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, July 31, 2013

A Retreat for Reimagination

A Retreat for Reimagination

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

I spent time with good friends this past week from around the world, my wife Wendy at my side.  We were reimagining education: Wendy’s from the standpoint of early childhood development and caretaking as she serves Indiana State University’s Early Childhood Education Center; mine from the standpoint of Pre-K – 20.

Friends from United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, Holland, Austria, Belgium, Liechtenstein, Tunisia, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Austria, and Japan met in a mountainous valley, just down the road from a remote Hindu Temple, to talk about how education “could be for all children” if we would just reimagine those possibilities, effortfully and enjoyably.

The setting was ideal, a school unlike most others, run by my good friend, Jeff King. 

I first met Jeff when he was a therapist for an in-patient/out-patient treatment facility.  My first recollection of him was when he strolled up to our visiting delegation, equipment from an adventure education course in hand, inviting us to have a bit of fun as we spent a few days at their place for the first Process Communication Model (PCM) education summit in Newton, Kansas.   Now the Head of School far from the Midwest and expanding his operation from early childhood, elementary, and middle school … into high school as well, Jeff was the most congenial of hosts in the most reimaginative of places.

As Wendy and I drove through the Malibu Canyon area northwest of Los Angeles to arrive at this international education summit, we entered a little slice of Heaven on Earth.  The winding, narrow mountain passes were breathtaking.  Just down the road from Jeff’s school, we passed the site where the television show *MASH* was filmed decades ago.  If you remember the show’s introduction with helicopters flying over the mountains, that was our topography.  Rumor has it that the jeep and ambulance from the show’s set still sit alongside a marked trail, yet the 5-mile round-trip hike was a bit of a deterrent as I had a busy conference presentation schedule and am not fond of the potential to meet mountain lions up close (I hear that this concern was much ado about nothing).

We also learned during our visit that the current HBO television show True Blood is filmed adjacent to Jeff’s school.  Some at the school climb the hills at night overlooking the set to watch the filming.  Reminds me of the time that I opened up my school once for a Zombie flick, Locked Away.  It was tons of fun, especially the time they had a mid-day Zombie bride walking across our parking lot with a real bride 100 yards away attending her own wedding at an adjacent church.

Yet I digress.

As the mountaintop gate opened, we peered over the car’s dashboard down a steep (steep!), winding road to MUSE School. Far below, we noticed an expansive former encampment, refurbished delightfully at the foot of surrounding mountains, a climbing wall for children in the distance and extremely long tubes resting upon the bottom of the mountainside, a child’s dream for amusement park sliding during recess.

Trails abound and beautiful bungalows for classrooms dotted the campus.  A small house was built upon a tree, with branches teaming from the windows … the world’s coolest tree fort.  A large, outdoor amphitheatre for whole-school presentations was situated mid-way toward the back-campus trail that rose steeply up the mountainside.  It looked as though MUSE recycled the remnants of an old water tower, with many in our congregation grabbing ropes to climb to it.  It had something to do with experiential learning, yet with so much to experience, I didn’t make the climb and do not know for sure.  MUSE even had an outdoor pool for a quick dip for children and staff, alike. 

And sustainability.  What sustainability! 

We were encouraged not to bring disposable cups or candy on campus.  I have never enjoyed so much fruit-infused water in my life … served in reusable canteens that we got to keep.  Thoughts went embarrassingly to the soft drink machines I used to put in our school’s hallways to make money for the student activities fund.  Food was served on biodegradable, wooden plates, even the small plates for hummus.  Most meals, if not all served, were organically grown.  Conference organizers even reserved the hotel in neighboring Agoura Hills near the shopping outlet Trader Joe’s for our delegation, as they wished to provide us healthy eating alternatives when we were in our hotel rooms late at night.  Nearly eighty percent of their fruits and vegetables for consumption are grown on site, if I remember correctly.

Oh … and the educational program -- WOW!!!  

Students learn any way they need to learn.  Faculty members teach the way the students need them to teach in order for students to learn.  They connect with each student individually.  Many of you may know that this is one reason why I study and research The Process Education Model (PEM).

