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, August 28, 2013

Qurious Questions

Qurious Questions

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

In the queue this week … my quriosity.

I’m qurious as to whether we spent the first weeks of school focused more on “people” than on “content.” 

Regarding our responsibilities as educators -- I’m also qurious ...

1.     Do we NOT treat others how we want to be treated?

Let us put some thought into the fact that the Golden Rule, or as some call it the ethic of reciprocity, can work against us.  Before we treat others the way we, ourselves, wish to be treated, wouldn’t it be prudent for us to consider the fact that others may wish to be treated differently?  For example, how many times do we teach or lead the way we like to be taught or led, and find that a few of our students and colleagues do not connect with our approach?  Cathcart & Klein (2008) noted, tongue and check, “A sadist is a masochist who follows the Golden Rule” (p. 84).

2.     Do we focus too much on self-esteem?

Are we putting carts before horses with good intentions? Let us consider a child’s self-esteem. Our media-influenced, commercially socialized, me-centered society seems to build self-esteem in our children so rampantly that kids are often blind to their own entitlement.  It doesn’t take too many trips to the county fair to see the results of everyone’s being a self-aggrandized, prince or princess.  Unfortunately, a cruel hoax is in play, resulting in a sense of inflated specialness that travels with some into adulthood, marital life, and reproduction.

We don’t have to be callous, indifferent, or sans warmth to put the horse back up front.  In fact, we simply need to focus more on self-efficacy, legitimate skill development, and authentic praise.  Those who develop self-esteem from within through effort, support, and accomplishment, rather than those who are filled from without, are adaptive (as opposed to maladaptive), realistic (as opposed to unrealistic), and self-ful (as opposed to selfish). An educator’s care and feeding of anything prefixed with “self-” directly and indirectly affects the levels of openness, persistence, and resourcefulness that visit school each and every day (and travel into life beyond).

3.     DO we reveal our insides when we’re on the outside?

A few things typically serve as windows to our souls – The way we communicate and exchange currency in a gas station/convenience store, saying, “Hi, how are you doing?  May I please have …”? rather than “I need …” is one example.   Placing our money on the counter, rather than handing it to the clerk, is another.

How many of us leave our grocery carts by our cars, when it’s raining or inconvenient, rather than taking them back to the cart corral, or leave them in an aisle when the wheels aren’t working?

As we answer these for ourselves, is whatever we are doing happening because people could be watching, or are we truly “on the outside,” the real us? 

4.     Do we “have a clue”?

How often at staff or leadership team meetings do we discuss how others perceive our performance, or how students and parents perceive us?  How often do we open up that quadrant of Johari’s window that others see, yet we do not, so that we can see ourselves from another’s perspective?

I would like to tip my hat to educators in school buildings who engage in these critical conversations in an atmosphere of trust and a culture of authenticity.  In our professional world as in Irish Proverbs, The best looking glass is the eye of a friend.

5.     Do we turn our minds?

By our very nature as educators, we have power of mind.  We’re intelligent, good school-doer’s.  But have we turn-of-mind?

Remember long ago when we learned reading comprehension strategies – some messages in the readings were delivered “on the line,” … others … “between the lines” or “beyond the lines.” 

Well, turn-of-mind learning is like reading between and beyond the lines of life to discern the deeper truths that we confront. Turning our minds sets us apart.  And, we need to be apart to solve the issues that confront our society today. We have some big issues to solve in (and through) education.

Turn-of-mind is often a sojourn obscured from immediate relevance, yet has potential for deferred, positive impact and one’s self-actualization.  It gives us permission to question why we do some of the things we do as educators (our modus operandi):    Like reading and regurgitating … like learning about this guru or that guru’s this, that, or the other thing (typically repackaged, in another form of the prior) … like regaling about yet another charlatan’s charisma from the conference attended (and buying his or her book, believing it’s research) … like hiring someone from at least 100 miles away (and thus, an expert) … like jumping on the next bandwagon of pedagogy borne of politics and pundits … like …? 

