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.

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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

In-Loco Grandparentis

In-Loco Grandparentis

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

I felt like a grandparent this week.

While on the road out-of-state, I was asked to join a group of veteran K-12 leaders offering pre-service advice to new, [very] young teachers, just days from launching their careers (and thus, beginning their own “in-loco parentis” relationships with K-12 students). 

Not often do I work with new teachers, as most of my teaching involves school leaders.  However, Dr. Dale Moore, Principal of the Lapeer County Ed-Tech Center outside of Attica, Michigan asked me to present during his back-to-school training session with teachers from a number of school districts around the region.

What a great group! 

Among others offering an array of advice, my own conversations on good teaching included what I consider to be my own, “Big 3” -- (1) Resiliency, Borne of Compassion (Donlan, 2009; Ford, 1997; Quinn, 2001; Phillips, 1998) (2) Uncommon Sense (Donlan, 2009; Frase & Hetzel, 1990; Gardner, 1993; Kovalik & Olsen, 2002; R. Chadwick, personal communication, August 14, 2001), and (3)Process” (Kahler, 2008). 

Beyond those, I also offered specific advice to help new teachers not only survive their first year, but also to thrive.  Included were the following:

1.     Bring your passion, ideas, and talent to your new positions in a manner that respects the wisdom of your elders who know deeply the needs of the students, families, and community.
2.  Put your energy into TEACHING during your first years, avoiding the unintentional over-expenditure of energy in school clubs and extra-curricular activities.
3.   Just as new students encounter those who are good for them and those who are not, realize that at times, staff members who appear more welcoming may, in actuality, be more toxic.
4.   That said, resist pressure to prematurely judge all lounge raconteurs as “negative,” as many of these folks actually may be providing simple comic relief to those who love kids and teach well, yet have great stress thrust upon them by forces outside.
5.     Vary those with whom you eat lunch, yet avoid altogether those from #3.
6.   Ensure that your preparatory tasks are handled outside of the high-student-traffic that occurs just before school, during passing times, and right after school, as students need relationships with caring adults during these times.
7.     Strive for content expertise and organizational effectiveness to the degree that classroom control is the natural byproduct. 
8.  Read books on leadership, and connect theory to your relationships among staff, students, families, and community.
9.   Forgive students in advance, and understand parents who enable, as you must shift to meet people where they are in order to take them where you want them to go (Kahler, 2008).
10. Build an action plan of personal/professional balance into your lives so that you stay healthy, happy, and energized (Kahler, 2008).

Dr. Dale Moore’s professional efficacy as a leader is only outdistanced by his principle-centeredness and deep commitment to children, obvious to those who know him as a person, father, husband, and friend. 

As is typical “Dale,” he engendered a degree of trust and inspiration among new teachers that was joyful to see. 

Might I ask: What advice are you giving?  

I would love to expand my list by visiting with you as well.


Donlan, R. (2009). Gamesmanship for teachers: Uncommon sense is half the work. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Education, Inc.

Ford, E. E. (1997). Discipline for home and school: Book one, teaching children to respect the rights of others through responsible thinking based on perceptual control theory. Scottsdale, AZ: Brandt.

Frase, L. & Hetzel, R. (1990). School management by wandering around. Lancaster, PA: Technomic.

Gardner, H. (1993). Multiple intelligences: The theory in practice. New York, NY: Basic Books.

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

Kahler, T. (2008). The process therapy model. Little Rock, AR: Taibi Kahler Associates.

Kovalik, S. & Olsen, K. (2002). Exceeding expectations: A user’s guide to implementing brain research in the classroom. Kent, WA: Susan Kovalik & Associated.

Phillips, V. (1998). Empowering discipline: An approach that works with at-risk students. Carmel Valley, CA: Personal Development Publishing.

Quinn, T. (2001). National Charter Schools Institute Leadership Styles Presentation. Workshop given at National Charter Schools Institute, Mt. Pleasant, MI.


