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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Thursday, May 30, 2013

Our Liminal State

Our Liminal State

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

In the field of anthropology, a liminal point is a developmental transition, a period of time after leaving one status and before entering another (Bennett deMarrais & LeCompte, 1999).  We can think of this as a time in which we’re not quite what we used to be, but not quite what we will become.  A few examples are noted:

Initiates in fraternal orders exist in liminal states.  So do brides on the day of their wedding before the actual ceremony; they are, in a sense, neither married nor single.  Student teachers are no longer students in the traditional sense, but not quite teachers either.  Their in-between state is a state of liminality. (Bennett deMarrais & LeCompte, 1999, p. 104).

When I think of liminal states, my thoughts turn conceptual, as I ask myself, “While in a liminal state, are we sandwiched relationally, in a fixed position after something and before something else, or are we traveling developmentally from something in the past, through the present, and toward our future?”  Reminds me of discussions I once had regarding the construct of “time,” with one of my favorite former professors of philosophy, Dr. L. Nathan Oaklander at the University of Michigan-Flint.

One thing is fairly clear to me: In a liminal state, the ground upon which we operate is unsettled.  I also would pose that it takes a bit of effort on our part to go from liminality toward whatever the next phase will be in our lives.

All that said – We are in a liminal state in education right now. 

In our current state, WE are situated after something and before something else and are traveling developmentally from the past, through the present, toward our future.  Our ground is unsettled. Regaining solid footing will take a certain degree of volition and responsibility for smart navigation. 
What is particularly interesting is that in moving through and eventually past our liminality, we have the autonomy to regress if we wish. We can just as easily move back from whence we came, even more easily than forward (contrasting it with the adolescence example, above). 
Maybe “education” has its own particular flavor of liminality. It is certainly “on us,” which way we go.

What is our liminal state?  In our profession, it is not a position midway between a focus on local demands and those of the state, nation, or world.  We have been in the latter since 1957’s Sputnik launch.  It is not a position between an era of accountability and one formerly without.  We’re currently up to our necks in it.  Our liminal state does not have us sandwiched between a manufacturing model with an agrarian calendar, and something that makes more sense.  In most cases, we’re still Horace Mann’s poster child.
I truly believe that our liminal state has to do with our centeredness as a profession.  The question pertaining would be, “Are we teaching-centered or learning-centered in our schools?” 

Where’s our bulls-eye? 

Ours is a state of liminality somewhere between a focus on what we serve up, and its result.  The following indicators are just a few examples that place us betwixt and between …

Those that show we are no longer focused so much on teaching:

Our understanding of a need to differentiate instruction for children;
The chipping away of job security for the incompetent;
Student learning, as a focal point of teacher and administrative evaluation;
Vertical and horizontal alignment of curriculum;
Hybrid models of instruction and school redesign;
Choice and competition – charters and vouchers.

            Those that show we’re not quite totally focused on learning:

The fact that differentiation is still limited to pedagogy;
A Euro-centric focus on test content and for that matter … teaching to the test;
Blaming “circumstance” (family, poverty, etc.) for lackluster achievement;
And most of all -- Treating learners in a way we would not want to be treated, ourselves.  Consider the following  

“Nowhere else is such a large group of noncriminals forced to remain in an institution for so long, a fact that makes children’s attitudes about their participation diverge markedly from that of adults” (Bennett deMarrais & LeCompte, 1999, p. 128).

… and …

“One need only watch the behavior of adult teachers in faculty meetings to question whether adults can be as quiet, sit as still, and listen as well as children are expected to do” (Bennett deMarrias & LeCompte, 1999, p. 246).

Regarding our liminality, the question then becomes, “When are we going to own our own potency and make a decision either to move backward nearer to teaching, or forward nearer to learning?” 

And … do we have the potency to move at all?


Bennett deMarrias, K. & LeCompte, M. D. (1999). The way schools work: A sociological analysis of education (3rd ed.).  New York, NY: Addison Wesley Longman, Inc.


