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.

We believe that by kicking around an idea or two and not getting too worked-up over it, the thinking and writing involved have even greater potential to make a difference on behalf of those we serve. In such, please give us a read; share with others. We encourage your thoughts, opinions, feelings, and reactions to our work and thank you for taking your time. You keep us relevant.

[Technical Note: If you find that your particular web browser does not allow you to view our articles for a full-text read, please simply select another browser and enjoy.]

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

A Comeuppance?

A Comeuppance?

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

As our first summer session nears its end, I want to thank my graduate students in School and Community: Collaborating for Effective Schools, EDLR 656 at Indiana State University for their thoughtful critique of my Ed. Leadershop articles over the past few weeks.

Today, I present a question inspired by an intriguing 2 minute, 17 second video on YouTube that we stumbled upon a few weeks ago, entitled Brat, a Tania Simeons (2008) short film from the Vancouver Film School. 

Here it is … please give it a watch.

Following our viewing of Brat, I asked students, “If we were to interpret this video our own way, could it represent the current state of education in America, and if so, who or what is represented by the characters?” 

We had an engaging discussion.  Do you see any parallels?

If I were to describe what I see, here is what comes to mind:

Like many this summer, I am excited at the prospect of moving into the next school year knowing that school leaders have more authority to direct their staffs and the well-being of schools.  I am thankful for the many tools created to assist in quality instructional supervision and evaluation.  And no matter the challenges we face today, this summer’s group of graduate educators offers us hope, as they are emblematic of the quality of leadership necessary to meet tomorrow’s demand for children’s opportunity.

Yet I am also a realist, and I understand that with all that is positive, some negativity exists – such as the loss of much local control in education.  Great educators are also receiving unwarranted criticism for the service they provide, and in many cases, centralized school reform is a one-size-fits-all prescription ill-suited for the pains that confront us.

May I pose that the Brat in this film actually represents those who have brought these prescriptions upon us?  

We, ourselves.”

I concede, of course, that a certain amount of responsibility falls upon parents’ abrogating their responsibilities, as well as society’s running amuck. That has always been the case and always will be.

Yet, a group within our own ranks has worked in plain sight for so many years, shooting us all in the foot, and for that … shame on them.  The folks in our communities, in our businesses, and in our legislatures are tired of their antics. 

For our not policing ourselves …  shame on us. 

Thus, the “We, ourselves.”

Who have we neglected to police?  Who have made the reputation of American education such that it is now fashionable for politicians to campaign (and WIN) on “fixing schools,” when better things are happening than ever before?

The bad apples, of course.

Those refusing to collaborate or engage in professional learning communities; those unwilling to hold themselves accountable for the academic growth of each child; those ambivalent toward the plight of families, and those with the soft bigotry of low expectations … looking failure in the eye and ignoring the wonderful child inside.

Adding to these are those who are “anti-everything-administration,” as well as those who are “anti-everything-union,” those who feel that schools are on the planet for the employment of adults rather than the education of children (my point last week), and those who attend graduate-level coursework or professional development and act as they would never allow their students – disinterested, overindulged, and effortless.

To extend my interpretation of the film, the toy represents those rebuking the bad apples, as they feel that enough is enough!  They will no longer stand for public employees acting unprofessionally, refusing to embrace the demands of 21st century or the needs of families, business, and communities while “on the dime.”

Unfortunately, the rebuke delivered has brought unintentional, collateral damage to the rest of us … the good folks.

“We, ourselves.”

As this summer season passes, have we felt, fully, our comeuppance? 


Simeons, T. (Creator). (2008). Brat [Vancouver Film School Short Film]. Retrieved from


Dr. Ryan Donlan obviously needs to turn that frown upside down.  If you would like to offer him a few “happy thoughts” or rather … drive him further into this dark grey cloud, please call him at (812) 237-8624 or write him at

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Educating BIG in Small Communities

Educating BIG in Small Communities

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

To have finite resources in trying, economic times seems common today in education.  Not easy … but common.  Small and rural communities are particularly hard-hit, as they struggle to provide a quality of education for children while facing declining enrollments because jobs and income are scarce.  Some wonder if our small towns will survive. 

I saw a billboard while traveling between Indiana and Michigan on I-69 recently, something to the effect of, “Recession 101:  Self-Worth Beats Net Worth.” 

Let me start here. 

I believe that self-worth is critical to the notion of “piece-by-piece” (person-by-person) economic development in small communities. Schools are critical in this equation, as self-worth and a school’s pursuit of community partnerships for excellent education are keys to playing the cards we have been dealt. Further, a principal’s leadership role is incalculably important.

As I envision how these leadership challenges would present themselves here, I ask myself, “What would I do to Educate BIG in a Small Community, if I had the honor of serving as principal?”