Why do we often do what we know and pass along what was done to us, when we have an ability to turn our minds, asking qurious questions that cut through the chatter of any profession’s distraction?


Cathcart, T., & Klein, D. (2008). Plato and a platypus walk into a bar …, New York, NY: Penguin Books.


Dr. Ryan Donlan offers THANKS to the ISU Ph.D. Program Residency Silver Anniversary Cohort for offering him thoughts and feedback on this week’s contribution to the Leadershop.  He teaches at Indiana State University, in the Department of Educational Leadership in the Bayh College of Education.  Please offer him your own barometric reading on the quality of quriosity, by contacting him at (812) 237-8624 or at

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Do Our Means Justify Our Ends?

Do Our Means Justify Our Ends?

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

Contributing as well,
Sethu Arumugam
Doctoral Candidate
Department of Educational Leadership
Indiana State University

I heard something this week that caught my ear.  In actuality, it was a statement of unintentional juxtaposition, and I found value in carrying through the thought processes that were inspired by its utterance.

We often hear the question, “Do the ends justify the means?”  Yet are we operating an American public school system where the reverse question has merit, “Do our means justify our ends?”

I shared a draft of this week’s Leadershop article with a few colleagues, one of which offered the following editorial commentary as a platform for discussion.  It is written by Indiana State University Doctoral Candidate, Sethu Arumugam, who is currently on assignment in the southern city of Chennai, India:

The intent of the saying, as I understand, is….

If “ends” are for a noble and just cause, it does not mean that one can use any “means” available to achieve even those noble-minded ends. If that is what it means, then shouldn’t the corollary also be true?  It should also mean that just because “means” are available, then it does not mean that one can pursue “any ‘end.’”

Whether it is having the support of the majority group, support of the business community, support of political power base, support of media that is willing to fall in line to advance a group’s agenda, a dictator willing to carry out a proxy war, etc., etc., “Are all various ‘means’ that could be available at one’s disposal?”  Such access to power and ability to shape outcomes comes with a responsibility in pursuing the “right” type of “outcomes” or “ends.”

In education, whether it is a “manufactured crisis” or “real crisis,” the current political climate provides the opportunities to address both the disenchantment and the disappointments that exist with some aspects of the status quo.  It sets the stage to provide the “means” to people in power and public domain to influence the desired outcomes or ends.  Having the “means” to influence the public sentiment does not mean that the opportunity should be squandered in waging a proxy war with parochial “ends.”
The future of our children, and by extension, the future of our country, is at stake when we talk about what type of educational system we want to continue to have in this country.  It needs to be a serious, thoughtful, and open-minded debate on all sides.  

Means and ends, both are equally important and need to be put on the opposite ends of the same weighing scale.  In other words, both should pass the morality tests.  If we don’t, then we are at the risk of getting conned by manufactured, noble-sounding ends. 

In the end, as much as ends don't justify means, means also don’t justify ends!

What of Sethu’s point?  Would you agree?  

Most I have spoken to concur, if by “justify” we define it as, “to prove to be right and reasonable.”  Yet, what if we used another definition – the second of two provided often --  “to give reason for …”? 

As Sethu did the first definition some justice in expansion, allow me to try my hand at the second.

The Means:

American schools operate under the principle of providing a free and appropriate education to students.  Through such, children are given the opportunity to attain the academic and occupational skills necessary for living personally meaningful lives, which are economically productive and socially responsible.  Toward that end, all children of school age are provided up to thirteen or more years of public education.

American schools do not differentiate, publicly, what is provided to children based on social class, economic status, or any other factors of race, color, sex, gender, sexual orientation, religion, marital status, national ancestry or origin, citizenship, or physical or mental disability.

Those are purported to be our means, de jure, anyway.

The Ends:

We have some incredible “ends” -- success stories across our nation of well-adjusted adults living self-actualizing lives, contributing economically to our society and raising children in that image.