Dr. Ryan Donlan is continually inspired by conversations with great leaders at all levels in K-12 schools and would love to visit yours as well.  For further conversation, you can reach him at or at (812) 237-8624.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Common Sense Conflict Resolution

Common Sense Conflict Resolution

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

For our Assistant Principals and others who enjoy the “he-said’s” and “she-said’s” of student interaction, I have an admission:  I love conflict.

I’m not referring to the de-escalation inherent in conflict-left-unchecked.  That’s hard to like.

I’m referring to conflict that brings about the best of “teachable moments” by our busiest building leaders doing what they do best – keeping children safe and encouraging good decision making.

Our best leaders turn the “flight-or-fight” into “higher-order thinking.”

They need not be psychologists to do it.

Since I have personally used Chadwick’s conflict resolution model (personal communication, August 14, 2001) for over a decade, I’m going to share an adaptation, one incredibly simple and based on common sense. 

It is one that works.

Some background: Bob Chadwick is an internationally renowned conflict resolution and consensus building specialist from Consensus Associates in Oregon. I met Bob over 10 years ago when I was leading K-12 with the premise that no human being should lay a hand upon another in anger.  If physical conflicts occurred, those involved would lose their opportunity to attend school when others were attending class.  Thus, a tool to maintain a culture of civility was critical. Conflict resolution was just that.

Conflict resolution can become part of a school’s culture.  It can be practiced, believed, and valued as what works when situations arise.  Formal conflict resolutions, done well, are brief, structured, facilitated conversations that are all about “two people versus a problem,” as opposed to “one person versus another.”

Here’s the basic framework of Common Sense, Conflict Resolution with some cautionary statements prior:

To Those Leading:  Be proactive in supervision. Keep a finger on the pulse of the school. Listen; eavesdrop. Don’t let instructional leadership interfere with sound building management. When anger arises, act quickly to provide a safe, quiet place for de-escalation. Get proper training (this article is no substitute for proper training). Be patient. If students cannot or will not participate in a conflict resolution, keep them isolated or send them home until they do. Do not avoid the process and send students back to class with separate promises that “All is well.”  All social interaction must stop until a conflict resolution with a trained facilitator (an adult, not a peer) takes place.

Conflict Resolution Process

Step One:  You’re facilitating.  Bring participants into a private room with three chairs situated as if they are spokes on a wheel facing a center point (120 degree angles). Have a seat. Thank both for participating, and mention that staff felt a conflict resolution was necessary. If the two deny any sort of conflict (which is common), mention the general nature of what you understand is going on, without laying blame or making judgment.  Then move forward with the process, expecting them (not asking them) to move with you.

Step Two: Offer ground rules, such as, “None of us will return to class until the process sees itself through; we’ll all remain in our seats. Language should be appropriate, and we’ll each take turn in answering without interruption. If any of us refuse to participate, that person will go home until the process can be resumed.”  You may find other ground rules work as well.

Step Three:  You’ll want to mention to them that although the questions asked will be very short, the answers can take as long as they need to take.  Then ask your questions, taking turns on which student goes first for each question. 

The first:  “What is your perception of the problem, and how do you feel about it?”

The word “perception” is very important, as we do not want each alleging “facts.” The two sides will naturally differ in account.  Students will often not answer the 2nd part of the question, so you may need to tactfully remind them and encourage their answers.  This is necessary to allow disclosure of how the situation affects each person, as each has probably not seen things from the other’s perspective.

Step Four:  Ask next, “What do you need from [name of other person] in order to solve this conflict and move forward?” 

The key word is “need.” This second question begins the process of bringing students out of brainstem behavior, as they are verbalizing their needs. Again, ensure that you alternate who answers each question first.  Students’ using each other’s names is also very important, rather than using “him, her, he, or she” when describing what occurred.

Step Five:  Next ask, “What can you do, in order to help solve this conflict with [name of other person] and move forward?

This question begins the use of each participant’s higher-level thinking processes, where problem solving is more probable.  Hold each accountable for an action step.

Step Six:  Finally ask, “Can you both live with that?”

Getting nods at this point is fine.  Consensus has been reached.  It is not necessary that the two become friends, shake hands, or hug.  Professional solutions for pro-social workplace behavior are the goals.