First, I would voraciously unearth information on careers that bring work to worker, rather than worker to work – careers that could be launched and enjoyed in our small towns. I would share this information with local staff, students, and families. These careers would include on-line work, as well as those in which local ingenuity designs, supplies, or manufacturers in-demand, products or services, marketed and sold globally. Niche opportunities in the knowledge economy are key. Staff members would provide our children with the academic and critical thinking skills leading to success in careers that have yet even to be envisioned, ensuring that small town youth are globally savvy, knowing their options and carving unique pathways to competitiveness. As knowledge and talent have no particular zip codes, we might as well offer them safe harbor in our own small towns. My colleague, Dr. Terry McDaniel, encourages future school leaders to ensure educational excellence in our schools so that tomorrow’s global success stories will want to stay and raise children. I couldn't agree with him more. Knowledge brings empowerment.  Empowerment brings self-worth.  Self-worth provides for piece-by-piece economic development and allows children the option of staying local over a lifetime.

Second, I would establish the school as a visible and accessible hub of local, historical commemoration.  I’m thinking in terms of lobbies, commons areas, gardens, courtyards, or nature trails, adorned with pictures and plaques, or other symbolic representations of what the local area is, was, and can beA Place of Pride. Local history requires nostalgic protection, as well as a certain exposure to youth for their own civic mindfulness.  History classes would ensure local content coverage. Every person over the age of 50 would be sought as a member of the school’s speakers’ bureau.  Honoring our hometowns and respecting our elders would become an integral part of the business of schools, fostering self-worth in students. Self-worth builds local identity and an allegiance to what is ours.

Third, I would ensure school support of all what I call “community leveraging points.”  Community and business leaders would have access to eager young minds and bodies performing able service learning. Whether students are involved with the local coffee shop owner, the barber, town mechanic, or farm equipment dealer, they would be encouraged to pay forward with no particular expectation in return.  I say this mindful of my graduate students, who mentioned to me in critiquing this article the need for a school leader to build capacity in developing partnerships (and not naively to expect that they will work as planned). Partnerships require ongoing training and education. One such partnership would include the school’s taking the lead on the beautification of the local community, as positive, curbside appeal is a must for all who visit and most of all for those who live locally. Representing with our personal best through investment from within garners investment from without.  In any event, it brings self-worth.  Self-worth protects and maintains what is ours.

Fourth, and most importantly, I would do my job as a small town principal.  I would know my children – each and every one – by name, grade, family, interest, aptitude, and ability.  As does the outstanding leadership team under Superintendent Chuck Brimbury in Peru, Indiana, I would know their test scores, reading levels, career aspirations, talents, hobbies, and areas of strengths and weaknesses, both academically and socially, while focusing on positive school culture. I would dine, shop, and live locally. I would hold ALL accountable for helping children succeed and would ensure that staff and faculty resources are placed where they can do the most good.  If teachers or staff underperform, I would first provide them training and/or move them to another area where they can better demonstrate that they are a fit (or move them on), as I believe schools are placed on the planet for student achievement and community betterment, not necessarily for adult employment.  Operating with these ends in mind builds self-worth and encourages the best of local education. This intrinsic drive brings with it the best accountability that an educational system could offer its constituents, much better than that mandated extrinsically.

We may not be able to perform miracles in small communities with limited resources, but I believe that through partnerships, we can best operationalize the resources at our disposal.  We can, through schools, encourage self-worth and piece-by-piece economic development. Too long have we relied upon fragile commodities, such as big manufacturing, government, and locally available natural resources, to keep our communities afloat; it is now up to us. It is now up to the knowledge we can development, the partnerships we can enjoin, and the opportunities we can, ourselves, secure.

With our global economic engine in overdrive, the local, small-town school is now a most-critical factor in the unity, creativity, and self-sufficiently that we will need through partnerships to allow us safe passage into a better tomorrow with local community intact.  Something very special still exists in small-town America, as it has since the founding of this great country, and small town school leaders are on the front lines of its preservation.


Dr. Ryan Donlan was once a principal and enjoyed quality partnerships in his community.  He operated on principle and ran a tight ship. Yet with the realities of today’s economy more trying than ever, does he have a clue?  Please let him know either through commenting on this blog, or by contacting him at or (812) 237-8624.  Thanks for visiting he Ed. Leadershop

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

"Before the ASK" -- Must-Have's for External Facilitation

“Before the ASK” -- Must-Have’s for External Facilitation

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

Graduate students in our Department of Educational Leadership course, School and Community: Collaborating for Effective Schools, are spending their summer vacations exploring the “how-to’s” of a school leader’s external facilitation and community support for schools.  Support involves gifts of time, talent, or treasure.

We often think of a school leader’s balancing the responsibilities of building management and instructional leadership.  However, a school leader’s role in external facilitation could be as critical to school performance as instructional leadership (Leana, 2011).