Whole-group instruction is provided when it works.  As well, targeted, individualized learning provides the foundation for all, not simply aligned with roughly categorized student learning styles, but surgically aligned to the manner in which student personality develops between birth and age seven, as well as to the way it develops beyond that time based on life experiences.  Factoring in students’ perceptual frames, personality parts, communication channels, environmental preferences, managerial styles, psychological needs (and mindful of distress patterns), these staff members certainly know how to perform their surgery.

Academic expectations are high, and the avenue toward robust instructional outcomes is progressively open, expansive, and free of bureaucratic entanglement.  MUSE leaders fundraise to free themselves of the shackles of prescribed practice and are savvy enough to realize that the bully pulpits of business and the media do not a quality education make.  Although MUSE charges tuition, school leaders note that they are able to offset costs for those with financial need, if families are willing to embrace their educational program.

And what about Jeff? 

Well, in addition to being a great guy and an outstanding school leader … he’s Rebecca’s husband – Rebecca Amis, an early-child educator by trade who started plying her craft in Early Head Starts, just like my wife, Wendy.  That’s probably why Wendy and Rebecca hit it off so well.  We left with plans for Rebecca to learn more about what ISU does with its Reggio Emilia approach for infants from 0 – 2 and for Wendy to learn more about how MUSE’s program and PEM interface with Reggio Emilia.

I have known Rebecca since 2007, when we met in Hot Springs, Arkansas, shortly after she and Jeff married.  We all share an interest in communication theory and human behavioral analysis.  At the time, I heard from Rebecca that she had just started a school with her sister Suzy Amis Cameron, who had been asking Rebecca for quite some time to do so.  Suzy wished to offer for others what she wanted for her own children.

Shortly after I met Suzy in Vienna last year, I learned that she was not an educator by trade, yet a former actress.  Something tells me that Jeff may have mentioned this to me, once upon a time. One probably remembers Suzy from the movies Titanic, Judgment Day, or a host of others, as she had quite the career.  As a great actress on a much smaller stage, she even played “my model student” (a Thinker, in PCM parlance) in a training demonstration that we provided to educators in Austria last year.  It was a blast!

Suzy has a vision … as does Rebecca – one of educational REIMAGINATION.  Their goal?  “World Domination,” as Suzy jokes.  They are in the process of starting partner schools in many countries around the world.  Jeff takes care of MUSE proper, while the sisters are globetrotting and teaching communities about the possibilities for their children.  For those familiar with PEM, many call Rebecca and Suzy the “Persister Sisters.”

What’s my point this week? 

I’m not sure, really … except to say that I felt very good about education as I sat in the Los Angeles International Airport awaiting our flight and beginning this week’s five-minute read.  I felt good about my time at MUSE … about the presentations I delivered at the international summit … about those I enjoyed … about the simultaneous translations into Japanese as our friends from Asia sat among us learning how we could reimagine the world for our children. 

I felt really good talking at length with new friend and colleague Elliot Washor from Big Picture Learning who attended one of my sessions and discussed research that needed to be done at MUSE, of which Indiana State University would be most-valuable as an external evaluator.  Elliot is working with Jeff, Suzy, and Rebecca on their curriculum and program and has a new book out with Charles Mojkowski, Leaving to Learn: How Out-of-School Learning Increases Student Engagement and Reduces Dropout Rates.  Darn good!  I read much of it on the plane. 

I also enjoyed my time with friend Michael Gilbert talking about our ongoing book project and Nate Regier, talking about our global research study.  Time with Taibi Kahler and his wife, Shirl, was invaluable, as was my reconnecting with many friends whom I see typically once a year at similar events.  Wendy and I had a distinct pleasure of meeting another new friend, Evelina Christopherson, Director of Eco Events at the school, one of those amazing, authentic, and compassionate people who truly make a lasting impression as they care for others. I just wanted to mention Evelina, as we all could use her level of caretaking as a model as we serve others. One highlight was being asked to host the International Process Communication Model (PCM) Academy Awards with my friend Jerome Lefeuvre from France.  I thought, “Why Not!” as Wendy and I had just snapped a picture of Suzy’s husband, Jim’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

I’m now in Terre Haute, Indiana, with my head out of the mountains … on campus once again.  It’s nice to be back.  In my travels home, I got back to business conversing with two of my students applying for superintendencies and another one, a principalship.  It was exciting, talking with them, knowing that after they are successful in their interviews, they will make such a difference in the lives of children, with ISU’s leadership preparation programs a part of that blessed opportunity.

