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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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

A Place in the Choir

A Place in the Choir

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

All God’s creatures have a place in the choir; some sing low, some sing higher. Some sing out loud in the telephone wire …
-- Children’s song lyrics, by Bill Staines

I often envision these famous lyrics when speaking to school leaders about their Alternative Schools.  Diversity of circumstance epitomizes their students, the children and young adults who in many cases have sad songs to sing.

With all of the flavors of at-risk-ness that alternative educators encounter, yet with such similarities in the typical mosaic that confronts each alternative school as a whole, I am intrigued by the dichotomies of philosophy that exist regarding the care and feeding of such students.  The differences are sometimes stark.

I teach doctoral students.  As my new cohort begins to formulate dissertation topics, I would like to suggest Leadership for At-Risk Students as a viable topic. For many years, alternative schools have made attempts to serve as the last bastion of a civilized society for some very troubled children.  They have purportedly fulfilled their missions based on best practice and what they believe their community expects.  Yet, how are they doing?  How are their leaders leading?  What is going on that makes a difference, and what does not?

I wonder what research would say?

At the Washington Hilton Hotel about a decade ago, I sat with a national delegation that included our State Superintendent, Governor’s Education Advisor, and select K-12 leaders representing our state among delegations from the forty-nine others.  At this gathering, the American Alternative School was declared a failed concept (Whitehurst, 2003).  Ouch.

As a leader who had one such school under my supervision, I took offense to these remarks. 

Yet, in the years that followed as I worked in statewide high school reform, I began to understand this bureaucrat’s perspective (though not totally embracing any blanket statements), as many alternative educators provided resistance to the reforms that we were championing in order to raise rigor, relevance, and relationships in schools. 

Rigor was the tough sell. Some actively worked against it with the mantras, “Our kids just don’t test well,” and “We shouldn’t be expected to be held to academic standards, as our kids just aren’t academic.”

Too many alternative schools, it seemed at the time, wanted a pillow-soft existence with insulated academic accountability. Maybe this has now changed.

I ask superintendents, “Are your alternative school leaders really promoting lifelong success for students?” and “Do they embrace rigor?”

The answers are interesting, as when school leaders describe what their programs do each day, the descriptions often lean more toward one dichotomous archetype of delivery system or another. These archetypes are what communities envision as the “alternative” in alternative education, yet as I mentioned above, even with the diversity of circumstance among their students, kids really aren’t that different.  They oftentimes come from the same cocktailed malaise of juvenile delinquency, neglect, overindulgence, pregnancy, disaffection, abuse, violence, sadness, confusion, and/or abject awfulness that we would not wish on any kid.  Yet, the mosaic is similar, it seems, no matter where we go.

Programs in different communities seem to treat these same batches of symptoms differently.  This is interesting to me.  Let’s take a look at what experience has shown to describe different communities’ programs and the dichotomies that exist in delivery philosophy.

The Dichotomies

DICHOTOMY OF IDENTITY:  Some alternative programs allow children to come to school and simply “be themselves.” In the spirit of connecting and meeting students where they are, they allow children to wear what they want, do what they want (sometimes even smoke on street corners or in non-sanctioned “wink/wink” smoking areas), and communicate what they want (even write in slang language in the classroom or on their assignments).  The intent is to connect with the individual who is struggling to be heard. Conversely, other programs require that students perform an identity check, or better said make an identity adjustment, while attending school.  They require students to don uniforms, study professional etiquette, and adhere to strict behavioral expectations with appropriate incentives or disincentives.  They expect kids to act very much “unlike” themselves so that they can overcome, overemphasizing a collectivistic responsibility, as opposed to an individualistic mentality.

