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Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Compartmentalization or Confluence: What's Best for K-12?

Compartmentalization or Confluence:
What’s Best for K-12?

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

I was asked last week to speak with a group of new faculty members on the topic of launching and establishing scholarship at Indiana State University.  Scholarship, along with one’s teaching and service, defines one’s successful work in academia.

In thinking through what I would share, I began thinking of how faculty members are encouraged to create a “blend” of the three, so that one informs and complements the other and all inform the entirety of what we do.  This notion of a confluence came to me so naturally that I have not often thought of it.  It just naturally occurs.

I asked myself, “Why?” 

Why is it natural to me?

In answering my own question, I believe it has to do with my prior, professional responsibilities in K-12 educational leadership. 

I’m hardwired as one of confluence, from experiences in the blending of two distinct identities for over two decades – my personal and professional lives.

Yet is this good or bad?  I’m not sure, but I’m still smiling, which gives me pause for optimism.

Let’s examine K-12 leadership for a bit and ask a very important question: To maintain a successful K-12 leadership career, is it better for us to treat our professional and personal lives compartmentally or with confluence? 

Let’s start with our terms (via a quick, on-line Google search of available definitions):

com·part·ment [kəmˈpärtmənt] noun:  a separate section or part of something, in particular.

con·flu·ence[ˈkänˌflo͞oəns,kənˈflo͞oəns] noun:  a flowing together of two or more streams.

I have noticed in leadership over the last 20 years that certain dichotomies present themselves in how we balance our personal and professional lives, including many examples in between. Let us consider the two extremes.

Leaders who compartmentalize create a distinct separation between their professional and personal identities.  Colleagues at work typically do not become friends at home.  An active social and recreational life allows for the rest and rejuvenation needed to put one’s ALL into the workday.  Oftentimes, others consider leaders who compartmentalize to have “balance.”  When this leader is at work, he or she is truly in the moment.  Personal errands, telephone calls from family or friends, and outside interests do not detract from this person’s professional responsibilities to school, children, staff, or community.  Conversely, when this person is at home, the school laptop is not open, the school cell phone is not ringing, and the day’s stresses are not brought to the doorsteps of family or friends.  This person compartmentalizes in every sense of the word.  Some professional colleagues, however, consider this person unresponsive outside of school hours or one with a 9 to 5 mentality.  “Either/Or” describes this personality.

Leaders who establish a confluence embody a both/and perspective to their professional and personal identities.  Colleagues at work are friends outside of work.  Social or recreational activities sometimes bring with them the need to multi-task, as a school’s demands do not limit themselves to the first shift of any given workday.  Oftentimes, others consider leaders with confluence to be incredibly accessible.  They appreciate it!  When this leader is at work, children or spouses may visit. Personal errands, telephone calls from family or friends, and outside interests become part of the leadership package. They don’t get in the way; they just happen in plain view of everyone.  When this person is at home, the school laptop is typically open with the “ding” of incoming e-mail part of the family symphony. Professional telephone calls are fielded at all hours, and workplace situations become ones navigated while children are underfoot.  Staff may stop by the house.  Business may be conducted on the golf course or at a Starbuck’s. This person is a personal/professional blend in every sense of the word.  Some personal loved ones consider this person a workaholic outside of school hours. “Both/And” describes this personality.

Which is a better fit for our schools? 

Let us examine contextual trends that have introduced themselves to us in recent years:

1.     A world in which work can be taken to worker.
2.     Online competition for K-12 education that can be delivered on demand.
3.     A never-sleeping World Wide Web of activities for our nation’s school children and those who influence them.
4.     The seeming obligation for schools to serve as providers of “anything parents, guardians, or communities abrogate.”
5.     Demands for accountability in a competitive arena in which educational services are being privatized and underperforming schools are being closed.

Given the aforementioned, I’m nearly of the mindset that we need leaders who treat their professional and personal lives with confluence.  What say you?

The question becomes then, to me … “What can we provide to leaders in preservice development so that they can live their lives effectively with confluence, so as not to negatively impact themselves and those around them?”

Are we responsible for helping everyone be “Both/And”?

Or … have we begun expecting too much of our leaders as a nation, and should compartmentalization and “Either/Or” reclaim the day? 


Dr. Ryan Donlan has a certain degree of bias in writing this article, as those who know him may well attest.  Given that fact, will you please consider offering an opposing viewpoint?  You can reach Dr. Donlan for comment, commentary, or criticism of his work at (812) 237-8624 or at 

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