I’ll end this week, not really making any direct point, but by letting my experiences percolate further as I muse, while encouraging all of us to reflect upon summer experience and our own personal/professional rejuvenation while reimagining the ways in which our schools can start anew, with the opportunities shortly upon us.


For more information about MUSE, please visit  You’ll be glad that you did.  If you would like to reimagine with Dr. Ryan Donlan or discuss further the Process Education Model (PEM), please feel free to contact him at (812) 237-8624 or at  Dr. Donlan’s new article entitled, The Process Education Model (PEM): A Catalyst for School Improvement, is now available in the Journal of Process Communication and offers alignment of the theories of Dr. Taibi Kahler’s with the work of Charlotte Danielson and Dr. Robert Marzano. 

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

"Now what?!?"

“Now what?!?”

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

That’s exactly what the dog said when he finally caught the car he had been chasing for a number of years.

“Now What?!?”

In our educational careers, we probably experience less than a handful of BIG CATCHES.  Bringing home the big ones, such as our first superintendency, the multi-million dollar federal grant we applied for perennially, or an opportunity for appointment to a national commission, are rare, indeed.
One of mine a number of years ago was the result of a few years of state and federal advocacy; it included a state’s incorporation of academic growth into a school’s letter grade.  These calculations are more common nowadays, albeit at times, a bit clunky in application.  Back then … the whole notion of applying academic growth was a bit more far-fetched.  Bottom line: Once we bring in our big catches, we’re responsible for doing something with them.  Catch and release is not an option.

The Indiana State University’s Department of Educational Leadership brought home its big catch recently in Indiana Principal Leadership Institute, a product of incredibly hard work in championing the cause of K-12 principals who had a similar experience taken from them approximately four years prior.  The Institute brings with it transparent accountability for participants, as well as their leadership teams and schools.  It also holds accountable the Indiana Association of School Principals and of course, Indiana State University.

Yep … we brought home the catch.
Now it’s time to deliver. 

Just this past week, we began working with over 50 principals statewide in a quest to assess their personal capacities for leadership.  It involved a good deal of personal and professional conversation – the asking of tough questions and answering honestly – all among colleagues who all want the same thing: educational excellence in leadership, schools, and the State of Indiana.

And … everyone’s watching.

We accept that, as we know Indiana deserves the best, and the best hold themselves accountable.  Our Institute’s principals are indicative of what is “best” about public education, and we’d like to think that we’re right up there as well in leadership capacity building.

As we think of the rarity of what we are experiencing right now (i.e. our big catch), we try to be mindful in our own modeling by asking ourselves – With this opportunity, what would great leaders do?  Are we modeling?  How have our best leaders over time taken advantage of “big catches” toward immediate good work, and over time … lasting success? 

First of all … we believe that with our best leaders, not too much time is really spent saying, “Now what?!?”  Answering this question started with the original desire for the catch in the first place.

Our best leaders who “bring home the catch” surround themselves with people who think very much differently than they think.  Not “Yes people.”  Our best leaders select effective followers; a science in and of itself.  Passive subordinates should not apply, as those who offer dependent, uncritical thinking fall short of the mark.  Kelley (1992) spoke of the need for effective followers to be independent, critical thinkers who are active in sharing their perspectives with leadership.  They have self-management, commitment, competence, focus, courage, honesty, and credibility.  Our best leaders are not afraid to add to the team those strong-willed like themselves.

Our best leaders “bring home the catch” while forgiving others in advance.  They know that the catch will involve new ways of doing things, and these things new will make some uncomfortable.  They know that by asking more of everyone (and “different” too), they will bring hardship at first; after all, many good people will have been doing the “old right thing” very well … one that has now become the new wrong thing (Black & Gregersen, 2003). New opportunities for schools are not accorded to leaders in order to help maintain the status quo.  Our best leaders are mindful of how important the status quo IS to some, especially those who lack balance in their lives and define themselves primarily by the work that they do. Our best leaders forgive and support while moving forward in spite of this.

