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, June 27, 2013

Opportunities Lost Invisibly

Opportunities Lost Invisibly

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

Last weekend, I walked in and out of a music store with a $500.00 dollar bill in my hand.  I wanted to spend it, yet no one gave me the opportunity.  I lost interest and walked away … invisibly.

Back to my arrival: With classic rock playing through an open window, I parked my fire-engine red pick-up truck directly across from the large display windows of a musical equipment retail outlet, noticing as I hopped curbside, an employee loading a keyboard stand into his vehicle near the entrance.  Might be that he had a gig after the store would close that day, I thought. 

As I walked in, a young lady jammed on a guitar, the only person in the front room.  Employees were nearby, in offices and break rooms, enjoying each other’s company.

I knew just what I wanted: a Peavey KB4 or KB5 keyboard amplifier, one with a 15-inch speaker.  As I had orbited one or two occasions prior, I knew just where they were located. Thoughts raced to a gig I would be playing on a lake in northern Michigan a few weeks hence. I was tempted to treat myself and make the investment.

There I stood, above a few KB5’s, each with two 10-inch speakers and a horn.  None with the “15” I wanted.  Ahh … the “15” must be in the KB4, I thought. I pondered asking if they one in the back, or if not, if they would be able to get one in a week’s time.  After all … I had a 500 dollar bill and a gig approaching.

In the distance, I saw the employee from the parking lot re-enter.  He joined the conversation and laughter in the break rooms and offices.

So I stood … waited … and thought further the purchase.  Then I thought of other things I could buy.  I then walked away from the amps, past the front counter, past the offices and break rooms with employees inside, past the lady still jamming, and out of the front door. 

I lost interest, thinking I should probably hold-off on the investment.  Our house needs a bit of landscaping.

As I drove from the parking lot, I was reminded of similar feelings – feelings of invisibility – five years prior, when my children, Sean and Katelyn, were nearing school age.  My wife, Wendy, and I were worried about the lack of a middle school concept in our local public schools (envisioning what would be part of their education a few years hence), so as parents we went shopping, as good school choice legislation would allow us to do.

One evening, we attended “Open House Night” at a smaller school district, a short distance away, yet much-revered in the marketing mailings we received, which touted quality teachers and a seamless, college-preparatory K-12 instructional program.  This piqued our interest.

As we walked into the school, a number of people were around, yet little intentionality was put into a greeting.  We were encouraged by one Good Samaritan, however, to sign-in, walk the halls, and have a snack. 

Finding the Kindergarten room, we entered and saw the teacher talking with a few students currently enrolled.  She seemed nice enough.  It appeared that the school was combining “future student/family night” with “current student/family night.”  Over the next 15 minutes or so, we spent time wandering the room, looking at student work, making notes of supplies and materials, and trying to get an affirming nod from the teacher. As nice as she seemed in a general sense, she didn’t make contact with us. 

We eventually lost interest and left the room.

Sean and Katelyn didn’t mind.  They very much wanted a return to the snack table in the cafeteria. 

We eventually left, deciding to school-shop elsewhere to see what was available.

In retrospect, I thought of the dollars and cents involved.  If we were to have enrolled Sean and Katelyn, the school would have received over 20 thousand dollars of state funding over the next two years alone.  Instead, we chose to spend around 10 thousand dollars or more of our own money in tuition in parochial schools, before moving to Terre Haute, Indiana. 

That’s over 30 thousand dollars in financial opportunities lost, due to invisibility and a subsequent loss of interest.

My point?

Is there a possibility that someone, a child or young adult, arrives at school each day, invisible, traveling from class-to-class or activity-to-activity with a fortune to invest and no one appreciating it by making a connection?

We’d like to think not … but …

Could it be that these children are the quiet ones, who would love to have someone notice them, yet no one does?

Invisibility in our schools, I would contend, doesn’t happen intentionally.  Oftentimes, it’s just because we’re paying attention to the MORE visible around us. Examples:  The brown-noser’s; future felons, and as some critical theorists would contend -- those who are similar in demographic to ourselves.

Not wanting this simply to be a hunch, I spent a bit of time looking for a scholarly perspective on invisibility and found what I believe is an intriguing, related concept – the notion of mattering.

Lemon and Watson (2011) noted that mattering (whether we are of interest and importance to others), taken together with six other issues pertaining to stress and self, accounts for 35.1% of the variance in at-risk status for dropouts. 