Dr. Steve Gruenert, in conversation with me this week, mentioned as well the “ends” (results) of standardized testing.  He noted that according to many, these ends (the results shown through testing) are not going to change; thus, the means are always the point of scrutiny, as some would contend that we are perfectly aligned to get the results or ends we get.

What are these ends, that relate to Dr. Gruenert’s point? 

I would contend that these ends include egregious achievement gaps, and some would say the resultant economic disparity in a society where 46.2 million live in poverty (DeNavas-Walt & Proctor, 2012), and over 1 ½ million reside in our correctional institutions (Carson & Golinelli, 2013).

Granted other intervening variables to a certain degree effect (bring about) or justify those “ends,” can we say that our means, as we currently articulate them, are accurately portrayed?

I’m not sure I have an answer to these questions, except that my thoughts transcend points limited to the de jure.  

Exploratory Surgery on the Notion of “Justify”

I begin further exploration this week with a question: Do other, de-facto “means” exist within our nation’s school curriculum (what lurks beneath), and do they justify (give reason for) the ends listed above? 

Let’s particularize as we ponder:

To what degree are schools that expel students with no alternatives justifying our ends?

To what degree are teachers who refuse to modify, accommodate, or differentiate justifying our ends?

To what degree do schools that need posters reminding children of employability skills not spending enough time “living” the employability skills, and thus are justifying our ends?

To what degree is a system that provides systemic disincentives for educators to work with our most at-risk students justifying our ends?

To what degree is the predominantly Eurocentric instructional delivery style of teachers impinging upon the potential of offering instruction that is both culturally and ethnically relevant for students?

To what degree is a system that is allows the perception of mismanagement at all levels, yet particularly at the highest levels, inhibiting public support necessary for vitality and sustainability and thus, justifying our ends?

To what degree are punitive, statewide systems of school evaluation responsible for the atmospheres of distrust and brainstem behavior among adults that curtail risk-taking, problem solving, creativity, and the critical conversations needed for systemic improvements – thus justifying our ends.

My Confusion (as opposed to “Conclusion”):

The latter definition of “justify” [give reason for] seems psychologically, to be inescapably tethered in our minds with the former [to prove or show to be right or reasonable] -- for those of us in the children business, anyway.  It is almost as if we cannot talk about the one without lapsing into the other. I fall victim to that as well, and thus, with this inescapably a part of my writing this week, will further obfuscate with my final points.

When we as educators put the blame on parents, the media, and society for the lackluster performance and skill development that could be in part, responsible for “the ends” as we now experience them, are we saying that our current efforts are justifiable, given the raw materials we get? 

Justifiable … given the efforts that we expend? 
Justifiable … given the status quo as many defend?
Justifiable … given the bullies that still exist in our schools (I’m not talking about
the kids)? 
And justifiable … given an environment engendered through pundits who turn
public educators against one another and against potential partners in the
educational process?

Or … are they not?

Thus, we are left as we began, with a final question … then another, “Do ALL of our means as we are now delivering them, justify the ends that we are now living, both good and bad, in both senses of the definition?” 

 And … “Are we satisfied?”


Carson, E. C., & Golinelli, D. (2013). Prisoners in 2012 – Advanced Counts. NCJ 242467 Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs. Retrieved at

DeNavas-Walt, C., & Proctor, B. D. (2012). Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2011. U.S. Government Printing Office, Washingtonn, D.C. Retrieved at


Dr. Ryan Donlan has traveled a bit deeper this week and is not sure about the clarity of his piece, or pace.  He thanks Dr. Steve Gruenert for his thoughtful perspectives, as well as Sethu Arumugam, for the thought-provoking preface.  Please help extend this conversation if you desire by contacting Dr. Donlan at (812) 237-8624 or at  Thanks for staying with our complexity amidst its own ambiguity this week, within which we’re at times nestled.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Name Game

The Name Game

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

Every child who comes to school each year should be known by name -- on the first day.  