The best leaders “bring home the catch” by not forgetting how to exercise their most important communication skill, one best exercised when the mouth is shut.  Our best leaders listen.  They listen to the words of others, as well as those things that happen between their words.  Through effective listening, our best leaders develop organizational acuity, and while doing so, take care of the needs of people first, so that the tasks involved in “doing what must be done with the catch” will follow. 

The best leaders “bring home the catch” by remembering at all times that although they need to take time to think, they were not hired to be resident philosophers; they were hired to DO something.  In such, they begin moving forward with prudent, right-sized steps, all the while listening rather than talking, forgiving those who resist them, and learning from those who bring discomfort of perspective, as growth cannot happen without it.

“Now what?!?”

“That’s what.”


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

Kelley, R. (1992). The power of followership. New York, NY: Bantam Dell.


Dr. Ryan Donlan has watched the ISD Department of Educational Leadership in partnership with the Indiana Association of School Principals and forward-thinking State Legislators “bring home the catch,” an example of due diligence in serving Indiana K-12 education at its best.  Please feel free to contact Dr. Donlan with your own thoughts regarding forward-thinking leadership or anything else on your mind at (812) 237-8624 or at

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Dark Side

The Dark Side

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

Is there a dark side to leadership? 

I have seen it in a few of the leaders for whom I have worked over the years.  Darkness, it seems, comes in varying shades.

Could it be that some school administrators are motivated by things they don’t talk about … even to themselves?

A few examples (maybe one … just one, applies to a leader you have known):

Those who have unresolved issues that drive them to champion causes greater than themselves or expose themselves to unnecessary risk.

Those who are treated like punching bags in their personal lives, and thus, have a need to exercise titular authority professionally.

Those who find that they have difficulty with authority, so they better BE the authority.

Those who have a deep-seated need being in the middle of conflict and may through their behavior manufacture it, even unconsciously.

Those who have balance lacking in their lives and identify themselves by the work that they do, not the people they are.

Why do I mention these things?

The dark side of the leaders I knew did not, in and of itself, make for bad leadership.

It simply introduced another layer of “circumstance” or “complexity” that made the commute to work with them each day.  It was baggage, recognized by the more self-reflective, with a need to be checked.

Those of us who do qualitative research recognize that we must control bias while we do our jobs.  We do not pretend that we do not have it; instead, we acknowledge our biases and “bracket them out” as we work. 

As we lead, do we acknowledge our own biases, or even our dark sides, if they exist, bracketing them out of our leader behavior, amidst the hundreds of positive things we do every day? 

Or … do we ignore them … repress them, and in doing so, run the risk that they unconsciously influence the way we lead?

At the Indiana Principal Leadership Institute this week, we are asking over fifty K-12 leaders to set goals while examining their personal capacities to lead, so that they can focus on two years of targeted, intentional school improvement on behalf of their students, staffs, and communities.

In doing so, these leaders will acknowledge and reflect upon the things affecting their lives – those that make them human and thus, fallible – and work to bracket them before moving ahead in professional development. 

They will better understand that they must work to address their own needs before they can work to meet the needs of others.  And … that they must keep their eyes open … especially in the dark.


Dr. Ryan Donlan is both pleased and honored to be on the design team of the Indiana Principal Leadership Institute.  If you would like to continue this conversation about one’s personal capacity to lead, please feel free to contact him at or at (812) 237-8624.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

A Compassion Quotient

A Compassion Quotient

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

            Have you ever walked into an office or called a business over the phone, only to be greeted by someone on the other end who is less-than-pleasant and whose initial response is “No” to every question you ask? No doubt we have all been there at least a time or two -- on the other side of someone else’s bad day, leaving us with a residual feeling of discontent.

As we look into leadership and the importance of hiring the right people and keeping them, we must consider the delicate balance between a leader’s obligation to make tough and sometimes unpopular decisions and the need to encourage others to feel that they are a positive force, even in difficult times. We can’t allow for others to be on the other side of our bad days.