Wanting a clearer picture of its individual influence on kids, as well as to get a clearer definition of mattering, I braved a thunderstorm’s stroll through campus and visited the library.  Touching books (a lost art), I found a study by Rosenberg and McCullough (1981), which mentioned that when students matter little to parents, they have lower self-esteem, more depression and anxiety; they’re more anxious, and they are more likely to be delinquent. 

I thought to myself how one’s being invisible in school would certainly compound any of these negative’s influenced by one’s home life.

The authors noted further, “Mattering may be relatively high among children and adults, low among adolescents and old people” (p. 180).  I thought to myself, What a time NOT to push 150 students through a teacher’s classroom each day at the junior high and high school level.

And for those who allow kids’ overtures to push us away at this critical age, believing they want to be left alone, the authors noted, “… the adolescent who infers that he is significant is happier … [This] is doubly interesting because mattering is usually a burden, an obligation, and a restriction on freedom” (p. 179).  

The upshot of it all -- When we pay attention, kids may resist, but they may secretly want us to “pull-them-in,” when they are pushing us away. 

They want to matter.

How often do we create opportunities lost in children, borne of unintentional invisibility?


Lemon, J. C. & Watson, J. C. (2011). Early identification of potential high school dropouts: An investigation of the relationship among at-risk status, wellness, perceived stress, and mattering. Journal of At-Risk Issues 16(2), 17-23.

Rosenberg, M. & McCullough, B. C. (1981). Mattering: Inferred significance and mental health.  In R. G. Simmons (Ed.), Research in Community and Mental Health (pp. 163-182). Greenwich, CT:  Jai Press, Inc.


Dr. Ryan Donlan is looking to buy a keyboard amplifier … AND he wants to do his part positively to affect the future of education in America.  If you would like to help him promote greater visibility so that more student feel they matter, please consider contacting him at (812) 237-8624 or at 

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Mindful Management

Mindful Management

By Suzanne Marrs
Principal, Consolidated Elementary, Vigo County School Corporation
Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor, Dept. of Ed. Leadership, Indiana State University

As often as we shop locally or even dine out with our families, it is not unusual for us to experience minor frustrations, here and there. Typical examples would include how many people are usually in line, how slow the line can move, and even the number of folks who are complaining to the cashier or requesting to speak to a manager.

As we observe these situations, a common denominator seems as to exist, which steers the situation into one that works out for the better, or one that works out for the worse.  That common denominator: Mindful Management. 

In this week’s Ed. Leadershop, we would like to make an argument on behalf of mindful management and how now, more-than-ever, it is necessary to effectively lead in part, through management, rather than dismissing its comparative importance with other leadership responsibilities as part of a bygone era.

Consider this: How effective are leaders whose managerial skills have them moving in haste from person to person or situation to situation too quickly, never really addressing things mindfully before scattering off to the next item meriting attention. We see vicariously through others’ tribulations that without mindful management, most notions of quality leadership suffer.

In K-12 schools, mindful management has in recent years lost its curb appeal, as leaders have focused more intently on “instructional leadership.” In some case, this race for legislatively prescribed luster has indirectly or directly resulted in leaders’ failing to stop and listen to what others around them are saying.  With pedagogical hyper-vigilance, they sometimes fail to accomplish much of anything.

What is so important about management?   

First, done well … it allows one to be mindful … mindful of the internal needs of an organization – of people, situations, and contexts.  Our best managers have almost an omniscient, inward focus.  More particularly, mindful management allows us to listen. It involves a keen, intuitive perspective and an ability to truly “be there” for others. Through mindful management, we focus on wants and needs with a sense of understanding that often gets lost as others, not so mindful, rush through their days.

Consider Loy (2011) who stated, “In the facilities management environment, we as leaders find ourselves juggling numerous problems and projects on a daily basis. Multi-tasking is second nature to us, but in order to actively listen, we need to be able to set that all aside when someone comes to us” (p. 31).  Mindful management allows us better to listen to what others around us are saying, and apply inward perspective while helping guide and encourage others around us from where we are to a better place (Buckingham & Coffman, 1999).

Mindful management brings with it a certain degree of seriousness, as we are responsible for others’ lives.  This involves, at times, quick action, yet mindful managers know that sometimes in order to move fast, we need to downshift at times and move more slowly. This allows deft selection of the “next steps” as we address both complexity and ambiguity, or even when we feel our world is closing in and that we have a million deadlines to make or problems to solve in little time. Going slow, in order to go fast, involves four strategies that we will conclude with today -- the need to Stop, See, Assess, and Resolve.