The Memorial Day Weekend had Dr. Donlan reading books in a remote part of Michigan.  Liminality came to him as he was re-reading a text for a summer course.  As you enjoy your summer reading, please consider offering constructs of your own that can be shared in the Ed. Leadershop, as we would be most grateful for your contribution.  As always, you can contact Ryan Donlan at (812) 237-8624 or at  Thank you for your leadership and for your readership!

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Addressing AAE

Addressing AAE

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

Recently, my family and I chose a restaurant’s small, outdoor patio for a weekend dinner.  Shortly after seating, three boys from an adjacent table began running around, as boys will do before being reined in by their parents.  One was about eight years old … another nine or ten … and the third, pre-school it appeared. 

No “rein” occurred that evening.

As my children looked on with interest at the tag-playing and hoopla (with probably a desire to join in until they caught my eye), the boys’ parents, two couples who appeared to be in their mid-to-late 30’s, simply sat nearby, a blind eye to the antics and enjoying each other’s company – quality adult time.

At numerous points, the preschooler stood aside our table, crowing for all he was worth, while the others darted around some large cement pillars, crayons in hands, arms swinging. This activity continued non-stop, from the point of our ordering to the arrival of our pizza.

My wife, Wendy, then said, “Oh my goodness; they’re writing on the cement.” 

One of the boys, the others aside, was using the crayons provided by restaurant staff to draw on the large, cement pillar on the outdoor patio.  Parents continued to enjoy themselves.

I’ll spare you my response, as that’s not important, but let’s just say it was “old school.”

The couples eventually left with their children, neither informing the wait staff of the crayon use nor making any attempt at redress. 

My son told me later than one of the boys often misbehaves at school.

It’s no wonder. 

He has been taught he can behave unbridled, irrespective of how it affects others or their property, as long as his parents are left to do what they wish at a distance. 

My heart went out to him.

I believe what my children and I witnessed last Friday was an affliction I call AAE, “Abject Adult Entitlement,” a growing phenom bringing indirect challenges to our schools and especially to our leadership. 

AAE allows parents to commiserate with other adults around kitchen tables on any given school night, while their children stay up late, run hither and yon around the neighborhood, and learn things from older children that they should be learning from their parents.   [Because … it’s all about “them” (the parents).]

In schools, AAE is not limited to the parents of our students.  AAE blames assistant principals when children are disciplined … yet blames them again, when children are not. [Note: Those “inside” can exhibit AAE, as it can be all about "them," as well.]   AAE results in two- or three-way finger pointing if children fail assignments.  AAE makes a delicate circumstance for anyone expressing in staff lounges, “If children are not learning, it is my fault.” 

As leaders, how are we handling AAE?  I hope not through denial.

Our work in addressing AAE demands first that we recognize what it is … how it has afflicted our society … and why.  Leaders must ask ourselves, “What do we look for in symptoms?”  “What conditions make AAE communicable?”   “Can we inoculate?” 

This is a difficult subject for me, as I must distance my strong personal feelings regarding AAE from my position as an educational leader (requiring more temperance).  In doing so, I am beginning to develop an perspective on how we can do just that … “inoculate.”

I strongly believe that the first booster leaders must give to themselves is a healthy dose of unconditional, positive regard and the ability to forgive others in advance for what they have become.  We must be all right with this, and with ourselves for doing so.

Follow-up treatment involves our efforts as leaders in creating, nurturing, and maintaining positive, sustained relationships that can withstand a treatment regimen of critical conversations, authentic boundary setting, and through such, over time … trust. 

It’s a comprehensive prescription that will address AAE when it must be addressed, while creating school wellness. 

Probably the most important thing to remember in AAE is never to express our concern directly about an adult’s AAE in front of an audience (especially his/her children).  Going in through what I call “the front door” is errant enough, let alone, doing such in front of others in a way that can cause embarrassment. 

A “side-door” approach takes a bit more time, focuses on relationships, and uses story, where we share vignettes that contain elements of AAE in other settings with the person we are trying to treat, working to plant a non-confrontational seed from which later thoughts can grow.

