect a quality education for all.

Trust, deference, assurance, and humility among your Superintendent, Board President, and Board of Education: A delta force of leadership promoting school wellness in your district or corporation.

Your thoughts?


Dr. Ryan Donlan is a former School Superintendent who enjoyed a positive, symbiotic relationship with his Board President and School Board for 11 years.  He offers scholarship and consulting on promoting positive human relations and school improvement, toward more productive educational outcomes on behalf of children, staff, schools, and communities.  He can be reached at  (812) 237-8624 or at   Please offer your thoughts and responses to this article.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Difference a Year Makes

The Difference a Year Makes

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

I don’t often “journal” enough, keeping track of how I’m spending my time and what it means to me.  As evidence, I started jotting down a few things last spring, left things on the shelf for a while as “life happened,” then low and behold, I picked things up today

A lot has changed – The difference a year makes!

Serving as a Charter School Leader new faculty member in a department of educational leadership is an awesome responsibility.  The privilege of understanding the diversity in both my staff and student audience better knowing myself and how privilege in a socio-cultural sense may have affected my development in ways I have yet to understand, while working to enhance the quality of life for those whom I’m privileged to know, is humbling, to say the least. 

As a practitioner informed by the best of scholarship scholar informed by the best practitionership, I’m proud to say that I often champion the cause of at-risk students research and write in areas of school reimagination and charter schools, school wellness & The Process Communication Model® (PCM), and leadergogy, with an expressed desire that more and more students are ready to assume positions of college enrollment school leadership and lifelong learning. 

Evenings also bring their reward, as I adjunct at two Universities, spend time with my wife and children between evening classes, allowing me to transcend my daily role as a teacher of teachers and mentor of students  teacher of leaders and student of the profession.

It’s almost springtime, and with it comes a bit of time to see my neighbors once again after all the snowfall reflect on what a winter actually “is” in my new home, while readying the flowers and vegetables for planting after Memorial Day Easter. 

I’m very thankful to be doing what I’m doing and leading the life I lead.  I’m very blessed, indeed.


Going from school leader to faculty member this past year has been quite a transition … a monumental shift.

I’ll bet, however, as a K-12 school leader maintaining your current role – yet journeying from this school year into the next – you will experience change dwarfing that mentioned above. 

As our educational arena is changing, we are so very fortunate to have entrusted our K-12 schools to you. 

The difference a year makes.


Dr. Ryan Donlan can be reached at (812) 237-8624.  Please feel to write him with thoughts and commentary at anytime.  Slainte!

Monday, March 12, 2012

One's Pedagogy in Parental Involvement

One's Pedagogy in Parental Involvement

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

I would love it if parents were more involved in their children’s education. Investment reaps dividends.

Last week on Twitter, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan urged parents “to be more active and vocal.”  Michelle Rhee, former Washington D.C. Chancellor of Schools and StudentsFirst founder, provided links to information on Parent Unions as a “way to be more involved in the decisions affecting their kids’ education.” 

I understand Duncan’s and Rhee’s desires to share information that will enhance parental efficacy, in that large numbers of parents have felt disenfranchised over the years – many with good reason.  We need to ensure that parents are valued as “most critical” to the educational equation in their partnership and expertise!

Yet, the aforementioned avenues for involvement are not really the ones that I have witnessed as most effective in raising achievement.  I would suggest instead that the following examples of parental involvement would reap greater return in children’s academic performance, through what I call One’s Pedagogy in Parental Involvement in education.  I commit myself as a parent to these strategies for involvement, as I am sure you do as well.

Examples of One’s Pedagogy in Parental Involvement would include:

1.   Waking up in the morning prior to our children, so that children rise promptly, fashion choices are mindful, breakfasts are eaten, teeth are brushed, and book bags are organized.
2.     Ensuring that dinner table conversations are held regularly, so that events of the day can be discussed, problems can be solved, and homework can be monitored.
3.  Modeling good relationships and demonstrating patience, temperance, and effective communication.
4.  Checking in the middle of the night for electronic devices used for round-the-clock gaming or co-dependency texting.
5.   Evaluating children’s friendships and placing limits around those that are a bad influence.
6.   Holding firm on parental boundaries and decisions in the household, as children of all ages need to experience our saying “No,” thereafter accepting that some things in life are non-negotiable.
7.     Modeling life-long learning by reading books or by turning off the television to engage in family activities.
8.    Reading and discussing school regulations (Handbooks) with our children, clarifying that positive behavior in school prevents kids from being in twice as much trouble once getting home.
9.  Attending school functions when invited and showing support for our children’s academic achievement and extra-curricular accomplishments.
10. Teaching our children to respect their elders and to assist those who are less fortunate, as most everything they will need to know in life, they really did learn while in Kindergarten (Fulghum, 1989).