DICHOTOMY OF SERVICE:  Some alternative programs provide excessive visibility of services tailored to the needs of at-risk teens, such as the childcare for infants and toddlers or “group” sessions for the handling of relationship issues or for the intervention and treatment of this, that, or the other thing. The philosophy behind these approaches often rests upon the fact the visibility of these programs will serve the functions of advertisement and availability for those who need the help. Other programs work overtime to minimize the visibility of anything that would identify “circumstance.”  Childcare services are offered off-site, as one example, and intervention services are provided more individually and confidentially. Excessive public broadcasting, they feel, would intrigue those not involved into wishing they were a part of all this attention.

DICHOTOMY OF PREPARATION:  Some alternative programs proclaim that most alternative students will not avail themselves of college and instead find job training more appropriate to their interests, aptitudes, or abilities.  They contend that forcing non-academic students into an overly academic program is probably what caused them to drop from traditional schools in the first place. Other programs promote an unapologetic, no-excuses academic education geared toward continued coursework beyond high school, as they feel that whether students are on an academic or a job training path, preparation for higher education will allow students who never realized they had the potential for both, to better understand that they are empowered to tackle either.

DICHOTOMY OF THE INTERVENTION:  Some alternative programs provide rooms where students can go during the school day in the event that they have issues that interfere with their ability to handle academics or the classroom experience.  In what in some cases are called “chill rooms,” intervention programs and conflict resolution specialists stand ready to provide conversational remedies to help students with their emotional needs, so that they can better re-engage academically when they are ready to do so. Other programs believe that those out-of-class experiences have a tendency to sidetrack students from necessary, academic instruction and even enable those who wish to avoid hard work, so they focus more of their efforts on in-class differentiation and supports to minimize the need for extended stays out of the classroom.  The more affective services are provided during non-instructional time.

DICHOTOMY OF PERSONNEL:  Some alternative programs hire staff members who have a natural ability to be “in touch” with the students enrolled, as these employees are liberal in perspective and progressive in their demeanor and outlook.  They report that students often make quick connections with them as they are seen as hip and in-tune with student needs.   Other programs believe that children in alternative schools are already surrounded by overly permissive adults in their lives who are too interested in playing friends with the younger generation, so they work to counterbalance this with more conservative staff members who are anything but “hip” and serve more as strict, paternal influences than they do as big brothers or sisters.

DICHOTOMY OF PARENTAL PARTNERSHIP:  Some alternative programs consider themselves the last bastion of a civilized society, with adult missionaries who rescue children from the negative influences of family and even the deleterious influence of their own parents.  They educate children “in spite” of what they encounter at home and work to supplant the adult influence in the children’s lives.  Other programs believe that even the most dysfunctional parents are hypercritical as partners and feel that their efforts would be “undone” each evening by those at home if the family was not “on board,” so they work toward involving the entire family in the education of the child, serving as a supplement to the family unit, no matter how effortful or resource-dependent this extended relationship becomes.

DICHOTOMY OF SUPERVISION:  Some programs are supported in supervision by police officers or security guards to ensure the safety of students and staff while in attendance.  These efforts are often coupled with a procedure for greeting students at the door each morning, at times involving the use of wands or metal detectors to screen students upon arrival. Strict monitoring of hallways takes place during class and in passing times.  Other programs believe in a more subtle approach that does not require the use of uniformed, extrinsic controls on student behavior, but instead focuses more on a whole-school culture approach to intrinsic violence prevention and civil co-existence. Hallway traffic and passing times are not handled so didactically.

So …

Back to my wheelhouse of metaphor:  With Bill Staines' lyrics in mind – If all God’s creatures have a place in the choir with some singing low and some singing higher, then what type of setting best works for the mosaic we serve?  At-risk children are diverse, indeed, but are they so different from one another that such a dichotomy is needed?

On our end, we’ll check the research and will get back with you in future months about what it says.  Until then, enjoy your conversations with trusted colleagues regarding some great kids who need our help. 

Can we ask ourselves, “Why?” when discussing “What” and “How”?


