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, March 27, 2013

Roadchips, Part I

Roadchips, Part I

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

“We’re taking the lead because for too long the public school system in Camden has failed its children,” proclaimed New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Flanked by public officials at a local high school in recent days, he added that inaction would be “immoral”  (Zezima, 2013).

This was not New Jersey’s first rodeo in the school takeover business, but reports stated that it might be Governor Christie’s first ride. 

In such, I very much wanted to write about Christie and the Camden schools this week in the Leadershop … but I didn’t.

I noticed Christie’s announcement first on CNN, while arising in a hotel, flipping past a number of televangelists on the way to a news channel before leaving for a school site visit.    After watching a bit of the news, I flipped back again, as I needed a bit of higher-order inspiration after seeing how spin-doctors and political pundits indict professional educators for what they do.

I quickly found the usual: Bright Lights, Botox, Healing, and Hairspray -- Charismatic caretakers tending to their flocks, including those yearning for their own 2nd chances to lead special-purpose lives, to live moments-made-the-most-of, and to enjoy their grace-given rights to have-it-all! 

For a few days, I wanted to write about THAT as well, as our services include “faith” and “followership” – with a message that hard work and deferred gratification will provide for the true believers who cannot presently fathom such. 

But I didn’t. 

Instead, I found myself gassing-up my car today on the way home from an inspiring school accreditation visit.  I was in rural, rural Indiana. 

The gas station was an older-style eatery/gift shop.  It housed only a few pumps, so space was tight.  As I re-hooked the nozzle to the dispenser and twisted my cap, a car screeched to a stop just inches behind me.  It startled me, so I turned. Its windshield was cracked.

Out stepped a good-ole-boy, Carhartt jacket … unshaven … and in a hurry.  

Giving him a friendly nod, I pulled my car out of the way and stepped out to enter the store.  Immediately, I felt a brisk cloud of dust hit me, the product of a big wind. 

I heard profanity too … significant, off-putting, loud profanity.  As I turned, I noticed the young man’s baseball hat tumbling through the parking lot in my direction, blown by the wind.

Quickly scooping up the hat as it nearly blew by, I handed it to its owner as he caught up, to which he replied, “Thanks, man.” 

I responded, “You’re welcome,” and nodded.

I then went in the store, losing all interest in putting Chris Christie and televangelists together in a 5-minute read.

Roadchips, I thought.  Roadchips.

What are they? 

They are the little chips we find in our windshields after stones hit them while we’re driving.  They make cracks.

Some are only miniscule; others are a bit larger.  Roadchips, a thought borne of that young man’s cracked window and his out-of-character behavior, reminded me of our obligations in leadership when working with others.

I’ll share more next week.


Zezima, K. (2013, March 25-26) Huff Post Politics, The Huffington Post, Retrieved at


Dr. Ryan Donlan will be spending the next week thinking of roadchips and can be reached for any thoughts you might have regarding such and how they impact one’s leadership at (812) 237-8624 or

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

A Word on College

A Word on College

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

As leaders, shouldn’t we ensure that our teachers are preparing each and every student for college?  Can we say that we are doing our jobs if we’re not?

I once asked these questions in a room full of educators and just about got drawn and quartered.  It’s not that they didn’t want what’s best for kids; it’s that they didn’t think I was communicating too well.  I couldn’t have been serious, they thought.

Let me clarify, by offering a word on college.  The word IS “College.” 

“College” as a word has more impact on children than we may think.  For starters, it influences their perceptions of capability and worth.  We typically use the word much more narrowly than others around the world. 

What follows is how my leadership in P-12 influenced me to define “College.” I oftentimes would share these perspectives with my own staff and students in whole-school assemblies.  Please let me know if I’m on to something, or not.

All kids must go to college.  Without college, students miss out on the quality of life they deserve, oftentimes marginally employed and passing on to their own children that one should hate a job.

It’s not that one must live to work, by any means, but one must be able to “live” while working.

