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.

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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Greater Good

The Greater Good

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

A job-specific “must” in ascending from teacher leadership to building leadership is a clear-functioning wide-angle lens.  Any formerly enjoyed focus on one’s classroom must widen panoramically, as professional duties now demand an almost omniscient-like responsibility for a whole building. 

You must see things that others cannot see. 

This includes the fact that leaders must see the value in taking full responsibility for everything that goes wrong in their buildings, while giving away the credit to others for everything that goes right. Compounding these challenges is that in order to be good, leaders must take risks.  This certainly increases the probability of “taking responsibility,” doesn’t it? 

It’s all for the greater good.

The greater good requires that leaders see through the fog of mainstream issues their schools face, past those “urgent” in their immediate field of vision toward the “more important.” The challenge here is to discern, as others cannot, issues pertaining to the greater good that we are ethically bound to address, when at times, the fact of addressing them brings criticism from skeptics who are sometimes our supervisors, or even the question, “Should the school [or this darned principal] be involved in this, or not?!?” 

One example many years ago, now considered a no-brainer for many, was a school’s responsibility for educating EVERYONE of school age, even children who were not legal residents of the United States.  I was reminded of this late last week as a local reporter made inquiry while writing a story on a local school district.

In the Supreme Court Case of Plyler v Doe, 1982, Justice Brennan offered the Court's Opinion regarding the notion that children of illegal aliens should be provided an education. The Court's wrote (Section III, B) … "By denying these children a basic education, we deny them the ability to live within the structure of our civic institutions, and foreclose any realistic possibility that they will contribute in even the smallest way to the progress of our Nation" (Legal Information Institute, 2013).

The Court shared, and championed, a greater good.

Justice Brennan’s notion of a greater good is always at arm’s reach in my office, in a variety of quotes similar to this one: "The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment requires that once a program of free public education has been established, the law must be applied equally to all persons.  Thus, children of illegal aliens, children with disabilities, and children of all races are entitled to equal protection of the laws" (Center for Education & Employment Law's 2010 Desktop Encyclopedia of America School Law, 2009, p. 153).

How often do we as leaders directly champion issues pertaining to the greater good when others might question our logic?  How often do we attend to those issues deemed important, even if others make trouble for us?  How often to we ask others to see things another way, simply because we have established a program of free public education and SHOULD DO SO? 

In other words … How often do we CHAMPION!?!

I’m not sure that I really did this in any BIG ways over 20 years in K-12 education, yet I can think of a few of the many instances where I championed those ideas more modest, yet ones that fell in the “greater good zone,” as noted below:

1.     Providing cost-prohibitive child care for the infants and toddlers of teen parents who attended my school, charging young parents virtually nothing for this care if they kept-up their grades.  Much to the chagrin of some school business officials, this used 5 - 10% of my operating revenue in any given year.  Yet, I saw a greater good as some grimaced and others criticized me for not hiring another few math teachers.

2.     Recruiting students from jails and local courtrooms, as well as those expelled by my fellow superintendents whom I met with monthly, knowing full and darned well that a Statue of Liberty approach wouldn’t bode well for my Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).  Fought tooth and nail every year just to “make the grade” with these kids enrolled, amidst the callousness of bureaucrats who gave me a hard time for my standardized test results. Yet, I saw a greater good (and DID make AYP more often than not because of our beliefs in kids who struggle, our efforts in school/home partnerships with some incredibly difficult people, and of course … our support for excellent teachers).

3.     Inviting OSHA into my building for an inspection, shortly after I assumed leadership of an aging facility.  I think my school board thought I was nuts on this one.  Skeptics at the time reminded me that nothing comes of a “greater good” with potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars in abatements that we couldn’t afford, but thankfully these didn’t happen.  I had a great guy named “Rick” ensure prior that everything was up to snuff. Rick saw the greater good as well, and for this and a million other reasons, he’s one of my heroes.

Championing the greater good also brings a few gaffs, from time to time, to those of us who can laugh at ourselves. 