Seems obvious, doesn’t it? 

Yet, if we were truly honest with ourselves, how many children are arriving at our buildings, not really “known”?

I made a promise to myself many years ago as a school leader that each and every student, especially those new to our school, would be known by name, by me, on the first day of school … by lunchtime.  And I made good on that promise.

Here’s one thing that helped:  I played The Name Game. 

It was a game of self-challenge for the most part, with covert assistance from my faculty and staff – all disguised under a much larger activity of greater import to the overall school year’s launch.  One of HOPE.

The Name Game involved, first of all, deciding that the first day of school would not be about academics.  It would be about relationships.  We would begin by spending some time introducing our children to each other … to us … and to our school … NOT by reading the handbook to them in a school assembly, but by taking time to enjoy delightfully different activities.

This is best accomplished in groupings arranged by grade level or any other designation that would result in groups of approximately 50 to 75 students (larger schools can stagger the starts, with careful planning, which I realize is challenging).

Here’s how it worked: 

When students would arrive for school on the first day, we would ask them to fill-out nametags, affixing them to their shirts.  We would also ask them to fill-out five or six extra nametags for themselves, dropping them into a big box.  This took a bit of time, but with music playing, snacks available, and staff members circulating to offer kind words and high-five’s, it was time well spent.

Chairs would be arranged in a circle – one large circle for the entire group.

Since there is always a touchy-feely person on staff who likes to facilitate teambuilding, I would ask that person to emcee the morning’s events on the microphone, standing in the middle of the large circle of students and staff to get things going for the day.  Staff would spread themselves out, in the circle aside students.

The initial presentation would take approximately ½ hour, with content presented in a lighthearted and often humorous tone.  The content can vary, really, as long as it is about relationships … NOT rules or tasks.  The emcee would ask the school leadership team to be involved, in which we would take the microphone in the middle of the large circle and have a bit of fun with our own flavor of community building. 

Near the end of the presentation, our emcee launched a “greeting” activity, where we would pass that large box with nametags around the circle.  Each student would randomly pull five or six nametags from the box and hold on to them.

Then, we would ask all students to rise (all 50 to 75 of them), and with music playing, challenge them to find the persons whose names were in their hands, AND after discovery … to stick the owners’ nametags on their backs, arms, and shoulders (we would find some on foreheads and many other places, as you can imagine).

Staff played along as well.  As the school leader, however, I not participate directly, as I was circulating “friendly,” yet with a purpose.  The purpose was my beginning The Name Game.

Once everyone was “found,” students and staff would again be seated.  The larger circle would then be broken into smaller circles of eight or ten persons, with one faculty or staff member serving as the facilitator in each smaller group.  Each circle would have an easel and flip chart for some activities, again facilitated by the emcee with a microphone. We often used to do a “Best Outcomes; Worst Fears” activity or “Goal-Setting” for the year.

Here’s where The Name Game began in earnest. 

While the small circle activities were taking place, I would float among and around the circles, walking outside each group, making small talk and offering encouragement.  YET, what I was really doing was learning names.  Nametags were all over the place; once looking at someone’s nametag on his or her back, I could simply stroll around the circle and repeatedly put names with faces, over and over and over again.

In a 45-minute session, I was amazed at how many names I could learn, with no one knowing how much studying was actually taking place. It was invaluable to my school leadership, and I still believe to this day, how students and families perceived the inclusiveness of the school.

[Upping the ante]

For those of you who really want to have some fun …

Our emcee used to say at the end of the small group activities, “Mr. Donlan … Give me your wallet!”  He would then take my wallet from me in full view of everyone and ask that all stand and rejoin one large circle. 

He would then say to students “At our school, it is so important that we value each other, that the staff expects our school leader to know each student’s name by lunchtime on the first day.”  He continued, “And if Mr. Donlan does not, I’ll open his wallet and will pull whatever bill I can find inside at random, giving it to anyone whose name Mr. Donlan does not know.”