In considering the demands of our school leadership roles and their importance in saving lives – We must humbly consider that we are only as good as the partnerships we create between school, home, and community. Recognizing this, we must ensure that our teaching of students will not be undone each evening by those, who themselves, were left many years ago running amok in restaurants, staying out way-too-late, and defacing others’ property while their own parents paid more attention to AAE than they did, to parenting.


Dr. Ryan Donlan is continuing his investigation into how American school wellness can be nurtured and preserved.  Will you help him in this venture by sharing your thoughts, observations, and perspectives, contacting him at (812) 237-8624 or at  Thanks, so much, for leading!

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Overhearing Raymond

Overhearing Raymond

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

Last week, I turned-on the television in anticipation of a network program that I enjoy and heard from a distance the final few minutes of an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond, starring Ray Romano.  It appeared that Raymond was testifying at a school board meeting, but in retrospect, I’m not sure. 

What I AM sure about was that he made a great point in saying something to the effect of, “Are we protecting our children’s futures by sacrificing their present?” as he exited the podium at the show’s conclusion.

I’d like to ask us if we’re inadvertently doing just that in education today – protecting our children’s futures by sacrificing their present.  A few indicators would say that we are, such as …

1.     Worrying so much about students’ abilities to be “on track” academically once reaching adulthood, that we over-assess along the way, inadvertently creating a malaise of academic disdain through our good intentions and a hyper-vigilant desire for formative snapshots?

2.  Saddling such an incredible burden for future, academic outcomes upon the shoulders of teachers and children that we half-life (or more) the time children are allowed to “play” and “socialize” in the present. By doing so, could we be inhibiting age-appropriate, socio-emotional development necessary as a stable foundation for learning?

3.    Requiring for the future of our schools that our school leaders serve the majority of any given day as lesson-scripting, in-class, instructional analysts. By prescribing, play-by-play, the details of leadership, have we taken away our principals’ abilities to serve children who so desperately need them when they walk through the schoolhouse gate each morning? What good is a principal’s “open door” if the office is empty?

What indicators do you see?  Would you be willing to share? 

I have no idea which episode I watched briefly or the story behind why Raymond was testifying.  For that matter, it may not have even been a school board meeting. 

Yet when life greets me with a moment to pause and ask myself, “Are we doing the right thing?” I try to involve a few trusted friends in the conversation.

My next thought as I ponder the aforementioned is one of the inverse

“Are we [over]protecting our children’s present, and by doing so, sacrificing their futures?” 

That might be a whole ‘nother conversation.

Dr. Ryan Donlan asks that you share the ISU Ed. Leadershop with friends and colleagues who want to think deep about important issues, yet have very little time, as many depend upon them.  If you think of any topics that deserve a “short-read” in our marketplace, please contact us at (812) 237-8624 or at  Thanks for helping us to consider the present and future of education.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Three-Deep Decision-Making

Three-Deep Decision-Making

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

My intentions were sincere … to provide for the education of children. 

I needed to get my son and daughter to school, as I do each day, yet in peering from the front porch, I noticed the load of 20 bags of mulch that I forgot to remove from my P.T. Cruiser during a weekend of constant rain.  My hope had been that the skies would part and I would be able to drive them directly to my back yard landscaping project.

With 20 bags, there was barely room for a driver, let alone two elementary students, so I had to take action. 

The prudent route would have been to unload the bags into the garage for later transport.  Instead (and thinking about “me”), I drove them directly to the backyard worksite, inspecting the ground every few feet for signs that I was making an indentation on the gentle slope.  Satisfied I was not, I then unloaded quickly and began my return. 

I didn’t get too far.

As forward movement slowed, I found myself without adequate weight to make the slight uphill trek.  I then became “stuck,” tires spinning, mud building, and car rocking as I worsened my plight … with two children who needed to get to school looking on in disbelief, wonder, and a bit of amusement. 

Thoughts drifted to leadership, as they always do when life greets me … particularly, three-deep decision-making.  Three-deep decision-making involves careful analysis of three factors of reality before taking action:  The WHAT, the HOW, and the UNDER WHAT CONDITIONS that are involved with present circumstance. 