I think back a decade or more, when I purchased a puppy that I wanted to train as a therapy dog in my school. A new model program, as I envisioned it, included a dog bounding up and down the hallways, available each day to look cute, lick faces, and assuage the concerns of at-risk children.  We’d make headlines and take care of the greater good, all at the same time!

I liked headlines, I admit.

Tending to what I believed was his necessary “puppy socialization” in an alternative education facility, I never really did get the desired result, as my dog-child “Zachary” never became anything resembling “therapeutic.”  Instead, he developed an affinity for those with tattoos and body piercings and to this day (he’s now nearly 84 in dog years), dislikes anything in badge or uniform. 

Anyway … a few questions in parting:

Who or what are you championing? 

What is your next great idea that others cannot see?

With lives depending on you, are you positioned to address needs requiring you to define and articulate a new “greater good”?

Finally, will your vision and dedication to those “yet un-championed” become the next transformational model of selfless service that I share with others as I write and teach?

Might make a headline, as well.


Center for Education & Employment Law (2009). 2010 deskbook encyclopedia of American school law. Malvern, PA: Center for Education & Employment Law.

Legal Information Institute [LII] (2013). Plyler v. Doe (No. 80-1538). Retrieved from


Dr. Ryan Donlan is asking us all to consider looking deeper into the heart of inequities in our society and a school’s opportunity to assuage concerns for those who are not championed.  Will you share your thoughts and ideas for what we all can do for the greater good by calling him at (812) 237-8624 or writing him at 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013



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

New vistas in education are on my mind. 

In a few short weeks, I’ll present Closing the Distance by Unpacking Personality at a national distance learning conference in the beautiful city of St. Louis. While doing so, I’ll most likely be thinking of some globally relevant conversations I had with some visiting scholars from Thailand last week. I’ll certainly have on my mind this week’s opportunity to conduct a program review in a very innovative, Midwest school that delivers most instruction virtually. 

Who would have thought a high school student could navigate virtual courses on a laptop, pedaling atop a stationary exercise bike in a spacious room, hopping off when the urge strikes to confer with a personal trainer employed by the school?! 

Wow!  New vistas, for sure.

The world of virtual and on-line learning is inescapable if we are to remain competitive.  It is invaluable if we are to accept the responsibility of serving ALL students, as let’s face it … some just can’t show up to attend class, in person.  Whether for reasons of physical mobility or the realities of global positioning, some of our newest learners in K-12 need to be served at a distance … as they may be pedaling.

Closing that distance by making on-line learning “real” is one of the biggest challenges in education.

One solution is to equip everyone with microphone/headsets, while video tiling their images through Internet-based instructional dashboards and making our best attempt to replicate physical classrooms.  Yet this only works for synchronous instruction.  For asynchronous, it’s a whole different ballgame.

As K-12 instructional leaders, how do we manage our on-line delivery mediums in a world that both shrinks and expands at the same time? What do we actually SAY to teachers to help them improve when they desire our instructional leadership?

I have a thought.  The first thing that I would say is that we must ensure that we are “BEING THERE,” as opposed to a “HAS BEEN.” I realize that this is a poor English construction ... but please bear with me.

What do I mean? 

Teachers need to BE THERE with their students, even without a presence in the same room, building, state, country, or time frame.  Being there means that virtual or on-line teachers very much KNOW their students, as face-to-face teachers would know theirs. It’s a tall order, but it can be accomplished.

We had this discussion at a faculty meeting about a year ago, if I recall.  The question on the table was, “Can this sense of BEING THERE ever be as “complete” on-line, as it is in person?”  Some argued yes; others no. 

My thought is that it probably isn’t. 

One colleague spoke with quick wit of the potential shortcomings of attending virtual weddings or sunning oneself on a virtual trip to the beach. 

Yet we can gain some distance on this lack of physical proximity, gleaning insight into whom our students are and what they need when we’re teaching. 

To discuss how, I would begin by posing certain questions that my staff and I could explore together, if we were still collaborating in weekly staff meetings.