Dr. Ryan Donlan spent a good portion of his 20 years in K-12 education working with at-risk high school students and is interested in further research on alternative education as part of his scholarship areas of School Wellness, School Reimagination, and Leadership Development.  Like you, he was somewhere on one side or the other of this dichotomy (and even at times in the middle) as a leader.  Please feel free to continue the conversation with him at (812) 237-8624 or at

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Wishing Away

Wishing Away

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

It is fitting that President Obama said, “Out journey is not complete,” during his Oath of Office Ceremony on Monday, January 21, 2013, as all of us seem to need this reminder from time to time. 

The journey is far from complete, for each and every one of us.  Our President’s statement is particularly relevant to our leadership in K-12 schools, as well as to our personal lives.

Seems that all too often, we wish away our journey for the destination.

Yes, we spend our time WISHING AWAY the present for the future.  This is not so much a result of our working in education, but instead from “being” human, I believe.

A few examples:

“Sure hope I get through this degree program quickly.”

“I just wish [our state’s Standardized Tests] were over!”

“Only 78 more days before summer vacation.”

“Can’t wait until I move from the Principalship to the Superintendency!”

“Two more days until FRIDAY!!!”

“My little one’s driving me crazy; can’t wait to get past those ‘terrible 2’s.’”

These comments seem innocent enough.  Yet, I wonder if we need to examine more closely what we are saying … and what it represents. 

I used to share with my undergraduate students my concern for those who wished away their journeys for their destinations by asking them what their lives would entail upon graduation from college. 

With tongue-in-cheek, I would say,

“You’ll owe lots of money, more so that you do now.”

“You’ll be older with more health concerns.”

“Your children, now in grade school, will think of you as less-intelligent – even with your new degree – and they will treat you as they would an ATM machine.”

“Your children, now in high school, will be adults who bring you all the worry still … yet no ability to help make things all better for them, as we did with Band-Aids for the booboos of their childhood.”

Of course, in extracting my tongue from cheek, we all know that while some of the aforementioned are true, the trade-off’s of college degree attainment are more than worth it.

Yet, why would we ever wish for something as gainful as life experience to be “done with,” as the end result is our flirting a bit closer with our own mortality? 

I just don’t get that.   

There really IS something to be said about experiencing the present, and possibly enjoying it as well, even when it is a bit “clunky.”  Better said, there is something to be said about the journey.  Yet, we oftentimes sit idly by those who will listen to our banter, whether in the lounge, on Twitter, or in coffee klatches, wishing away.

I spoke to my father-in-law recently over the holidays, asking why he arises at 3:00 or 4:00 a.m. each morning to drive to his friends for coffee.  That would be a painful wake-up call for me, no matter how good the friend.  No matter how good the coffee.

He said, “I’m just enjoying getting up while I can … cause one of these days, I might not be able to …”

I think my father-in-law should ride along with me the next time I professionally develop a staff or even the next time I talk with students. 

His message might be infinitely more important than anything I plan on sharing.


Dr. Ryan Donlan is enjoying his journey teaching, serving, writing, and researching in the Department of Educational Administration in the Bayh College of Education at Indiana State University.  If you have comments, questions, concerns, or a critique of his Ed. Leadershop contributions, please feel free to write him at or call him at (812) 237-8624.  He would love to talk with you anytime.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Blind Spot

Blind Spot

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

Now John at the bar is a friend of mine
He gets me my drinks for free
And he’s quick with a joke or to light up your smoke
But there’s some place that he’d rather be.

Billie Joel, Piano Man, 1973

I wonder if John knows that his patrons know he’s not really present with them.  There’s some place that he’d rather be … and they can tell.
Bartenders should be there for “the folks,” shouldn’t they?

… So should school leaders.

My point here is not one of customer service; it’s one of knowing how others perceive us, especially those we lead.  John probably didn’t know.