Our emcee would then ask everyone to rise, take off all nametags, and then he would hand the microphone to me.  I would conclude the morning by going person-by-person around the circle, shaking everyone’s hand and welcoming all by name, on the microphone so that others could hear (and secretly sweating bullets).

Did this two times each year for around ten years. 

The looks on students’ faces and the HOPE that it offered were “right up there” on the long list of my many joys in K-12 school leadership.   As I truly believed -- Every child who comes to school each year should be known by name. 

Food for thought and an idea or two as you begin anew.

Best wishes in 2013-2014!

Dr. Ryan Donlan sweated bullets for many years playing The Name Game, especially the time the emcee veered from protocol and told the students during breakfast that the school leader would know all of their names by lunchtime.  The year approximately 125 students were involved also created a bit of angst.  Will you consider launching school this fall by putting academics aside?  Please feel free to contact Dr. Donlan at (812) 237-8624 or at at any time if you have your own ideas that you would like shared on the ISU Ed. Leadershop.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013



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

            Think back to different events in your life when the aspect of follow-though has been critical to success.  We can all recall those dreaded group projects where we hoped our partners would pull through on their parts of the assignments or even those sporting events where someone’s follow-through on a last-second shot was critical to the win.  “The will” for success, thus, cannot stand alone; it needs a “page 2,” it seems.

Follow-through is critically important in educational leadership, as any well-oiled school requires leaders working continually to nurture the intangibles that foster complementary relationships. Smith (1997) stated, “Central to any discussion of leaders and followers is trust. This aspect may be the most significant and meaningful in the relationship. For trust to occur, the followers, to be followers, have some abiding faith that leaders will direct actions toward mutually beneficial gains and those will occur in an atmosphere where faith by the follower is sufficient (as opposed to countervailing pressures, measures of probability, or trade offs” (p. 2). Faith wanes when balls are dropped; trust suffers when school leaders do not follow through.

That said, how is it that leaders can be everything for everyone?  How can they follow-through with the hundreds of assurances they make each day?  The permutations alone are daunting.  Leaders have much on their plates … with those plates spinning atop sticks, it seems.  With myriad variables vying for their attention, leaders must find reasonable levels of closure on “most things present” before addressing “many things next.”

Our best leaders understand that this level of expected responsiveness is directly proportional to their perceived leadership value.  Even with things of lesser import.  Leaders do not have the luxury of being evaluated based on the more pressing, yet oftentimes invisible items demanding their attention (that by their seriousness, must often for the betterment of all, go unseen). The actual importance of these items to a leader’s defined success is often perceptually irrelevant.  Follow-through on minutia, however … IS.

            Never to be neglected, of course, is a school leader’s follow-through when dealing with parents on the subject of their children.  Imagine the angst of a parent, awaiting eagerly the telephone call regarding concerns on their minds.  We can all attest to the feeling of waiting for results from a test or an important call regarding family or loved ones.  Leadership that is cognizant of these emotional attachments and offers continual responsiveness, that which is best manifested through (What else?) … “follow-through.”  As a practical note -- Returning all telephone calls by the end of any given day is key in building better partnerships; it is great content for what would make a good book, “Follow-through for Dummies.” 

            No matter the mission, size, or structure of the organization, a leader’s responsibility for follow-through is a deciding factor in one’s successful tenure at the top.  Overall it can be said that follow-through involves, first and foremost, an “I’m OK/You’re OK” perspective of valuing those who depend upon us while bringing closure to their concerns from their own perceptions of satisfaction. Effective, timely, and personalized follow-through allows leaders and staffs to build upon foundations of reciprocal trust that promote and strengthen everyone’s “level best” in caretaking. 

Without follow-through, we would argue that nothing of importance in school leadership is accomplished sustainably.


Smith, R (1997). Defining Leadership through Followership: Concepts for Approaching Leadership Development. Chicago, IL: Annual Meeting of the National Communication Association


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