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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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Making Meaning of Moment

Making Meaning of Moment

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

St. Paddy’s Day Parade weekend for years brought to the Donlan household an annual yard ritual.  In the first thaw of early spring in mid-Michigan, I has my perennial opportunity to grab a canine scoop and clear out a winter’s worth of “Weimaraner” from the back yard. 

It wasn’t the most scenic of jobs, yet it was actually a momentary stay against confusion, a nice respite from life’s professional challenges.

As I picked up one dropping at a time amidst hundreds, I enjoyed the moment and the pause in calendar that the day allowed.

As I often share: Let’s not wish away the present.  As when we are done with this college degree, this professional position, or in a larger context … this chapter of our lives, what’s next?  For many of us, we’ll be greeted by growing children who will consider us as more ATM’s than those to ask advice.  We’ll all be a tick-tock or two closer to our demise.  Yet that’s ok.

I write today to implore K-12 educators to pause, prioritize, and make meaning of moment, while asking ourselves, “How are we spending the gift of current circumstance?”  A presentation last week to a great bunch of school leaders got me thinking,  Are we running the risk of minimalizing the moments of today, brokered instead with too much a focus on the future? 

Examples would include:

Hoping that this troublesome group of students will graduate so that we will be done dealing with their parents.
Awaiting faculty members’ retirement so that we can have some more young energy in those classrooms.
Yearning to get beyond this principalship into a superintendency.
Spending our evenings doing tomorrow’s deskwork, rather than with families.

One day, I’m betting that we will look back upon the lives we led this school year, both professionally and personally, with one of two metaphorical constructs crossing our minds – Gold or October.  Consider the following:

Looking through our mind’s eye with Gold, we might someday reflect on the words of Robert Frost (Latham, 1972) in Nothing Gold Can Stay (1923), as did S. E. Hinton’s characters Johnny and Ponyboy in The Outsiders (1967 book and 1983 film adaptation) about the temporality of life circumstance, especially that which is dear to us. 

Consider Frost’s words:

Nature's first green is gold,

Her hardest hue to hold.

Her early leaf's a flower;

But only so an hour.

Then leaf subsides to leaf,

So Eden sank to grief,

So dawn goes down to day

Nothing gold can stay.

Since Gold is so temporary and fleeting … since it can’t stay, as Frost noted … wouldn’t it be sad if we didn’t even pause to savor present circumstance that we are now experiencing? 

Our children wanting a bit of our time.
Our dog wagging for that mid-evening walk.
A call to our parents, who are long-into retirement.

How will we feel, upon reflection, if have not made meaning of moment, if we have not tended to the those things in life right now that are calling our name … asking for our time …  such as faith, family, or the fabric of our community that exists outside school. 

Are we making meaning of moment this year, as we live our professional calendars?

Another way we might look back upon our lives, someday, is through the mind’s eye of October, which can provide a glimpse of how we might feel if we DO make meaning of moment.

We’ll still experience a degree of sadness, possibly, as we reflect upon times gone by, yet through October, we are better able to look backward with a sense of satisfaction. Through October, we’ll be able to look forward with hope.

Consider lyrics written by Johnny Mercer and Barry Manilow in When October Goes (1984). 

And when October goes

The snow begins to fly

Above the smoky roofs

I watch the planes go by
The children running home
beneath a twilight sky

Oh, for the fun of them

When I was one of them

And when October goes

The same old dream appears

And you are in my arms

To share the happy years
I turn my head away
 to hide the helpless tears

Oh, how I hate
 to see October go

I should be over it now I know

It doesn't matter much how old I grow

I hate to see October go

The watching of planes, the memories of children playing, and the thinking back upon someone who was once in our arms – memories that provide us comfort, albeit with a chapter of our lives that has gone the way of October. 

Two things about October serve as harbingers of life’s gifts: [The 1st] – the fact that we made meaning of moment while life was presenting itself, thus creating those positive memories; [The 2nd] – that fact that the seasonal nature of October presupposes a spring and summer prior, AND one that visits us perennially. 

That’s the hope. 

As K-12 educators, not only do we have the opportunity to make meaning of moment over and over again throughout our lives, we have the obligation of teaching those with whom we work and learn the same. 

Nothing is gone for any of us, ad-infinitum, just because we let something slip by unattended.  There’s still hope for us, no matter life’s resume.

A friend and colleague, a K-12 superintendent, recently asked leaders in his school district to spend a weekend at home, rather than [as they often did] working in their offices at school.  His expectation, as well, was that work would not be taken home. 