“College” as a term isn’t limited to furthering one’s academics, as many relay. It’s about furthering one’s learning. In actually, “College” is any of the following derivatives of international definition, including, but not limited to …

Community or Junior College;
Technical/Trade School, Vocational Program, or Specialty Institute;
Apprenticeship or Certificate Program;
Military Service;
Seminary, Theological School, or Divinity School;
Peace Corps or Missionary Work;
Community-Based Life-Skills and Transitions Programs;
Recreational and Competitive Sports Programs; and/or
Schools of Performing Arts.

Get the idea?  It’s ALL COLLEGE! 

My definition, borne of years in P-12, is pretty inclusive. 

And … “College” is not just any ole’ word.  It has power.

Used appropriately, the word “College” can then dispel the myth that some kids are College Material, while others are not.   Used errantly … it can crush dreams.

What IS College Material, anyway, as we would describe some of our students, if not a construct borne of snobbery or classism?

To even say that there is college potential in some, yet conversely, trade school aptitude in others, is to perpetuate the notion of two distinct classes of folks in the minds of children who are not as academically inclined.  It affects their perceptions of capability and worth, as they point out:  There are the smart kids … and then there are those like me.

Is that what we want?

The word “College,” is powerful. We must be aware of this fact.  Power exists in a word.

When I was a principal in the U.P. of Michigan years ago, I watched students who struggled with traditional academics enter diesel training school after graduation because they loved the woods, and of course were fascinated by the logging machinery therein. In just a short time, they exited “this institute or that” with the skills and training to work on large equipment, in myriad industries. After which, they enjoyed gainful employment, making more money than many of us will ever make in education, while raising children, buying homes, taking vacations, and saving for their children’s college (yes, as I use the term). 

Many did not consider themselves very bright in high school but should have.  Most did not consider themselves College Material … but SO were!  Could we have done something about this?  Could one word, judiciously shared, have helped?

I had other students who spent careers in the military, retiring after 20 years with a full, federal pension to pursue other avenues of gainful interest.  They barely made it through high school, yet the training they received while on active duty, coupled with the experiences of world travel and service in defense of freedom, allowed them to live their lives with tenfold the impact of most.  Many did not see themselves as capable, or as “those kids who could DO college,” while in high school. They had a low sense of self-worth.  Thankfully, the United States Armed Forces introduced them to the college experience, and much more!

What about that mop-headed, skydiving drop-zone dude with raggedy shorts, a day-old bologna sandwich in hand, and a parachute on his back, wandering leisurely through life in the months prior the graduation, past which he barely skimmed?   Well, he went to college, as I use his definition of such:  Open-air classrooms, blue skies, and freefalling at 120 miles per hour.  His licensure proves he can do what most cannot, with credentials accepted worldwide. 

That kid almost throttled me one day when I asked him in the hanger how he was doing in high school.  He despised everything “school” …  AND ME, for inquiring, yet excelled at the academic application of skydiving (evidenced by the safety training and Federal Aviation Administration guidelines, not your lightest-of-read).  Imagine, how rewarding it has been for him all these years in his career, helping others each day with their bucket lists! 

When someone at work asks this dude, “Hey, how’s it going today?” he certainly doesn’t reply, “It will be a heck-of-a-lot better once getting out of here.”   He doesn’t live to work, but he LIVES while at work because of his “College.” To this day, he continues with advanced certifications, yet never thought of himself as College Material.

College is not necessarily about academic inundation, although it could be.  That worked fine for some of us.

Yet for most, “College” should not be a place or institution reserved for a certain type of curriculum.  Better defined, the word “College” defines LIVING one’s further expansion of mind and personal experience.  It is about liberation, so one has choice!  Access to “College” includes all students of ALL ability levels.

I will argue that the mainstream use of the term, itself, in education needs to be redefined, so that it is no longer thought the privilege of students who get the higher SAT’s or the better report cards.  If we did this collectively in P-12 schools, college I believe could become as commonly traveled as kindergarten. 

Are we as leaders selling “College”? 