The WHAT involves a clear examination of the goal or desired result that we want; the HOW involves careful consideration of the people and resources needed to accomplish it, and the UNDER WHAT CONDITIONS involves consideration of the contextual variables in play, so that it all plays out smartly.

In my case:

WHAT:  The goal was to clear the car, so that I could get my children to school.

HOW:  By unloading the mulch, either in the garage or at the worksite.

UNDER WHAT CONDITIONS:  In the midst of rain and a well-soaked lawn.

In my situation, it would have been more prudent to spend a bit more time considering the latter two.

Onward to leadership -- How would this play-itself-out?  In schools, the WHAT’s present themselves often. We’re never short on them. 


The WHAT of addressing an issue of staff tardiness to school.

The WHAT of handling an issue of graffiti in the student restrooms.

The WHAT of mitigating conflict between two staff members.

The WHAT of navigating an issue of micromanagement by a local board of education member.

Three-deep decision-making would in the first instance, help us think through whether or not we mention staff tardiness in a staff meeting or by having an in-person conversation with only those tardy, so as not to burden others with the message.  As colleague Todd Whitaker shared a similar example with doctoral students earlier today, handling this improperly could result in those guilty believing they have sufficient “cover,” as your best staff member, who might have been tardy once in 1993 (because she helped an elderly man fix a flat tire and called to let you know from a pay phone), will share the burden of the message. 

Three-deep decision-making doesn’t take long; it only demands a prudent pause to more clearly reflect upon options and consequences.

In my instance (which lacked a good deal of three-deep decision-making), getting out of the jam included asking my wife to take time off work so that she could race our children to school and tow me from the yard to the driveway … all the while I played mud wrestler, hooking a tow rope to the axle of a P.T. Cruiser buried deep while ruining my lawn.

Three-deep decision-making might have offered two images as I first looked at that bags of mulch filling my car-- one of a pilot who knows that the shortest distance between two points isn’t necessary a straight line and another of a race car driver, who knows that the quickest path to a finish line isn’t always the inside lane.  Three-deep decision-making would have offered the “Duh!” that I needed.

More importantly, with three-deep decision-making, I would have better understood that if my decision were to be “all about me” (which it was), then it could result in my placing a burden upon everyone (which it did).  A very important thing to consider in leadership.

Literally, with three-deep decision-making, I would have kept myself out of the mud, without the time and expense of patchwork. 

That is time that I won’t get back.


Dr. Ryan Donlan sees leadership through life and loves better to understand how you see it through yours.  Please consider dropping him a line every once in a while by calling (812) 237-8624 or by writing him at 

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Why K-12 Needs Doctors

Why K-12 Needs Doctors

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

Leadership development is especially powerful when higher-level seeds of thought are planted that germinate “on delay.” When students say three months hence, “Oh yeah … THAT really did help me with [situation X],” then I know I’ve done my job.

One approach in planting deep seeds involves the tough work of developing special skills in students who are en route to terminal degrees – their ability to use turn of mind to solve problems while employing doctoral-level thinking (DLT) (conceptual credit to R. Estabrook, personal communication, 2005).

K-12 needs more doctors.

Let me begin by clarifying a few definitions, noting that neither turn of mind nor DLT requires one to have a doctoral degree (PhD, EdD, PsyD, etc.) … or even, for that matter … to be enrolled in a terminal degree program. 

DLT = Power of Mind + Turn of Mind

DLT makes for incredibly theoretical thought … thought that is powerfully practical, as well.  Let me explain its components:

Power of mind allows us to do well in schools, seek advanced degrees, and solve many of the professional problems we face.  Power of mind is what good-to-great leaders possess, borne of years of effortful study and life-experience. 

Power of mind, however, is not turn of mind, yet is a foundational component

Turn of mind begins where power of mind ends.  I don’t see this as a completely separate ability, determined by learning style or personality trait, such as the linearity of power of mind or the abstract nature of turn of mind. One is not scientific, with the other, artistic. One is not logical, while the other, intuitive.