“In the on-line medium, how do we ‘begin’ to know our students?” As an old Irish proverb once said – A Good Beginning is Half the Work.  Do we begin our on-line classes by asking our students to offer short, personal or professional narratives of themselves?  Maybe even podcasts? Do we ask them to share their thoughts, feelings, opinions, reactions, reflections, or intended actions about our coursework ahead?  By doing so, might we open-up portals to their personalities? Might we turn students off with these same strategies, if we pry too much?  As important, do we disclose anything about ourselves that might be of interest to them?  And … what are the boundaries?

“In the on-line medium, have we considered allowing our students to showcase themselves as experts or mediators of learning?” What about asking our students to provide their own signature stamp – in an on-line, virtual marketplace of their ideas and artifacts gleaned during class. Do we provide an avenue for students to design, publish, and continually update their own spaces for sharing instructional content with each other (articles, website links, etc.)? Building these marketplaces, personalizing them, and making them available in a professional learning community will allow us to see students showcasing content and sharing more about their on-line identities.  For some, teams work best … for others, an individual approach is better.  Up to us … and them.

“In the on-line medium, how do we show responsiveness to students as members of our shared learning community?” In an asynchronous, on-line environment, I have said often that student urgency is really OUR importance.  E-mails really should be returned within a few hours if at all possible.  Let us consider that many on-line learners do not learn in predictable, traditional (daily) segments.  Some may work in bursts of effort, compressing much of their activity into just a few days (or nights) per week.  Let’s say we get an e-mail.  What happens if we do not reply to an urgent question quickly? Our students may not be able to recommit to their studies for a handful of days, resulting in lost time and teachable moments. Over time, this could result in a lost relationship with someone depending on us.  Are we THERE for this new generation of students, on their time?  Or, are we still operating on the time frame that we have considered “ours”?

Finally, “In the on-line medium, how do we detect distress in students, and further … when detected, what do we do about it?”  You’ll have to come to St. Louis for this one.  :-)

I am trying to imagine a new type of school – a new vista in education that as best it can, will allow for a teacher/student experience to be as rich and mutually satisfying as the face-to-face experiences I had while spending my career in K-12. 

As I now teach in a combination of face-to-face and on-line mediums at Indiana State University, I am beginning better to reimagine how teachers and I would ask smarter questions in our staff meetings about connecting with students who are increasingly less land-locked than I have been for the last 45 years. 

Are you “BEING THERE” or a “HAS BEEN”?


Will you help Dr. Ryan Donlan help other leaders by sharing your best practices and conversations that are resulting in your BEING THERE, when everyone’s physically not?  Call or write anytime at (812) 237-8624 or

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The 3 R's

The 3 R’s

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

Education is probably not unlike other professions in its interchangeability of terms whose definitions are, in fact, dissimilar.  In other words, we’re sometimes unintentionally careless with our words.

Take for instance school climate and culture.  A surprising number of us employ these terms interchangeably.  An inconsequential slip most of the time, it nevertheless can create miscommunication regarding the processes and products of our hard-earned efforts in organizational management. 

Certainly, it’s not optimal to pay for professional development in one and expect outcomes in the other.

A few that I am highlighting this week are used interchangeably in school improvement circles:  “The 3 R’s” – School Reform, School Redesign, and School Reimagination. 

Under high-stakes pressures to improve schools, the careless use of these terms could have an adverse impact on how we communicate our work and what results folks actually expect from us.  Parsing our terms would be a wise move.

I’ll attempt to distinguish these three in this week’s 5-minute read, borrowing directly from my own language used in an organizational report and conference paper that I authored recently. 

Do any of the following “R’s” sound like the way you’re conducting the business of improving your schools?