Answer this by asking another question, “How many children in our schools believe they can DO college?”

If less than 100%, could it be because of the way we are defining and selling?


Dr. Ryan Donlan sees every kid a “college kid.”  Will you join him and begin reframing how students think of “college” at your next whole-school event?  Please also consider sharing your thoughts with him at (812) 237-8624 or at

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The "Little Things"

The “Little Things”

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

I’m the world’s most inquisitive student of human relations and have a lot to learn about “Little Things.”

People fascinate me. 

I marvel at the human condition 24 hours a day, and to be quite honest, especially each weekend as I shop for groceries with my family.  Among the “Little Things” that catch my eye are …

Those who wear pajama bottoms while in public.

Those who set down their money for payment on a countertop and expect a cashier to pick it up.

Those who open packaged food and eat it on the way to the checkout counter.

Those who argue with their own children and do so more loudly when they know someone is listening.

Those who leave their carts in the middle of parking lots, ignoring the cart corrals.

Those who fail to model “people skills” for their own children as they fundraise at a grocery store’s entrance (oftentimes instead on their cell phones, complaining about their significant others, again louder if they think anyone is listening).

People fascinate me.

While at times, my wife and I might look at each other and think to ourselves … “Oh my goodness,” we realize that we undoubtedly have our own “Little Things” as well.  Mine are probably more obvious.

What’s really interesting is how those of us who should be the most educated about the human condition – WE WHO WORK IN SCHOOLS – often pass judgment on those mentioned above, yet at the same time turn a blind eye to the “Little Things” that we, ourselves, bring to work. 

Do you know any folks in your school who are oblivious to their own “Little Things”?  If they were our leaders, we would probably notice some “Little Things” in …

Those who tell building secretaries to do this or that, rather than ask.  

Those who monitor school hallways and focus on moving students along, as opposed to greeting students where they are.

Those who overuse e-mail and avoid talking with others.

Those who walk by the trash left in the hallways and fail to see it as an indictment of their leadership.

Those who put “See Me” notes in staff members’ mailboxes without explanations.

Those who hold staff meetings for the purpose of reading rules.

Those who profess that they love children but bemoan the fact that kids don’t act like adults.

Those who simply don’t have any fun while at work.

And of course … those who cannot “forgive in advance,” all those people from the grocery store above, when they show up at the school office to act like they do.

Why do these “Little Things” seem to come to my attention? 

It is because I wonder how often we model the high standards to which we hold others, paying attention to our own “Little Things” before they become big in the eyes of those looking up to us. 


Please consider contacting Dr. Ryan Donlan at (812) 237-8624 or at and let him know what we all can do more effectively to recognize the “Little Things” in leadership that are getting in the way of meeting other people’s needs and improving schools.  He would LOVE to talk!  Thanks for your time in visiting The Leadershop this week!

Wednesday, March 6, 2013



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

Sitting next to an incredibly successful principal intern and her supervisor last Friday, I suggested that as she sunsets her year-long internship, she plays to her leadership strengths while dialing-up other attributes that mirror those of her principal.  To do so, I felt, would result in a double-barreled arsenal of leadership competency.

On the ride back to campus, I thought of the fact that I have used the notion of “dialing-up” for many years, both in word and action. I often found myself dialing-up our school’s managerial authority in student handbooks each summer; staff felt that I was always dialing-up my expectations for their performance. I even saw myself perennially dialing-up the expectations I had for myself.  Dialing-up my personal responsibilities happened a bit over ten years ago as well, going from professional bachelor to spouse, partner, and provider, much to my benefit.

Dialing-up … It has very much become a part of my leadership … of my life.  Interestingly, I hadn’t thought too much of it until that long ride back to campus.

As leaders, when we experience leadership challenges, it seems that some of us are hardwired for dialing-up, while others are more hardwired for downshifting. Many of my mentors were downshifters; they were still leaders worthy of emulation for many reasons.  I was just different, that’s all.