Step Seven:  Discuss what each should do when one of two things happen:  (1) Others inquire as to what happened, and (2) Others try to stir-up the conflict after the session. 

Strategies here include saying, “Thank you, but we have it handled” and if necessary, proceeding back to the facilitator to check the accuracy of the rumor mill, rather than approaching each other directly with accusation derived from “spin.” 

Step Eight:  To conclude, ask each, “What was your perception of the process, and how do you feel about it?”

Some will say that it worked well.  Others will say it was stupid and a waste of time.  Just smile, nod, and thank them.

The entire process typically takes around 10 minutes. 

After your second question in the process above (regarding “needs”), you should see non-verbal behavior improve (arms will unfold … knees will stop bouncing).  If you sense that the session is not working, then either you are not comfortable in your facilitation or the two are not being completely honest about the “real” conflict (Rather than “He/she gave me a dirty look and called me a ‘such-and-such,’” the problem was more likely that one hooked up with the other’s boyfriend/girlfriend at a party).

If conflict’s real story has yet to present itself and the process is not moving forward, it is better to separate the two, let them ponder a while in isolation (they won’t like it), and ask others on staff to periodically visit and help unearth the details. 

Don’t attach any ego to the resolution.  Today might not be your “A-Game.”  The two may need another voice and another’s style. 

You’ll eventually find that the process will work.

Chadwick knows his stuff. 


Dr. Ryan Donlan is happy to demonstrate these techniques and asks that you call or write if you have any questions or comments at or (812) 237-8624.  

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Innocuous and Disparate: Extending the Talk

The Innocuous and Disparate: Extending the Talk

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

… Continued from last week: 

Imagine John, not as a convenience store clerk, but as principal, saying and acting as such with staff, students, or parents.  How would that work out for him? 

Further, what is he really “saying”?

1.     “That I don’t enjoy work.”
2.     “That I don’t enjoy talking to you.”
3.     “That I have unhealthy biases.”

Conversely, what is Sharon “saying”?

1.     “That I enjoy what I’m doing?”
2.     “That I enjoy you.”
3.     “That I am well adjusted.”

Our best leaders continually collect opportunities for wisdom by making note of the small things that speak loudly about people … about life – things seemingly innocuous and disparate.

I’ll bet if I asked you to close your eyes and think of the great leaders you have known, you would not necessarily think of someone who did well reading textbooks, writing papers, and filling-out reports, as leaders are oftentimes graded. 

You might instead think of someone who defines life in a way that was meaningful … someone who has a handle on how things worked, both professionally and personally … someone who sees things from a 10,000-foot perspective but stays grounded.

In peak performance, leaders think more deeply and make better connections.  Yet, where does this all start?  Where do WE start as leaders, if we want to operate at this level … to see things that clearly … and to make better connections for ourselves and others … to be on someone’s short list of those making an impact?

A good first step is to promote our own wellness through balance in life, such as having an interest, hobby, or talent that we can use to begin crafting analogies to leadership (S. Gruenert, personal communication, August 6, 2012).  

This allows us to see connections that are personally relevant.  A few examples might be:

Using our knowledge of carpentry to envision building a team (foundations, finish work, quality materials, many hands making light work, etc.).

Using our understanding of ballet to help in evaluating one’s management (dedication, grace, timing, breathing, symmetry, etc.).

Fly-fishing, golf, swimming, and riding one’s tractor
are mentioned by friends and colleagues.

The next step is more difficult – Moving beyond our personally meaningful metaphors to those universally accepted by others who share “not” our interests. 

We’ve all seen the school principal (former coach) who defaults to sports analogies, much to the chagrin of all the musicians and artists -- or leaders who run schools on academic rigor alone, ill-equipped to offer the metaphor needed by those whose relevance is the basketball court.

That’s not leadership; that’s one-trick-pony-ism.  

Examples from our best leaders, rather, focus on the needs of others. To do this effectively, leaders take opportunities to stretch their minds.  They make time to think deeply.  They perform cerebral calisthenics.   They force themselves to be uncomfortable.

Through such experiences, leaders discover the innocuous; they find similarity in things disparate, capitalizing on teachable moments disguised as “life happening.” 