Turn of mind is one’s ability to use all of the cognitive faculties that power of mind allows, yet then to “go beyond” … viewing and acting upon world through a different lens of efficacious cognition – finding commonalities in the seemingly disparate and certainly the innocuous – greeting complex problems that confront us while enjoying the ambiguity – forecasting what tomorrow’s needs will be, despite counter-prevailing indicators to the contrary. 

Turn of mind is rare and I contend critical for those who seek the title of “Doctor,” as once this designation occurs, society tends to look for us to cure things, for better or for worse.

Again, one need not have a doctorate to exercise DLT. 

Yet leaders should be able to employ DLT before being hooded in ceremony; otherwise, how would they prescribe ... or prevent what isn’t yet showing symptoms?

A few reasons why K-12 needs doctors, or at minimum … DLT:

1.     Complex problems need leaders who can articulate them simply.  DLT (and in particular, its component, turn of mind) allows for this through metaphor, analogy, and story.  DLT allows our best leaders to make the unfathomable, understandable, and at the same time, to discern and describe to others the depth in simplicity.

2.     For some time, we have been comfortable in the way we have been trained -- attending classes, writing papers, collecting credits, and enjoying the enhanced quality of life that graduate degrees provide.  We’re doing very well in a system that was set-up long ago, yet society is asking this same system to adapt to meet the challenges of tomorrow.  Adaptation is difficult, as it requires us to learn a “new right thing” (Black & Gregersen, 2003). DLT allows us the intellectual malleability to handle implementation dips with intrigue and wonder.

3.     Power of mind has been good in preparing leaders to meet the demands of today, and most certainly to solve many of tomorrow’s problems.  It certainly helps with the deft implementation of leadership skills, those practical and urgent.  Yet DLT’s turn of mind is needed to address what lies around future corners, before it even positions itself to work against the best interests of children.

4.     Only through turn our mind can we reimagine education.

5.     Comfort with DLT, once achieved, results in a certain degree of intellectual playfulness, where smaller setbacks aren’t limiting, as we see the humor in rigor and things just not working out. It allows us to be more reflective of the human condition, and more immediately of ours.  With DLT, we are able to nurture a growth mindset, as opposed to a fixed mindset.  It allows us to move beyond the limitations of bonding social capital, toward that which is binding.

In the argument for K-12’s need of doctors, let us not forget that elephant in the room, which often has its practicality questioned – Just what is the value of a dissertation?

As a culminating experience en-route to one’s becoming a doctor …

1.     The dissertation proves that doctors can forge powerfully a professional identity, contributing new knowledge under prescribed rules that at minimum are incredibly arduous.  Our children need doctors who can do “just that," as other folks’ rules will always challenge us.
2.     The dissertation requires that doctors test empirical or experienced reality with a figurative lab coat, toward better healing in a system that some contend needs a check-up.  Our children need doctors who can make proper and accurate diagnoses, withholding judgment at times until the lab results come in.
3.     The dissertation shows that doctors can perform their work with foremost concern for the protection of those who willingly lend themselves to examination. The dissertation is an indirect manifestation of the Hippocratic oath, through which our doctors prove that they have done and will do no harm.  Our children need leaders to protect them when no one else is able.

I’ll admit at times I ride hard on those who want to become doctors.

It is because when I look into my own children’s eyes, I’m hardwired to work toward for a better future for all of us, and I believe that this will be directly proportional to the amount of DLT we inculcate … and the number of doctors we graduate.


Black, J. S., & Gregersen, H. B. (2003). Leading strategic change: Breaking through the brain barrier.  Upper Saddle River, NJ:  Prentice-Hall.


Dr. Ryan Donlan continues to experiment with his teaching, sometimes hitting home runs, sometimes doubles and singles, and sometimes striking out.  Yet his own effort in continually developing his DLT (a work-in-progress) allows him to “fail forward” in the latter, always with the best intentions and a willingness to learn, listen, and reflect about how the next opportunity to serve will be better than the last.  He can be reached at (812) 237-8624 or at