            For some time, a focus on “feelings” was not in the forefront of our minds as we envisioned “administration.” It was acceptable for “the boss” to be the hammer when problems arose or reprimands were needed, most often buried in the office and covered with paperwork.  In years past, school leaders were oftentimes removed from the very essence of where they often succeeded before becoming leaders: the classroom. Regarding such, Rousmaniere (2009) stated, “The principal’s office is the adult realm of the school, driven by seriousness, responsibility, and predictability, following -- or intending to follow – standard procedures” (p. 17).

The role has changed.  Now more than ever, school leaders are much more visible – on bus duty, in the lunchroom, and walking through classes several times a day.   With this comes the unquestionable need for a leader’s ability to positively interact with others. Leaders are on “stage,” their interactions on display for all to see. In such, leaders cannot underestimate the importance of how they treat others, and more importantly, how others perceive this treatment.

These perceptions are often the result of leaders accomplishing the demands of their positions (tasks), helped or hindered by the manner in which they treat those they lead, leaving a residual that we call, “A Compassion Quotient.”

A leader’s exercise of compassion has, at its forefront, one’s ability to listen.  Listening can be argued as the most important communication skill of a leader, yet how often is this evaluated in graduate preparation programs or on licensure examinations?  Karpicke and Murphy (1996) noted, “Principals who talk first and listen second (or worse yet, are perceived as never listening at all) shut themselves off from receiving true messages and stay culturally isolated. They are out of touch. Their capacity to work from within the culture is limited at best” (p. 26).  

This leader’s focus on compassion, especially with those who are abjectly abrasive and unrealistic, may seem itself a bit unrealistic with today’s increasing pressures on school leaders, yet it is a must.  If we get too wrapped-up in leading the “what” of our job descriptions rather than the “how,” we’ll be at times charging forward, yet in looking over our shoulders, we’ll notice that no one is following.  

            A compassion quotient is not difficult to foster in schools.  Simple acts are good first steps that do not take too much of a leader’s time.  Examples would include remembering birthdays or asking how someone’s family member is doing … remembering staff members’ children’s names or their spouses’ … greeting folks at the beginning of the day and wishing them well upon dismissal.  People want to feel that they matter to others with whom they work, especially the boss.  It would behoove us to keep in mind that the “feel” of the building is inextricably linked to the effort that will be expended inside of it.

Being an affirming, positive influence on the people around us cannot always easily be measured through test scores, but compassion can always be felt.  School leaders would do well to remember that staff, students, and community members cannot always remember what we did as leaders on any given day, but they can remember how we treated them.

As we continue to lead each day toward heighten levels of student achievement, we must take a few moments from time to time to ask ourselves, “What is the residual, from our interactions with others -- the “quotient” felt and remembered -- after the demands of leadership present themselves in tandem with the interpersonal needs of those we serve?”

“Is there a Compassion Quotient?”

Rousmaniere, K (2009). The Great Divide: Principals, Teachers, and the Long Hallway Between Them. History of Education Review 38(2), 17 - 27.

Karpicke, H. &Murphy, M.E. (1996). Productive School Culture: Principals working from the inside. National Association of Secondary School Principals, NASSP Bulletin 80(576), 26.


Suzanne Marrs is beginning her doctoral studies at Indiana State University and contributes to the ISU Ed. Leadershop with practical approaches in improving education as a K-12 leader. We’re quite fortunate to have Suzanne Marrs on the Leadershop Team. Please feel free to contact her at or Ryan Donlan at

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Time for Our Nation, and for YOU

Time for Our Nation, and for YOU

From all of us at the ISU Ed. Leadershop and from the Indiana State University’s Department of Educational Leadership in the Bayh College of Education, we want to extend our heartfelt THANKS to you for all you do in educating our nation’s school children.

As America celebrates our country’s independence this week and collectively reflects upon the gifts that freedom provides, please consider using these moments of national togetherness as opportunities for rest, relaxation, and rejuvenation.

We hope that you will consider being a bit “self-ful” in doing what you need to do for yourself, so that our country’s children can have your leadership at peak performance after this brief and well-deserved "pause," from your desk, classroom, or office.

Remember that the time you take away from your desk this month is not taking you farther away from students, staff, or leadership; it is bringing you closer to yourself. 

And you need to do that, from time to time.  Enjoy your summer!