While these steps in problem solving might seem rather obvious, they are often forgone when urgencies come in layers.  As our restaurant or grocery store experiences often bring to our mind, we sometimes wish we could take a brief stroll with yet another harried manager and encourage him or her to take just a few seconds – brief moments of deep thinking – before moving forward with resolution. 

We might want to say:

Stop - Look around and see what needs to be done. Take a chance to breathe, and outline all the tasks, questions, and problems to solve before moving forward.  It is important to remember that without a clear vision, one can quickly get bogged down, while running around and accomplishing nothing.

See - Try to look at the situation from varying contexts, as where one stands on an issue depends on life circumstance. It is a mindful manager’s obligation to have a certain degree of organizational acuity allowing for many perspectives of data gathering, before attempting to make meaning of that data.  Ensure that all voices are considered, in the concerns that present themselves.

Assess - It is critical to validate what is urgent and what is important. Think about the needs versus the wants, and guide your decision-making on priority. By distinguishing what is urgent from what is truly important, then we will move forward prudently, efficiently, and also with an approach that prevents future concerns from arising.

Resolve - This is the take-the-bull-by-the-horns moment, where mindful managers make the most appropriate and responsible decision.  They then implement! In doing so, they must have a clear vision and purpose that is factual and honest -- moving through each item of importance, checking-things-off as they go.  While times of struggle will exist, we would hope that by requesting and receiving honest and appropriate feedback, we will still be moving forward.

Is the need for mindful management in schools really that much different from that of grocery stores or fast food establishments? We don’t believe so, as we ask ourselves, “Don’t we all have a never-ending supply of agitated customers and unresolved issues, each of which is most important to its owner?” and “Aren’t all of us being pressured to lead the company’s future, while resistance is asking us to manage the company’s present?”

Focusing on what is important now, through the mindful management of stopping, seeing, assessing, and resolving, will help model for the grocery store, restaurant, and K-12 school managers, how a positive perspective and a people focus will ensure better outcomes for all, when competing interests present themselves simultaneously. 


Buckingham, M. & Coffman, C. (1999). First, break all the rules: What the world’s greatest managers do differently. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Loy, D. (2011). Hear Me, Hear Me, Are we listening to our employees? Facilities Manager, 27(1), 28-31.


Suzanne Marrs is beginning her doctoral studies at Indiana State University and was asked to contribute to the ISU Ed. Leadershop because of her practical approaches to improving education as a K-12 leader.  Ryan Donlan is working with her in program planning and doctoral research design.  We’re quite fortunate to have Suzanne Marrs aboard our Leadershop Team, as she truly keeps us relevant. Please feel free to contact both contributors at or at

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Golf Scrambles and "Game" in Education

Golf Scrambles and “Game” in Education

By Dr. Steve Gruenert
Department Chairperson and Associate Professor
Dr. Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor

Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

While riding in a car last week, we had the following conversation as we thought of leadership development and school improvement:

In golf there is a type of competition, “a scramble,” where four people are on a team. Each will hit his/her golf ball, then all four will go to the best ball and hit from there. Teams will usually have a best-to-worst player continuum; the best player (typically called the “A” player) will be the one who shoots the lowest score when playing alone. The “B” player will be the second best player, and so on. Everyone knows who everybody is.  There’s no hiding the rank ordering. This type of competition is quite a social affair yet very destructive to one’s individual game. The ability to “swing away” at most shots removes all inhibitions that may be related to out-of-bounds or water hazards. After all, the winner of most individual competitions is usually the person who makes the least amount of mistakes. In scrambles, the winners are usually those who make the most great shots.

What makes scrambles interesting, at times, is the strategy employed and who owns the strategy. The designation of the leader of each team typically defaults to the best player, as if that person were also the best thinker. When the team is faced with a decision, such as which ball to use, the attention usually shifts to the “A” player, who will pick the one from which he/she believes he/she can most benefit – not necessarily the one from which all four players could benefit. Rather myopic.

Some teams are composed of four good players, with none of them outwardly holding the role as the best player. In these teams we find four individuals who each have an ability to perform a particular aspect of golf very well. One may be able to hit the ball a long distance; one may be able to putt very well, and one may be very good at short-approach shots (getting the ball on the green close to the hole from inside 100 yards). Rarely do we find one chosen for a team because he/she has superior abilities of course management, restated, the ability to make the best decisions given certain situations. Sometimes caddies will perform these tasks when working with professional golfers. They are charged with “coaching” the golfers with respect to providing yardages, line of the putt, controlling emotions, or simply providing head nods as a way to invoke confidence.