School Reform is defined as using effective schools research to create a more successful learning environment for students and heightened levels of achievement.  Calls for school reform date back decades and have revolved around concerns of responsiveness to the changing needs of students, accountability for performance, and competitiveness in a global economy (Louis, 1998). School reformists call for better rigor, relevance, and relationships in schools (Daggett, 2004).  The notions of school reform also involve collaborative leadership and professional learning communities, personalizing the school experience, and improvements to curriculum, instruction, and assessment (NASSP, 2004) …

[Inserted from another section of the drafts, just because it is interesting]: It is interesting to note that the term “school reform” in the United States has been synonymous with centralization of the federal government’s role in education and an increased emphasis on standardized testing (Kessinger, 2011, Laguardia & Pearl, 2009, Preus, 2007), whereas overseas, the term “school reform” has been synonymous with decentralization of education and a focus on quality over that of testing (Preus, 2007).

… School Redesign includes principles of school reform, yet also a vision to reconfigure the structures, functions, or operations of schools. It involves reallocating resources in a way that better facilitates what staff, students, and stakeholders DO to accomplish results.  It involves job reallocation, disruptive change, business process reconfiguration, re-engineering of systems, and general change management (Barrett, 2012). Much discussion of school redesign in American education has taken place in the context of the high school redesign movement, which has called for high expectations, student engagement and options, teaching and leadership, and accelerated transitions (USDOE, 2003).

School Reimagination begins with our asking ourselves, “Why are we doing school the way we have done school?” and operationalizing this question by moving progressively into new areas of educational delivery that transcend and enhance what has been discovered through research and best practice.  It pushes the boundaries to what is conceivable. School reimagination can build upon concepts and operations from the school reform and school redesign movement, but it does not have to do so. At its crux, it allows us to ask questions about the nature of knowledge and learning, as well as that of our society.  It forces us to examine why we think about school and schooling the way we do, as the idea of truly improving or fixing education requires a tougher task of rethinking the ideas we have inherited from ancient times and modern Europe (Egan, 2008) …

… Of the three constructs, I propose that school reform is the most conservative of approaches in working to improve schools; school reimagination is the most progressive, and school redesign falls somewhere in the middle.  All three exist on a continuum from modest innovation to more ambitious or even radical change; however, no evidence that I present will suggest that one is of higher quality or impact than the other. This, I would hypothesize, varies by local context and need.  (Donlan, 2013, pp. 2-3; Donlan, 2013, April 10, pp. 3-5)

As we look at what we’re doing to make a positive difference on behalf of our children and community, are we using these terms consistently?  Are we parsing our words?

Where might our schools be on the continuum of the 3 R’s?

And more importantly … are we even on it?


Barrett, S. (2012). Redesigning schools to reach every student with excellent teachers: Change management: Key theories to consider when extending reach. Chapel Hill, NC: Public Impact.

Daggett, W. (2004). American’s most successful high schools: What makes them work.  Paper presented at the 2004 Model Schools Conference Proceedings, Washington, DC.

Donlan, R. (2013). Indiana Charter Schools and Legislative Autonomy. Report on charter school legislative autonomy submitted to the Indiana Public Charter School Association, April 4, 2013.

Donlan, R. (2013, April 10). School reimagination in Indiana: The charter influence and future possibilities.  Paper presented at the 38th annual Law Day on Campus at Indiana State University, Terre Haute, IN.

Egan, K. (2008). The future of education: Reimagining our schools from the ground up. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Kessinger, T. A. (2011). Efforts toward educational reform in the United States since 1958: A review of seven major initiatives. American Education History Journal, 38(2), 263-276.

Laguardia, A., & Pearl, A. (2008). Necessary educational reform for the 21st century: The future of public schools in our democracy. Urban Review, 41, 352-368.

Louis, K. S. (1998, Fall). “A light feeling of chaos”: Educational reform and policy in the United States. Daedalus, 127(4), 13-39.

National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP). (2004). Breaking Ranks II: Strategies for leading high school reform. Reston, VA: National Association for Secondary School Principals.

Preus, B. (2007). Educational trends in China and the United States: Proverbial pendulum or potential for balance? Phi Delta Kappan, 89(2), 115-118.

United States Department of Education (USDOE). (2003). Preparing America’s future: The high school symposium, October 2003. Washington, DC: USDOE Office of Vocational and Adult Education.