These connections then change lives.

As I study my own teaching of leadership, I often ask students to make meaning out of things innocuous and disparate. Do I explain “well-enough,” and “often enough,” why I’m doing so?


Dr. Ryan Donlan teaches courses in Educational Leadership in the Doctoral, Educational Specialist, and Master’s Degree Programs in the Bayh College of Education at Indiana State University.  Please give him a push on his commentary by adding comments to this article or by contacting him at or (812) 237-8624.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Innocuous and the Disparate: Critical for Leaders

The Innocuous and the Disparate
Critical for Leaders

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

The Challenge

What intrigues me about our leadership profession is that we are evaluated by how effectively we ensure children pass tests, yet our best leaders use this as a starting point, rather than a destination.  Our calling demands more.  It demands not simply using our power of mind to guide instructional leadership; it requires that we use turn-of-mind to uplift the human condition and give our students a fighting change, a responsibility often abrogated by other institutions. 

Critical in leading today is our ability to unearth seemingly innocuous circumstances and make meaning out of disparity to promote learning and healthy development.  This involves our ability to teach, not necessarily befriend; to guide those who follow us through analogy, metaphor, and theory; to allow for a smart balance of win’s and losses in developing resiliency; and to enlighten others on how they are being perceived.

To facilitate relevance of learning, we must also stretch the capabilities of our minds, transcending our typical leadership texts with the perspective of sociologists and the acuity of anthropologists.  In doing so, we must:

1.  Open our minds to recognize things seemingly innocuous around us, those with the potential to connect with those we lead in teachable moments;

2.  Interpret phenomena that are seemingly disparate to the layperson, through artful analogy, metaphor, and story, to make deeper the learning.

Years ago, I played in a variety rock ‘n roll band with a man 17 years my senior, who began his response to most things asked of him, “Well it’s like anything else … “ He would respond with the most artful of analogy, far beyond what most could discern on their own.  This made sense.  I often walked away thinking in new ways beyond the conversation.  He connected things for me that were seemingly disparate.  That was leadership.

The Human Condition

I cannot tell you the number of times I have been approached by staff or students expressing concerns that all boil down to a lack of self-awareness.  Approaching this directly, I could simply tell them that at times, “You turn people off.”  However, that rarely works.  More effective would be offering an analogy that would allow them to walk away thinking about the way they come across … hopefully learning in a way that is non-threatening. 

Consider this: 


I just stopped at the convenience store on my way to work.

The customer in front of me said to the clerk, “John, how are you doing?”  John responded with a smile, saying, “Hey buddy, I’ll be a heck-of-a-lot better when I'm outta here.”  Both chuckle, yet nothing more was said.  John then put the change on the counter for the customer.  The customer picked it up, put it in his wallet, and left silently.

The customer in an adjacent line asked the same of Karen, who said, “Great, thanks!  Glad to see you here this evening.” She handed the customer his change.  A nice conversation ensued, as the man left, stating, “You have a great day as well, Karen.”

Those exchanges are quite interesting to me, in that 95 out of 100 persons would not see anything unique.  Yet as a leader, I noticed something.


What connections can you make? 

Anything innocuous or disparate?

I'll continue next week.


Dr. Ryan Donlan teaches courses in Educational Leadership in the Doctoral, Educational Specialist, and Master’s Degree Programs in the Bayh College of Education at Indiana State University.  Please give him a push on his commentary by adding comments to this article or by contacting him at or (812) 237-8624.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Wrong Questions?

The Wrong Questions?

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

I received a postcard last week, inviting me to attend a local seminar to consider sending my children to a “tuition-free, on-line, K-12 public school.”  Because I’m keenly interested in the etiquette of how educational folks from out of town introduce themselves (and admittedly, I’m a people-watcher), I wished to attend, yet the mailing arrived a day after the event. 

What I would not do, however, is consider taking my children out of their most-excellent elementary school. 

I have been asked a number of questions lately regarding choice, competition, and school quality -- in particular, “Are charter schools or traditional schools more effective?” 

Before not answering this question, I’ll begin with some working definitions, as I use them here.