I applaud strong leadership that models and encourages making meaning of moment.  Through such, we’re saving lives.


Latham, E., & Thompson, L. (Eds.). (1972). The Robert Frost reader: Poetry and prose. New York, NY: Owl Books.

Manilow, B., & Mercer, J. H. (1984). When October goes. Universal Music Publishing Group & The Johnny Mercer Foundation.


Dr. Ryan Donlan strives to make meaning of the moment, with better grades given for effort than for performance.  If anything he has written piques your interests or spurs reflection, please feel free to contact him at (989) 450-0272 or at

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Transformational Coaching in 3-D Leadership

Transformational Coaching in 3-D Leadership

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

At our local soccer association’s field this past week, I sat-on-edge for the Donlan family’s most riveting match. Our son Sean (9) and daughter Katelyn (8) had their first-ever team face-off.  As parents, we tried to keep things friendly, amidst big brother’s big talk.
            The game was quick, intense, and hard-hitting, as little kids’ soccer goes.  Fifty-five minutes had passed, and much to our surprise, Katelyn’s team was wiping the field with Sean’s. 
They were up 4 – 1 … with only five minutes ‘til the whistle.
Not a pleasureful ride home, we thought.
Sean, typically a more reserved defensive player, was positioned outside on offense – “right wing.”  To our elation, he exploded into action, kicking three, fact-action goals in the remaining minutes of play. 

The whistle blew; it was over.
A tie.

We couldn’t have been more delighted, proud of both kids and happy for Sean’s personal circumstance.  Yet, I couldn’t help but thinking, Where the heck did that come from!?!

            I pondered Sean’s development as a player this past year.  Formerly content to run with the pack, he was now stepping-up with good ball handling, a smooth tempo, and targeted contribution.  Admittedly, he’s not often a clutch player; what we witnessed in Donlan vs. Donlan was really unique.   Yet something special was afoot. 
Thinking of Coach’s decision to trust Sean on offense with a game gone awry, I was confident that he knew something about Sean, team chemistry, the game, and the dynamic that existed on the field more deeply than we.  I also noticed that when he made his typical player rotation late in the game, he didn’t pull Sean, as scheduled. 
Over the course of the season, Coach has shown an ability to read those on the team who are sometimes apprehensive, yet need opportunity, even when they don’t know they want it.  Coach knows the players better than they know themselves, at times … bringing about a healthy transformation in those who follow his lead, certainly in my son. 

Coach knows how to lead and when to act.  He seems to do this three-dimensionally, as I’ll share shortly.

Can school leaders accomplish the same?  Can they bring about a transformation in others, even at times when their followers or teammates do not recognize their own potential?  Can school leaders foster clutch play when the stakes are high, inviting followers to step beyond prior performance?  Can they lead “3-D”?

The notion of leader-as-coach is not really anything new, yet the notion of transformational coaching in 3-D leadership may very well be.

The Ohio State Studies, beginning in the 1950’s, offered researchers quadrants of leadership behavior on a matrix with two axes: The X-axis including those behaviors in which leaders initiated structure, and the Y-axis including those behaviors that more of consideration.  Leaders in the upper-right-hand quadrant were found to exhibit high degrees of both behaviors, and thus provided some initial descriptions of what some of us have later referred to as coach-like leadership (Northouse, 2004).   
Around the same time, The Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan was studying leader behavior, particularly as it had an impact on small groups.  Researchers made the distinction of production orientation and employee orientation in leadership.  At first, these orientations were envisioned to be on two separate ends of the same continuum, with a leader leaning toward one orientation or the other; however, as studies continued, these orientations were envisioned as independent entities so that leaders could be oriented toward both at the same time (Northouse, 2004).
            Blake & Mouton in the 1960’s provided a managerial grid, in which they noted a leader’s concern for production along the X-axis and a concern for people along the Y-axis.  Those in the top right quadrant were termed, Team Leaders, getting us closer to this notion of coach (Northouse, 2004).
Hersey & Blanchard wrote of situational leadership in the 1980s, including the notion of a leader’s directive behavior on the X-axis and supportive behavior on the Y-axis, with those found in the upper-right-hand quadrant known to have a coaching style.  Of great value in their model was the consideration of followers in determining the type of leadership style or behavior to be employed (Northouse, 2004). 
Whitaker, Miller, & Donlan (2014) offer their own conceptual model of leadership, illustrating through the sketch-work of a new principal, a leader’s concern for accountability along the X-axis and concern for a school’s climate along the Y-axis. They note that those leaders in the upper-right-hand quadrant who employ a both/and approach to their school leadership are Pathfinders.