I think of dialing-up when problems need solving, often with fleeting thoughts of a stereo volume control dial, approximately 2 ½ inch-in-circumference on a high quality system, one that allows me to gently increase the volume of life’s music in a manner both subtle and pleasing.  Thoughts might move to my enjoyment of dialing-up Steely Dan back in the 80’s, when I had a lot more hair, a lot less weight, and very little responsibility.  Then back to the real world, thoughts might move me to a place where dialing-up represents high-stakes finesse, timing, and effect … all critical.  Yes, this strange stuff happens in my brain, as it did when I led K-12.

I have always found that when I want success, I can best reach it by dialing-up.  Others may disagree.  In fact, conventional teaching and much of our nation’s history often shares the opposite, where temperance, sacrifice, and conformity have been held in high regard.  A few of us even expect a bit of conformity in our schools.

As one example of how I was asked to conform, I spent a considerable amount of time in preservice preparation hearing that I needed to downshift certain qualities of personality that could work against me, if I were to lead.  To name a few, I was cautioned to cut back on …

1.     My outspokenness.
2.     My hyper-convictionalism.
3.     My intolerance for those who do not work incredibly hard, and
4.     My willingness to seek forgiveness over permission to get things done.

In my earlier years, my hardwiring didn’t encourage me to cut back on these qualities, and at times, my leadership style gave rise to some interesting times.  In the latter half of my two decades in K-12, I played things a bit smarter, more in line with the finesse, timing, and effect that dialing-up would allow.  Yet I didn’t sacrifice, and I really didn’t conform, too awful much.

Regarding those four polarizing aspects of my personality above …

1.     I began dialing-up an appreciation for saying less and meaning more.
2.  As I began to raise children, I began dialing-up the appreciation for listening to others’ perspectives and the benefits of decision-making through consensus.
3.     Rather than judging, I began dialing-up an ability to forgive others in advance for being a part of what I call “the human condition.”
4.     I began dialing up my appreciation for the longer-term benefits of the trust and social capital borne of open communication and transparency.

Turns out that I really didn’t have to cut back on much of anything, despite the admonitions during my training.  Dialing-up helped soften my sharp edges; it helped keep things in perspective while I maintained my healthy sense of self and identity, so that I would not lose sight of what I wanted out of life and leadership.

I think of dialing-up like I think of preparing a great meal for others.  At times when I barbecue at home, I do not really measure my ingredients (takes the fun out of it).  So I end-up adding a bit too much of this or a bit too much of that.  When that occurs, I have found that the best way to mollify the effects of the overage is to add MORE of something that will counteract (i.e. dialing-up), as opposed to cutting out what I have already put in (i.e. downshifting).  Plus … we have more to eat!

Dialing-up works in our relationships with others. 

Dahlgren and Hyatt (2007) apply a similar principle to how they suggest that students are addressed in the classroom, writing that teachers should use “start-up requests,” as oppose to “shut down requests.”  Great stuff, that dialing-up! 

Imagine that … while as leaders when we are dealing with the more difficult people at work, we could be dialing-up a bit more patience, as opposed to downshifting a big batch of anger or frustration.

What I like best about the notion of dialing-up is that as leaders, we can reframe how we ask others to adapt and change to meet the demands of our professional environments. Dialing-up allows us to encourage folks to access qualities that they already have within arm’s reach, with the result -- a better “mix” of ready-for-primetime persona … skills for success that are personally meaningful, socially responsible, and economically productive.

So what’s the take-away? 

As we work to make a difference providing leadership in K-12 education, let us help others play to their strengths, resisting the temptation to shut them down while dialing-up opportunities that best position everyone for success.


Dahlgren, R., & Hyatt, J. (2007). Time To Teach: Encouragement, empowerment, and excellence in  every classroom. Hayden Lake, ID: The Center for Teacher Effectiveness.


Speaking of dialing-up, why don’t you consider dialing-up Dr. Donlan at (812) 237-8624 or let your fingers do the walking at  He would love to share ideas with you, anytime!