Charter schools: State-funded entities that partner with charter authorizers, such as (but not limited to) higher educational institutions, school districts, or state agencies, to educate children for a fixed term renewable upon performance agreement.  Charter schools to which I refer are public schools.

Traditional schools: State-funded entities that have historically educated children within particular geographic regions. They are what most conceive of and refer to as “our public schools.”  Traditional schools have been the backbone of our country’s prosperity for 150 years.

About that question:  “Who is more effective?” in my opinion, is now the wrong question to ask, as the notion of a dichotomous, “charter thing-versus-traditional thing” has lost luster.  Further, in some cases, it doesn't make sense.

Let me expand through a particular comparison, one of many.

School district A operates a regional educational center with an alternative education program and an area career-technical education program. Each program has a local-area advisory board that helps set policy and provides oversight.  The programs have autonomy, and the local community supports its decentralized leadership structure.

School district B operates a regional educational center with alternative programs and a career-technical education program.  It is comprised of a collaborative of charter schools (one cosmetology, another career prep, another alternative education), each with its own policies and methods of oversight. The programs have autonomy, and the local community supports its decentralized leadership structure. 

Since these school models are nearly twin entities in very similar communities, wouldn’t the “right” questions pertain to why each is structured as it is, how these decisions were made, and what are the benefits and costs of these arrangements?  After all … smart folks, just like you and me, created both.

The same question could be asked regarding Montessori models, fine arts models, back-to-basics models, Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) models, and a host of others who are currently structured both as traditional schools and as charter schools (J. Goenner, personal communication, February, 2012).

In the last few years, the notion of chartering -- in some circles still an edgy conversation-starter -- has evolved into a wider-reaching option for autonomy available to all  allowed under statute, even traditional school districts. Interestingly, Albert Shanker, former United Federation of Teachers President, played a key role in charter school history when advocating that teachers should have more empowerment, free from stifling bureaucracy.

One of my graduate students shared a good book with me a few weeks ago, where inside I found the following, offered by Henig (2011):

I used to think that a critical question was, “Are charter schools better than traditional public schools?”  Now it is clear to me that the differences among schools within the charter and traditional public school sectors are greater than those between the typical schools within each sector.  In the early days of the charter school phenomenon, key organizations on both the Right and the Left decided it was politically savvy to frame the two as distinctly different sectors in a head-to-head battle to determine the future of American education … Missed at that time was the recognition of charters as descendants of a long line of efforts – outside and inside education – to decentralize public-sector decision making and loosen the shackles of bureaucratic sameness. (p. 68).

So in asking questions about charter and traditional schools, wouldn’t it now make more sense to reframe our inquiry in a way that better teaches us how we can provide more opportunities to students? 

Such as …

1.  Does X-type of program (such as those mentioned above) have better potential for success under a charter structure or traditional structure?  After all, both structures are available now to many local superintendents.

2.   To extend Question #1 -- Are local schools supportive of the idea to charter their own programs, or are they hesitant?  Why or why not? 

3.  Why does it seem that much advertisement pertaining to new educational opportunity originates from those who neither shop in our local grocery stores nor sponsor our Little League Teams? Can this tide be turned?

4.  Finally, what must communities and schools do to ensure that educational needs are addressed locally?

Given the challenges we now encounter as educators just trying to promote success amidst complexity (where achievement seems no longer defined by learning, but rather by test scores), doesn’t it make sense that when we spend our hard-earned time pondering questions that impact our children’s futures, we target our efforts to get somewhere productive?


SPECIAL THANKS to the outstanding scholars in ISU's EDLR 710, Social Foundations of Leadership, for the direct and no-nonsense critique of this article prior to publication.  You helped me to think clearly!  Ryan Donlan

Dr. Ryan Donlan is particularly intrigued by today’s perspectives both inside and outside the charter community on how ALL are taking part in guiding our children from where they are to a better place.  He can be reached for comment at or at (812) 237-8624. 


Henig, J. R. (2011). Ideas have sharper edges than real phenomena.  In R. F. Elmore (Ed.), I used to think … and now I think … : Twenty leading educators reflect on the work of school reform (pp. 65-70). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.