As we drove on, we wondered aloud how a scramble might benefit from a player who was not very good at all but had superior skills in course management?

This person would know the limitations of each player on the team and how their particular skills were manifesting that day. He/she would be able to articulate some reasoning behind decisions and perhaps coach players to help them better understand their roles.  He/she could even help them visualize their performance. This person would truly be leading (or at minimum coaching) those around him/her, yet would not necessarily be a good player. Yet, this is rarely the case, as in golf, one’s abilities as a player seem to equate from everyone’s perception to one’s designation as “leader.”

Skills in leadership do not factor into that designation.   Does this make sense?

Let’s apply the notion of a golf scramble to school leadership. How might the scramble concept be similar or different from what is typically deployed in schools in the game of education? 

First, let’s consider the notion of playing from everyone’s “best ball.”  Do we do this?  Let’s examine.

It would seem for the most part that in Professional Learning Communities, the notion of sharing best practice would be much akin to playing a scramble.  After all, we borrow from each other’s best shots, don’t we?  Let us dissect this a bit further.

If leadership or school improvement were a scramble, each initiative would have everyone “swinging away,” as opposed to playing conservatively. Even more interestingly, we would not keep a secret as to who was best or lie to each other in faculty lounges, saying that we are all good.  Everyone would know different, and most all would accept a rank ordering. We’d have our A educators, our B educators, and those who simply could not “bring game.”  It would be obvious, and all would accept it.

As we drove, we wondered how many in schools are honest with each other.  Or … do most folks play-pretend that gamelessness is not in the room?

To take the metaphor further -- In a school scramble, someone’s “best shot” (improvement strategy) would be selected, each step of the way, from which to proceed to the next -- those best shots coming sometimes from the A player, sometimes from the B, and sometimes from others’ lucky attempts.  Yet along the way, most decisions about how to “do school” would be made still by the A player (such as which tools to use to address the challenges).  Do we in education always use someone’s best strategy, from which to build our next move?  In schools, do we defer to those who are ranked “the best” in making our own decisions as to how we play the game, or do we do things the way that are comfortable for us?

We began to wonder about the strength of the scramble metaphor.

We then talked through an example more tangible: math achievement for our struggling students.  In tackling math achievement through a scramble approach, math teachers would be lined-up and rank ordered according to ability.  The best teacher would make the decisions on the tools necessary to take the first swing at something.  Let’s say that it is raising achievement in the lowest quartile of students in 1st grade.  Four teachers are involved.  Students would then be divided to provide similarly situated groups. Teachers would each take their own swing at the problem for a fixed period of time, after which the team would convene to examine the results.  Yet at that point, could they really then move forward from the best position?

Here’s where the scramble, as a pure metaphor in education, broke down. 

A scramble would have each teacher adopting the performance results from someone’s best crack at a strategy, as everyone moves to the best ball’s position in a golf scramble. They would then move on from there, taking their individual swings for another fixed period of time, thereafter reconvening.  Then they would adopt best performance again before moving forward.

Yet, in education, we can’t really “drop our ball from the optimal spot.”  Moving forward from someone’s best position would be impossible, of course, unless one could adopt the scores and performance levels of higher performing students from the group whose teacher/golfer took the best swing at teaching them.  Like in a golf scramble, one would need to pretend that the lower scores (worse shots) didn’t happen and drop a ball in the best position to shoot next. 

Children don’t accord us this luxury.  We can’t pretend that the reality of the “next best” or “worst” approach, or even the contextual variables that affect the reality of the situation, didn’t happen.  In schools, we can’t magically move skillsets, starting fresh at a higher level.

So in education, even in the best professional learning communities, we really don’t scramble.

Yet maybe if we consider what we typically DON’T do in a scramble (but maybe we should), we’ll get closer in how educators can “bring game.”  We said earlier to each other:

Rarely do we find one being chosen to be on the team because he/she has superior abilities of course management, restated, the ability to make the best decisions given certain situations. Sometimes caddies will perform this task when working with professional golfers. They are charged with “coaching” the player, with respect to providing yardages, the line of a putt, controlling emotions, or simply providing a head nod as a way to invoke confidence.