I, like Secretary Duncan and Ms. Rhee, believe we should steadfastly champion and honor the parents of our school children, as they are truly the best experts on their children.  As such, parents should much more often be invited to our schools to “partner with us,” rather than “listen to us.” 

Yet, as one concerned with deep conversation and meaningful debate in pursuit of heightened achievement and our children’s economic competitiveness through school re-imagination, I must ask …

“Although we cannot understate the importance of empowering parents and ensuring that they are honored as most-critical to their children's educational success, what is the better leveraging point for enhancing student success: One’s Pedagogy in Parental Involvement … or louder voices and union membership?”


Fulghum, R. (1989). All I really need to know I learned in kindergarten: Uncommon thoughts on common things. New York, NY: Villard Books.


Dr. Ryan Donlan encourages your thoughtful and spirited commentary on this Blog or at  Please feel free to give him a call as well at (812) 237-8624.

Monday, March 5, 2012

How Much is Too Much? Can We Be "All That"?

How Much is Too Much?  Can We Be “All That”?

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

Last week, Dr. Steve Gruenert wrote to you about a new opportunity in professional development, a creative one at that. Opportunities for creativity are now knocking at our doors more regularly in education.  Listen carefully ... one may be knocking now.  This week, I want to ask you as leaders, "How far would you go in reframing your school's programs and services to meet the needs (real or professed) of today's students, families, or even the best of staff members?"  If you are asked to “move outside the box” as it is currently constructed, how willing would you be?  How willing is your staff? What would you allow? What wouldn't you? Finally ... how often, and under what conditions, would you strive to be "All That"?

Consider the following:

Student A moved into your district, as his parents have bought a new house.  The reports from his previous district state that he is working far above his classmates' academic levels and needs accommodations in the classroom in order to be challenged appropriately.  However, his social-emotional abilities are below-grade-level to the degree that he would benefit from peer grouping.  Parents request that his instruction be individualized to challenge him, yet as well, that he be included fully in the activities of his classmates.  They want his “enriched” instruction fully integrated into what others are doing, rather than offering such as an add-on or separate program. You have offered to provide independent studies or even on-line learning at his level, such as advanced courses in the school’s computer lab; however instead, parents request of you that in order for their son’s needs to be met, teachers adapt their whole-class lessons so that highly proficient students have their needs met to the same degree as those “in the middle.”  Many members of your student body, including those in his classes, are at-risk and below-grade-level, so “the middle” is quite far below his academic level. Will you ask this of your teachers?  Will you ask that they teach to all … all at the same time? Will you be “All That” to this student and family?

Student B has undergone a traumatic incident and is declared homebound for psychological reasons by her physician and psychiatrist.  This homebound status will last the balance of the school year (now November) and may continue into the next. You work with the family to establish a homebound instructional schedule with a certified teacher visiting the home at prescribed intervals.  However, the parents request instead that she be allowed to attend class via Skype, assigned a desk as would any other student, yet with her attending via a laptop computer sitting atop the desk, compete with microphone and camera.  Parents ask the district to provide the technology, as well as the movement of the laptop among classes during each day.  You wonder about a possible slippery slope of similar requests from other students, as well as their inquiries as to why she gets preferential treatment.  Of course, as in any other case of protected information, you wouldn’t be able to provide answers. Admittedly, your particular version of homebound instruction just isn’t the same as that delivered “in-class.” Will you allow this arrangement and be “All That” to this student and family?

