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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 

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