In external facilitation, school leaders must always keep in mind, “Withdraw less than what has been deposited.”

Ideally, leaders make deposits to their community resource accounts through mindfulness of image, action, and timing; withdrawals are then made through their requests of support from community.  A continued, positive, long-term relationship is key throughout these transactions. 

How as a school leader can you grow your account?


First, you need to maintain proper image in the minds of potential contributors. How are you portraying yourself?  Mindfully, we hope, in that you must:

See things from others’ perspectives, following Covey’s (2004) advice from his 5th Habit, seek first to understand; then to be understood.  Be genuinely interested in business and community leaders as individuals and in the organizations they run.  Do much more listening than talking.  Spend time with them without making too many withdrawals.

Continually remain optimistic and positive when discussing current legislation, especially that of which educators are complaining.  Be seen as the one who can make what others perceive as lemons into lemonade, and be consistent in what you say to various groups.  Embrace and respect those who cause you complication, as you can learn from their perspective.

Be gracious and humble when complimented, but DO accept the compliment.  You probably deserve it. At the same time, give credit to the great teachers and staff who make your school a great place for children.

Treat others (and be seen treating ALL others) with dignity and kindness, especially those whom others avoid or shun.  Making time to brighten another’s day just for the sake of doing so is the stuff upon which generalized reciprocity is made (Putnam, 2000).

Ensure visibility of you and your family in public, at the bigger events, of course, or simply to enjoy what your community has to offer. You are always being witnessed, so parent positively.

Tip well at restaurants. Be kind to clerks who check-you-out at shopping centers, exchanging money hand-to-hand as opposed to placing cash on the counter. Little things DO matter. Represent yourself well when no one is looking, and treat people better than others treat them. 

Finally, make the world a better place for those who have too many monkeys on their backs by striving to shift them appropriately to where they belong (Whitaker, 2012).  All will be better off.


Next, you must take professional action in your role as a school leader beyond that of building management and instructional leadership.  Particularly, you must:

Network and attend meetings with business and organizational stakeholders outside of the school, on their turf, at a time convenient for them.

Share with external stakeholders that you want better to understand their businesses and organizations so that you can do two things: (1) Ensure that your school is better preparing students to be a part of their workforce, and (2) Demonstrate how academic preparation is relevant to their world of work.

Open-up the school to your community during non-instructional times, offering early morning walking clubs for folks during the colder seasons, evening activity spaces year-round, and holiday meals for those less-fortunate.  Knock down all nonsensical barriers to access, yet be mindful of equal access provisions under the law.  Check with your school attorney.

Maintain impeccably clean and inviting facilities for students, staff, and visitors at all times, checking for even that crumpled piece of paper or broken pencil that may be dropped by students.  Anyone’s seeing dust, dirt, or clutter reflects upon your ability to steward resources properly.

Train students (and expect students) to meet and greet visitors and direct them pleasantly to the office, offering community members a friendly smile and “Welcome to our school.” Every visitor should be treated like you would treat the President of your Board of Education. Every student is your best ambassador. 

Perform a makeover of your school office waiting room, highlighting your community partnerships with artifacts, pictures, and informational materials of stakeholders’ time, talent, and treasure.

If you have an open campus, ensure that student off-campus behavior is stellar during lunchtime. Your kids are an extension of your image.  If they are not behaving well, your school’s reputation will suffer.

Highlight community “friends and partners” in school newsletters. Write them letters and give them plaques to hang in their businesses, with “thanks” for their generous contributions and ongoing partnerships.

Coordinate service-learning opportunities out of the building for students. 

Build capacity in your leadership team so that you can get out of the building each week to join a civic organization or attend external meetings.

Establish a Business/Education Partnership in your local Chamber of Commerce if one does not exist.

Schedule monthly breakfasts or luncheons with business or organizational leaders at your school and invite students to dine with them.

Embrace the concepts of educational choice and competition, or at minimum, work to better understand these perspectives, as these are assuredly supported by many with whom you could potentially garner resources.

Enhance academic and budgetary transparency in your school. Speak in terms of return on investment.

Finally, hold yourself continually accountable for each “next day’s, best work.”  Adequate yearly progress is simply that – “adequate.”


With the aforementioned accomplished and image and action intact, you’re nearly in a position to deliver “the ASK.”  Ensure above all else at this point that you know what others are requesting, at which times, from whom, and under what conditions, especially those within your own school districts.

The last thing you want to do is ask for a few thousand dollars from the planned gifts division of a local pharmaceutical conglomerate while your superintendent is planning a well-coordinated ASK for a quarter of a million.


Covey, S. (2004). The 7 habits of highly effective people. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Leona, C. (2011, Fall). The missing link in school reform. Stanford Social Innovation Review, 30-35.

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

Whitaker, T. (2012). Shifting the monkey: The art of protecting good people from liars, criers, and other slackers. Bloomington, IN: Triple Nickel Press.