For an excellent resource on school reimagination, Dr. Ryan Donlan recommends Kieran Egan’s book listed above as standing out among a number he has read.  Please feel free to contact him at (812) 237-8624 or at for further conversation on the 3 R’s, or whatever you have going on that’s exciting in your schools in terms of either reform, redesign, or reimagination.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Roadchips, Part II

Roadchips, Part II

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

In graduate study a number of years ago, I remember discussing with interest the events that might take place in one’s career to transform an otherwise eager, wide-eyed rookie educator into a toxic staff member.  Peter Drucker’s work, shared by Dr. Roger Grabinski of Central Michigan University, was a big part of these conversations.

As students, we were of the opinion that many of these events on the downward slope had to do with something leaders were NOT providing – i.e. guidance, support, communication, and/or empowerment. The rest had to do with what leadership WAS providing, yet not to the good of the organization – i.e. favoritism, micromanagement, incompetence, and/or even their own hibernation as staff members were left to run amok.

I now consider each factor influencing a teacher’s path toward a negative perch in the faculty lounge a “roadchip” occurrence. 

As leaders, if we are not careful, clueful, and “with-it,” we can unintentionally create toxicity among staff by not tending to the roadchips as they are experienced.

Roadchips in a literal sense, as we discussed last week, are the little chips we find in our windshields after stones hit them. Once chipped, the windshield is susceptible to cracks each time a bump is hit.  It is also susceptible when the car is traveling smoothly or even while at a dead stop. 

This is because roadchips allow oxygen to enter the glass, which under normal circumstances should not be permeated, causing undue pressure.  It’s sort of like a chipped tooth with a nerve exposed.  It’s more vulnerable. The force of the exposure weakens the structure, magnifying its vulnerability. 

The same holds true, figuratively, in education. 

Roadchips are blemishes in one’s perceptual frame that impinge upon a clear view of the professional world.  We could even consider these “chips” to be, chips on one’s shoulder, I guess.

Roadchips are oftentimes created by leaders.

They occur when leaders are too often focused on tasks over relationships, especially as they walk about the building.

They are created by a leader’s communication methods, such as sending e-mails when in–person conversations would be more appropriate. 

Roadchips are created when teachers do not feel supported after being accosted by angry, crazy parents. Teachers often need much care and attention -- prior to and after such meetings.

Roadchips are definitely created by the way leaders come across in staff meetings, especially when leaders issue Blanket Monkeys (Whitaker, 2012), putting something on the backs of all when the issue should only be discussed with one or two. 

Roadchips happen when teachers do not know the guidelines under which decisions will be made.  If they believe their hard-earned efforts will result in binding decisions, yet they’re only taken as “advisory,” they may develop chips.

Through no fault of anyone, roadchips may even occur when otherwise hardworking people have different beliefs about the way things should work in schools … in close proximity with one another, they stumble uncomfortably into each other’s values.

As leaders, we must understand that once roadchips mar the otherwise spotless veneer of a positive person, they begin to enact further damage. Over time, they cause those affected to look at things, certainly their jobs or our leadership, in a different way … through a cracked windshield.

Skewed perceptions do not help the organization.

The good news is that with a bit of effort on the part of leadership, roadchips can be repaired.

Just as automotive service centers use a careful procedure of injecting resin into roadchips to relieve pressure on the windshield and allow for clear viewing, leaders can repair their own and others’. 

Mostly, this can be accomplished by careful communication and direct interaction with those who have experienced roadchips – having crucial conversations and using leadership’s “tools for talking when the stakes are high” (Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, & Switzler, 2002).  Connection and consideration are keys to the fix.

This all starts by leaders “having a clue” that roadchips even occurred.   

And … that they as leaders may have caused them.


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

Patterson, K., Grenny, J., McMillan, R., & Switzler, A. (2002). Crucial conversations: Tools for talking when stakes are high. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Please give Dr. Ryan Donlan a call at (812) 237-8624 or at if you would like to discuss or have something to add to this conversation.