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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Playing Defense

Playing Defense

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

We’ve heard for years, “The best defense is a good offense.” The opposite is also true in school leadership.

I think back many years to my first principalship. As I did not have an assistant, I would select my social studies teacher, Chris, to pinch-hit when I had obligations out-of-building.

When preparing Chris for the role, I asked him to keep in mind an acronym, SODA (Safety, Order, Discipline, and Attendance), as SODA comprised his four priorities as my substitute (in that order) while I was away.  Nowadays, I would probably add two additional letters to the SODA’s tail end, “TL” – Teaching and Learning. 

This week, I would like to pose another way of looking at the acronym, beyond that of a substitute principal’s job description – more in line with notions of leadership preparation and the way we define a principal’s current role. 

As I ponder SODA-TL’s conceptual properties, I envision a hierarchy of institutional needs, which I represent below in a conceptual model:

As with many hierarchies, items more toward the top depend on those nearer the bottom for their existence and sustainability. This hierarchy applies to school leadership as follows:

School safety is foundational.  Its necessity is inarguable. If we cannot ensure that children will return home each evening unharmed (physically, emotionally, etc.), then we should not be in the schoolhouse business. 

Resting just above our platform of school safety is the notion of order, “a must” for both effectiveness and efficiency of operation. Roles and responsibilities cannot be carried out in the midst of chaos or confusion. Once order is achieved, the institution can work toward providing for a higher, yet still a mid-level need, discipline.

Discipline is both extrinsic and intrinsic, ideally influencing everyone to do what is appropriate to his or her role.  Extrinsic factors involve a natural follow-through on consequences for choices made (i.e. write-up’s for unprofessional behavior or conversely, bonuses for exceptional performance). Intrinsic factors, on the other hand, would include the even-more-important qualities of one’s being self-directed, pro-social, or professionally helpful.  When those in schools are disciplined, another mid-level need that rests within our hierarchy can flourish: attendance.

Not much needs to be said about attendance.  The notion of Must Be Present to Win certainly applies. Positive attendance provides its own platform for other, higher-level needs in education, starting with effective teaching, as students are better ensured continuity of instruction when teachers have continuity of student audience. 

Finally, resting atop and dependent upon quality teaching in our hierarchy is learning.

Here’s the bottom line:

We cannot assume SODA-TL will just happen in schools.  This hierarchy needs defending each and every day, as our hierarchical homeostasis is vulnerable to forces both from within and without the schoolhouse walls.

Are we ensuring that someone is always on hand to play defense?

With recent trends in what we demand of leaders, I question whether many see defense as relevant.  Principals are now required to play much more offense (translated: tending to the teaching and learning atop the hierarchy).  In such, they’re a bit more removed from the defensive line.  What is perplexing at times is that in leadership preparation circles, the entire notion of defense is at times, depicted as a lesser entity. 


Some make it their mission to regale a principal’s role in management as antiquated, a product of the bygone eras of good-ole’ boys and one’s prerequisite as a football coach (this article’s metaphors notwithstanding).  Isn’t the reality of today’s situation that the game of the principalship is more complex than ever, requiring an all-hands-on-deck approach? 

Further, isn’t a principal’s game one that requires a “both/and” approach, as opposed to that of an “either/or” – the need for offense/Instructional leadership AND defense/Building Management?  

Aren’t both equally important in winning?

Instead of denigrating a principal’s role as building manager, let us instead envision the offense and defense of the principalship as partner constructs resting in different places on the same, all-important hierarchy of institutional need? 

Doing so would allow us better to organize our resources to give the time and attention to foundational needs (SODA), so as to allow higher-order needs (TL) to be met.

I can’t think of any losers in that game.


Dr. Ryan Donlan would like to reframe any contemporary indictments of a school leader’s “Building Management,” and as part of this, is laying the groundwork to have a discussion about the importance of Assistant Principals in future weeks.  If you have any thoughts you would like to share, please don’t hesitate to contact him at (812) 237-8624 or at

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