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Tuesday, September 3, 2013

From the Barbershop

From the Barbershop

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

When a barber sits next to you in a barbershop, awaiting his own haircut, you can plan on getting a good one, yourself. 

Good conversation, as well. 

That was the case last Friday, during my bi-weekly visit to Kent Taylor’s Barbershop in Terre Haute, Indiana.

The fact that my children, Sean and Katelyn, were with me made a story told by the awaiting barber particularly heartwarming, as my kids listened with interest.  They loved the story, and I was surprised that I hadn’t heard it prior. 

I’m sharing this story, details added from my subsequent inquiry, in this week’s Leadershop.  I have often found that as teachers, we borrow some of our better ideas from others.  That is the case with me this week.

Maybe one of you or your teachers would like to try this sometime.


A high school social studies teacher in Arkansas got permission from her principal and superintendent to start the school year without desks in her class.  No desks were present as her first period students arrived.

Students, surprised and finding they needed to sit on the floor, asked their teacher, “Ms. Cothren, where are our desks?”  The teacher responded, “You don’t get a desk until you can tell me how you earn one.”

Students responded, saying, “I guess we’ll have to make good grades.”  Ms. Cothren responded, “You need to make good grades, but that’s not how you get a desk.”

Others said, “It’s our behavior.  We have to behave, then you’ll give us a desk.”

“Well, you better behave in here, but that’s not how you get a desk.”

When the next period started, the process continued.  Students found no desks and were unable to provide a sufficient answer to the teacher’s satisfaction.  And as high school students would, they began calling their parents as this story is told, probably with cell phones, saying “Ms. Cothren’s lost her mind; she’s taken the desks out of the classroom.”

By lunchtime, the news media was at the school, reporting on the event.  In fact, all four local affiliates were on hand with cameras.

Ms. Cothren held her ground until the last class period.

At that time, students arrived again to find, “What else?” … no desks. 

They sat on the ground and stood against the wall, as all class periods had done before. 

Ms. Cothren said, “I guess I’m going to have to explain it to you.”

She then opened the door.

Into the classroom walked 27 veterans of the United States Armed Forces, each carrying a desk.  The veterans placed the desks in rows, then moved to one side of the classroom.

Ms. Cothren said to her students, “Guys, you don’t have to earn your desks after all, because these guys already did.”

“Every day you come in here and sit at these desk, I want you to never forget that [your desks] may be free for you, but [they weren’t] to these guys and for some of their friends who didn’t come back with them.

She then encouraged her students to sit in their desks and make good on what had been earned.


Now that’s darn good teaching, the kind often talked on in Kent Taylor’s Barbershop, and barbershops around the country.

After arriving home from Kent’s that afternoon, I found on-line, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee delivering this story at a speech at a national event in 2007, [among other venues in which he delivered it, I understand].  I tried my best to relay the quotations from his speech accurately.

“Many thanks” to the barber who shared this great story with Sean, Katelyn, my barber Kent, the folks who were awaiting haircuts, and me.

Who is Ms. Cothren? 

Martha Cothren taught this great lesson in 2005 on the first day of school in Joe T. Robinson High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Thank you, Ms. Cothren, for this incredible, teachable moment, and please extend my truest regard to the school leaders who supported your innovation (and with leadership excellence, probably grinned from ear to ear as the press gathered outside).

From the barbershop … I’m Ryan Donlan reporting.


Dr. Donlan considers veterans of the American armed forces true heroes, including his father and father-in-law who served admirably overseas, the former at the Berlin Wall helping others to freedom; the latter in Vietnam with his sweetheart, now “Grandma Kathy,” awaiting his safe return.  Please feel free to contact Dr. Donlan with stories of darn-good teaching at (812) 237-8624 or at   Or ... see him at the barber Shop.

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