Dr. Ryan Donlan hopes that you’ll add to the ideas above, or even take exception to them, by commenting on this blog article or by contacting him at or (812) 237-8624.  Thanks for reading!!

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Learning the HOW of Social Capital

Learning the HOW of Social Capital

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

Launching a class in School and Community Relations this past weekend, I asked students this question, “How are we taught to facilitate social capital with those who can make a difference in education?”

Students shared pre-service advice, such as the fact that they have been taught the benefits of engaging others in sharing ideas, collaborating on best practice, communicating scope and sequence of curriculum among different grade levels, networking with supportive community members, and reaching out to those unlike themselves.  Because I have smart students, I got smart answers.

I probed further, “But prior to doing these things (all very important), HOW did you learn to DO the communicating – especially when reaching out to those more difficult or unresponsive? HOW did you learn ‘the HOW’ of accessing and developing positive social capital?”

This was not such an easy thing for them to answer, I discovered, so I tried to answer the question, myself, after class. 

How did I learn “the HOW” of developing positive social capital?  I was quite adept at it while a school leader?

Was it in my leadership training programs? 

For the most part … it was not. 

Not prescribed via formal curriculum, in fact, the HOW was instead taught to me through direct discussion and vicarious observation during moments when interest was piqued during my youth and young adulthood … even into the present day.

Here are a few of those experiences that I have had over the years in learning how to develop social capital:

1.     Observing a master of ceremonies at hundreds of wedding receptions interact with newlyweds and inlaws – especially in situations of family estrangement – about who would do what with whom during wedding festivities.  From an early age, I played in a wedding band and did a lot of people watching. This offered modeling of not simply negotiation, but also of integration.

2.  Watching my father, a small, retail business owner in a community of laid-off autoworkers, interact with those who had lost dignity. He did so in a way that affirmed their sense of personal worth, as they feigned nonchalance in the face of significant life trauma.  That offered me a deep understanding of keeping people’s needs at the forefront of one’s attention.

3.  Learning from my favorite teacher how networking with well-placed friends in high-ranking places did not begin in the dinner circuits, country clubs, or caucus rooms, but long-prior as schoolchildren pitching pennies near run-down basketball courts. That offered me an understanding of true in-group/out-group dynamics and not to assume that I go “way back” with someone.

4.     Receiving a reminder from a former colleague and dear friend, now deceased, of the fact that friendships demand hard work, selfless interest, and time for one another, even when not convenient.  That offered me an understanding of the need to make small relational deposits continuously, as withdrawals are necessary from time to time.  One should not expect return without investment.

5.     Observing human interaction continuously as a student of relationships, replaying in my mind what worked so well for others in the rarity of any given moment, hoping to borrow style in a way that it appears my own. That offered me a library of social capital reference material.

6.     Realizing on my own that I should always lend a store clerk a smile (handing money directly as opposed to laying it on the counter), offer my place in line to those who appear hurried or stressed, treat with respect others who have lost their own, send a smile to young children who look to others with distrust, and thank someone sincerely for taking a bit of time for me, even if he/she was curt in doing so.

Not too many of these things did I learn in a classroom. 

All of these things have been invaluable in the HOW of my fostering social capital.

Looking back with a more clinical eye, the things that I have learned in formal educational settings were more similar to “Little What’s” than they were to HOW’s. 

Here’s an example of something I learned: 

Educational programs improve with the input of stakeholders [The WHAT] through active parent/teacher organizations and family involvement in school improvement planning [The HOW]. 

In the example above, the articulated HOW is not really a HOW, but instead a “Little What” embedded inside the bigger WHAT.  It’s another WHAT.

What, instead, would be some HOW’s?

Learning …

1.     … HOW to greet someone entering the school and what to say in the first seven seconds of an interaction so as to ensure that he/she feels empowered and authentically valued.
2.     … HOW to balance your small talk among guests sitting in a room awaiting the event to begin, so as to avoid their sitting around looking at each other uncomfortably.
3.     … HOW to thank everyone for his or her participation in a way that is individually meaningful, but collectively efficient.
4.     … HOW to encourage candor and heartfelt commentary without inadvertently shutting down the communication through defensiveness when something strikes too close to home.
5.     … HOW to guide a group toward consensus when conflict is present among stakeholders.

I believe that we can provide more HOW’s to preservice and in-service educators, and that we’re doing more of this all the time. Positive social capital depends upon it, as we turn challenge into opportunity for today’s schools, families, and communities.

When designing professional development, we must all take care to transcend the “Little What’s.”

Too often those are all we study.


Dr. Ryan Donlan works with the Department of Educational Leadership in Indiana State University’s Bayh College of Education to bring more HOW’s to the WHAT of scholar/practitioner development in cutting edge leadership development programs.  He can be reached at (812) 237-8624 or at