I briefly touched on self-awareness last week when I made mention of Johari’s Window, a conceptual framework created in the 1950’s by Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham (Luft, 1969) that helps people understand how they understand themselves and how others understand them as well (Unique name?  Jo is for Joseph … hari is for Harry).

            The Johari Window is divided into four quadrants, the OPEN quadrant, the HIDDEN quadrant, the UNKNOWN quadrant, and the BLIND quadrant, as follows:
Things about you that are known to you and known to others

Things about you that are unknown to you and known to others.

Things about you that are known to you and unknown to others.

Things that are either unknown to both you and others or things that may not even apply.



Basically the figure above (my adaptation of Johari’s Window) depicts the following:

Aspects of our personality, such as, traits, qualities, or preferences that we recognize about ourselves and share openly with others (OPEN Quadrant); 

Aspects that we do not share, but we know about ourselves.  We keep them private (HIDDEN Quadrant);

More important to our discussion today, aspects of our personality that are present in our leadership that others know about us, or at least they perceive to be the case, but unfortunately, (a) we do not realize we are exhibiting them or (b) we do not realize that others perceive them (BLIND Quadrant); 

Finally, aspects of personality of which no one is aware, or things that don’t apply (UNKNOWN Quadrant).

            Let’s focus on the Blind Spot.

Effective school leaders strive for healthy balance among the four quadrants of Johari’s window, working to minimize those aspects of personality to which we are blind.  Quite simply, anything in our blind spot is a risk, because out of our perception typically means out of our control.

I really like this half-century-old concept, the Johari’s Window.  It makes sense as I ask myself, “Do I know how I am coming across to others?” 

            I call this a 360-degree Awareness or With-it-ness.

All leaders should have it.  Do you have it? I would like to think that I do, to a certain degree. Did we have such when we were teachers?  As parents?  Spouses? Significant others?
One could derive from a study of Johari’s window that inherent in our personhood is the hardwired limitation NOT to know everything about ourselves, and as it follows naturally, NOT to know everything about the way we are being perceived in our leadership.   

Can this be partially overcome through active information seeking on our part?  I think so. 

The first step is through establishment of a trusted leadership team.  I like to keep in mind that “The best looking glass is the eye of a friend,” so sayeth the Irish Proverb.  Do we have others on staff who are willing to give us their eyes, taking us aside and talking to us in a way that a mirror is incapable?  Often we contort ourselves into our own best package, when looking into our mirrors, don’t we?
            Another is through a more formal evaluation process, where we take some time to ask others on staff to evaluate aspects of our leadership (or personalities), as they perceive them.  Ready-made instruments can help us here.  How often do we use them?
I found one last week that was both enjoyable and informative by simply typing into a search engine, “Johari Window Exercise.”  As with most similar instruments, it offered me a list of adjectives from which I picked the five or six that I felt best described me.  I was then able to send a link via e-mail to others who knew me and could do the same.  It took all involved less than five minutes, and I received my own Johari Window to review.

            I learned something about myself … something that has me thinking … about road trips, of all things ....

            Sometimes when we’re driving as a family, my wife, Wendy, is kind enough to do a head-check for me in my passengers' side blind spot before I change lanes.  Sure, I have my own mirrors, and I have been driving successfully for many years, but I want that extra pair of eyes on the situation.  I do this because I want someone I trust to extend my awareness before I make a move on behalf of those who are dependent upon my care. 

Who is traveling in our passengers’ seats as we lead, as our staff and students sit behind us enjoying the ride?
Are they providing their eyes as an extension of ours?


Luft, J. (1969). Of human interaction. Palo Alto, CA: National Press.


Dr. Ryan Donlan is hoping that you will put your eye, as well, on this week’s BLIND SPOT and let him know what you think by contacting him at, (812) 237-8624, or by making comment on the Ed. Leadershop.  Hope we continue to be informative!