Student C wants an opportunity to demonstrate experientially that he understands the state standards of his core content classes yet does not want complete the more traditional academic work assigned by the teachers.  He wishes to use the school, during the school day, as a college or university student would use higher educational resources, coming and going as he pleases so that he can access the library media center for research, the cafeteria for sustenance, and even the physical education facilities for “battery charges” when he is in need of a little movement to get his creative juices flowing.  Student C is willing to take end-of-course assessments each winter and spring, along with other students, as long as he can design his own learning plans for weekly work, in collaboration with teachers.  He requests to come and go as he pleases.  Parents, highly educated “free spirits,” have asked that you make this avenue for learning available for their son.  They have done their own homework and have unearthed a way to make this arrangement compliant with your state department of education’s accounting requirements for pupil attendance. In fact, they have a letter authorizing such. Will you allow this and be “All That” to this student and family?

Student D is exceptionally bright and capable and is also an Olympic-competitive skier.  For three months each year, she travels to Aspen, Colorado for training.  As an emancipated adult, an astute one at that, she requests that you take 1/3 of the per-pupil dollar allocation given to you by the state for her attendance each year and provide her funds for either on-line learning or a traveling tutor while she trains.  She wishes to select the service provider(s) herself.  You have an on-line option at a much-reduced cost, yet one that she claims does not match her learning style or needs. She provides you a learning styles and multiple intelligences report from a private learning services group that supports her claims. Will you award her a traveling stipend for the learning option of her choice out of the foundation monies you receive for her?  After all, she will not be using your resources during the months of December, January, and February?  Will you be “All That” to this young adult learner?

Students E & F, twins and incredibly gifted “academics,” leave your school prior to their freshman years to attend an area charter school for performing arts.  Frankly, you wouldn’t share this publicly, but aside from the fact that they are truly great kids, you were counting on their standardized test scores and are not pleased that two of your best and brightest have left.  You joke with your secretary that you have your own list of those whom you would love to send down the road; these two are not on that list.  However, you have recently scaled back on your music and performing arts programs because of budgetary cuts, and the twins were hoping to parlay their talents in dance and music into scholarships at select universities after their high school experience.  The charter school offers an incredible fine and performing arts program! It has a solid academic program as well. The twins still live in your geographic district, however, and have made a request to participate in your athletic programs, as the charter school does not offer sports.  You have space in their programs of choice, as these are not programs that “cut” students.  Do you honor their requests and be “All That” to these students, those who have been model students in your school for their nine prior years, yet who have now left for another school?

Now for the staff:

Teacher A is the best mathematics teacher you have ever hired.  He is now nearing the end of his first year. Thankfully, he is now employed in your school building, as you had years of marginal performance from his predecessor, now retired.  Achievement in mathematics is on the upswing.  Students are energized! For the coming school year, however, Teacher A has a request of you.  He is a single father and commutes 20 minutes to work from the neighboring community where he lives, yet his own parents (grandparents to his two daughters) will be moving to Florida and can no longer help with the childrearing arrangements before and after school.  Each morning, he will need to drop off his children (ages 6 and 7) at their own school, which does not provide before-school supervision.  School starts at the same time for his children, as it does for your students, and ends at the same time as well.  His children will also need to be picked-up after school; the school does not offer after-school supervision.  Teacher A has requested that he be released from 1st period Advisory duties each day so that he can get his children off to school and arrive “just a bit late.”  He also asks to leave ½ hour before students are dismissed.  This may involve your giving him a preparation period during the last instructional hour each day, a cumbersome task but one that is “do-able.”  In recognition of the late start each day, Teacher A volunteers to teach Summer School for you, free-of-charge, as long as he can bring his children with him.  Other teachers may or may not have a problem with these arrangements.  You hear from a fellow principal that the school in his own community may have an opening for a math teacher this coming school year and would like to recruit him. Let’s say that there is no carte blanche provision prohibiting his request in your labor agreement.  Would you make this teacher a deal and be “All That” to him?

How many of you have had requests over the years to be “All That” to students, families, or staff?  How much is too much?  What will you do to remain competitive?

  How about your neighbors?


Dr. Ryan Donlan can be reached at (812) 237-8624 or at  He experienced most of the above as a school leader during his tenure in the K-12 system.  If you were a betting sort, which would you say he honored, and which did he decline?  Your comments and perspectives are welcome.  Please offer a few scenarios of your own.  Thanks for spending time in our Blog!