In this sense of dividing responsibilities among those in schools, everyone typically has a skill that can contribute something. Even the worst teacher typically has something of value to add to the conversation.

Thus, in bringing “game” to education, playing smart while capitalizing on each other’s strengths is what really helps a school’s performance.  In such, the principal seems the logical choice as the “coach” of the team (if superintendents have hired wisely), yet the principal’s selection as coach does not imply that he/she is necessarily recognized as the best teacher, or even a great teacher. 

The principal should, however, be a good caddy.

Dr. Steve Gruenert and Dr. Ryan Donlan enjoy learning from deep conversation, especially when midway through, they can detect fallacies in their own thinking and discover new avenues to ponder, those that make more sense.  Will you consider joining them? One way to do so is to visit them on campus and have lunch.  Another is to offer your own thoughts by contributing to the Leadershop.  Please consider helping these guys stay relevant through your feedback. They can be reached at or at

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Best Intentions and Blind Spots - Unpacking the Achievement Gap

Best Intentions and Blind Spots - Unpacking the Achievement Gap

As we head into summer (vacations for many of us), have we thought about what we will read to help us better address student achievement?  Well, we certainly have at Indiana State University, with a book study (same name as this week's title) of the perspectives of two notable, national voices on POVERTY – Dr. Ruby Payne and Dr. Jawanza Kunjufu. 

Please “take 5” this week, and check out Dr. Joshua Powers' article below, formerly run on the ISU Ed. Leadershop in May of 2012. If this piques your interest, consider “unpacking the achievement gap” with book studies and deep conversations of your own. 

Summer’s a great time to do it! 

Best to you all, and thanks for making us relevant. 

-- ISU Ed. Leadershop Faculty and Friends

Payne v. Kunjufu:
Poverty and the College Attendance Pipeline

Dr. Joshua Powers
Associate Vice President for Student Success
Professor of Educational Leadership
Indiana State University

I recently attended a screening of the new documentary, First Generation. It is a film about four high school studentsan inner city African-American athlete, a small town White waitress, a Samoan dancer, and a daughter of migrant field workersand their experiences navigating the possibilities of college attendance and breaking the cycle of poverty that grips each of their lives.

Over the course of their junior and senior years, we see these four high-achieving students in archetypical daily struggles, yet most powerfully and fresh, we see the crushing mismatch between college expectations and potential with the barriers to attaining their dreams.  Some examples include:

Little sense for the diversity of institutional types in this country or how to differentiate one from another other than on proximity;

Seeing athletics as the only real opportunity for scholarships since that is what they know from big-time college sports on television;

Clear admissibility to an elite public institution but not applying because they could not pay the $100 application fee;

No sense that there is a college sticker price versus a price they would actually pay at even an “expensive” private institution and that as children of poverty, they had strong potential for attendance for free;

Being wholly dependent on the school guidance counselor for help and the realistic capability or even interest that the counselor has in the intense support of the needs of the student;

A parent(s) that can’t bear the thought of their child “going away” to school or that does not see why college is important; and

Choosing the local community college over a more distant four-year institution with the expectation of ultimately attaining a bachelor’s degree despite the reality that most with this expectation do not.

As I reflect on the power of this documentary, and the daunting challenge we have as a nation to provide a larger proportion of our citizenry with a postsecondary education, I find myself recalling a debate I saw a few years back between Ruby Payne and Jawanza Kunjufu and their competing perspectives on how to think about and respond to children and youth in poverty.  Payne provides a window into what she calls generational poverty and the patterns of behavior that she says pass down through generations that often lock a person in a cycle of poverty.  She also describes social class language differences that America’s teachers from largely middle-class backgrounds find enriching for “understanding” their poor students. 

Hmm, sounds a lot like blaming the victim and a means of helping teachers know “them” better, but does it serve to reinforce assumptions? 

Kunjufu, by contrast, puts forth an argument that America’s largely White, middle-class, and female teachers are ill-prepared to work with the African American students that make up a considerable percentage of poor students in schools and thus develop low expectations for them, perhaps reinforced through low performance sourced in a mismatch between teaching and learning styles. 

Hmm, sounds plausible, but how do we best prepare or mentor teachers to be more effective in the diverse classroom? 

Whatever is going on, insidious forces are at work, that in my view play out in many ways, including in their effect on college attendance patterns [i.e. rich kids disproportionally attending four-year institutions and poor kids community colleges], those that seem to reinforce a class society.