Tuesday, January 8, 2013



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

Last weekend, I watched one of my favorite football teams, the Indianapolis Colts, who have had a remarkable, and a remarkably eventful season.  The return of Head Coach Chuck Pagano got me thinking … of leadership, of course … of my time in K-12 … and yours.
Most of you may know that Coach Pagano was sidelined earlier this year after his diagnosis of Leukemia brought other priorities to life.  While he battled the disease into remission, Offensive Coordinator Bruce Arians served in an interim capacity, leading the team to a winning season and an AFC wildcard spot in the playoffs.  Ironically, Arians was sidelined this week with his own trip to the hospital, from the team hotel.  Thankfully, he is now ok. 
The Colts didn’t win last weekend’s game, but that’s ok too.
Leadership is rough.
Sooner or later as educational leaders, we’ll all be sidelined for one reason or another. 
Metaphorically, it might be only for a play or two, or it may be for the game or the season.  The former may include having another administrator better equipped to deal with a certain parent take the lead in a meeting; the latter may be that we spend time away from our building in other duties or that we are off work temporarily or indefinitely, as others assume leadership.
Hopefully, it’s not that our health gets the best of us.
Getting sidelined may be personal: It might be the result of our tending to personal or family business that takes us away for a time.  Lots of us have parents getting up there in years, or even spouses.
Getting sidelined may be professional: As with many head coaches today, if our team is having a losing season (in our case, struggling test scores, etc.), then we may be removed from our positions or given “technical assistance”  (a.k.a. having “the bench” or “locker room” pointed out to us).
School leaders such as ourselves should expect to be sidelined, at times, in that our jobs are too complicated and high profile to be insulated from it.  There’s no shame.
Every leader must eventually step aside and let someone else lead. We need to see sidelining as a part of our leadership, not something to be avoided.  It is an opportunity for us to assume two roles that we should assume from time to time:  STUDENT and REAL PERSON.
For students and real people, sidelining can be a positive experience.  It allows others to drive the school’s mission for us, taking the wheel so that we have time to learn from them and learn more about ourselves.
As one of my former school board members said after he reorganized a health care organization and dissolved his own CEO position, “The closing of a door opens a window of opportunity.”
What are these windows?
While sidelined, a window opens when we are able to reprioritize our professional and personal lives with clarity, as others are more directly in the battles of urgency that confront building leaders each day.  We can then discern our own things “important” from those “urgent,” if that makes any sense.
While sidelined, another window opens when we have time to reflect and think deeply about our leadership and what it means to accept the responsibility of educating children.  We make all other professions and quality lives possible.  How often do we seriously reflect upon this?  Could it be that we need to elevate our game?  A visit to Johari’s Window (Luft and Ingham, 1955, in Luft, 1969) could be in order here, as we need to work toward minimizing the quadrant that others can see, but we cannot (maybe more on this next week, just for fun).
While sidelined, windows open when we have the opportunity to learn, to “play student,” as we expand our perspectives by watching others lead their own way to address the circumstances that face all of us in leadership.  We can expand our repertoire through deft observation.
Other windows …
Sidelining allows us the opportunity to make decisions, asking ourselves if we are a fit for the circumstances of leadership that present themselves in our school or if we need to look for something a bit more well-fitting. 
Sidelining allows us a better opportunity to get in touch, as while sidelined we do not necessarily move farther away from our school or role as school leader; we instead move closer into ourselves.
Whether sidelined for a play, a game, or a season, how are we handling it? 
By bemoaning our plight?
By besmirching the official?
Or like Chuck Pagano, by befriending the circumstance that is now a part of life’s story, and from it growing, learning, and valuing the positive impact on our wisdom through trials, travels, tribulations, and treadwear …

Our choice; our bench.


Luft, J. (1969). Of human interaction. Palo Alto, CA: National Press.


Dr. Ryan Donlan teaches leadership for the Master’s, Educational Specialist, and Doctoral Programs for the Bayh College of Education at Indiana State University.  He encourages your commentary and insight and can be reached at (812) 237-8624 or at