These contributors have offered our profession helpful and practical models of leader-as-coach.  Yet, can we deepen these models?  Can we make what is two-dimensional, three-dimensional?

We can, by looking beyond a leader’s behavior as that which rests inside a given quadrant of any theorist’s two-dimensional matrix, or beyond a leader’s behavior that moves between and among the quadrants, toward leadership that can drill deep in a three-dimensional sense, no matter where positioned.  This ability of leaders to drill deep is indicative of the leader-as-coach’s scientific knowledge or visceral intuition about those on the team that runs deeper than the norm. 

It is transformational coaching in 3-D leadership.

Transformational coaching in 3-D leadership’s first level of depth is a coach’s ability to read what team members offer, such as interpreting their words, tones, gestures, postures, and facial expressions. Based upon these interpretations (situational analyses), action is taken.  The next level of depth is the coach’s ability to consider what people have done in the past and whether or not this is congruent with present circumstance. A deeper level yet is when a coach envisions what people have the potential to do, given present cues, past behavior, trends in performance, and current context with a slight degree of unpredictability.  Deepening circumstance even further includes a coach’s intuitive understanding of the human condition and much that is probable, given myriad circumstances of unpredictability and complexity, along with a bit of metaphysical happenstance. 

Our best leaders-as-coaches invite their teams into transformation by way of a three-dimensional understanding of themselves and others, deepening through action the relevance and impact of frameworks in general literature.  They are practitioners building theory inductively as they lead … as they transform.  In such, they are creating stepping-stones toward heightened efficacy in K-12 schools. 


Northouse, P. G. (2004). Leadership: Theory and practice (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Whitaker, T., Miller, S., & Donlan, R. (2014). The secret solution: How one principal discovered the path to success. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Education.

Dr. Ryan Donlan strives weekly to unpack the layers of leadership in creating better opportunities in K-12 schools and higher education. If you have had a story regarding an inspirational, three-dimensional coach-as-leader, will you please consider giving Dr. Donlan a call at (812) 237-8624 or writing him at  He would very much be interested in hearing from you.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Alere Flammam

Alere Flammam

By Rex Ryker
Doctoral Student of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University
Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

Firefighters have inspired us -- at times, as heroes. 

For one of us, it was a grandfather.  Visits to the fire station provided fascinating acts of imagination – Imagine a young child cloaked in his grandfather’s fire jacket and helmet, climbing into the massive fire engine ensuring not to besmudge the mirror-like chrome … dreaming of the day that would bring that first slide down the pole.

For the other, it was a fictitious friend who lived at-the-ready by a small-town’s racing river – Imagine a towering figure of selfless dedication, who as the siren called, would ride valiantly over the bridge and across town, saving many-a-family from certain demise through acts of superhuman chivalry. 

Interesting that as we had similar heroes in our formative years, we have grown up to be much like them as K-12 leaders, often regaling our battles against the spontaneously-combustive daily incidents as “putting out fires.”  Educational leadership has called us on many runs to encounter highly flammable, and at times toxic, situations.  While many assume we are fireproof, we have been “burnt” intermittently, whether by teacher, student, or parent.  At times, when trying to help, we feel the frustration of hanging from the edge of the ladder reaching for those that are resistant, but in need.  We could extend the metaphor on and on.

In a literal sense, K-12 leadership requires us at times to operate as firefighters as we conduct building inspections, provide emergency management training, don safety vests, utilize our red med bags, and wield that all-powerful fire-alarm-system key.  We operate as firefighters in a figurative sense, when we work to make the world a better place through fire suppression.

Yet, rather than dedicating ourselves toward notions of fire-fighting, which can preoccupy even the best in our profession, shouldn’t we instead focus efforts toward fire-building?

            Let us introduce a Latin phrase, Alere Flammam, which means to feed the flame. As fire needs oxygen and a source of fuel, our profession could use a bit of something to fuel itself as well.  How can we call all units to assist in fire building?  How could fire-building help?  And … what could it prevent?

Fire-Building in Feeding Our Faculty and Staff – Alere Flammam

            A quick on-line search of Current Perspective on American Education reveals such quick hits as the following: “… morale sinks,” “…lowest point in 25 years,” etc.  We can’t escape stories declaring the need for heightened teacher accountability through rigorous evaluation, or the in-vogue and oft-used headlines regarding educational underachievement and our failing in obligation.  Our profession is under attack by party-line pundits and large, donor-for-profits who decry the abject failure in American classrooms.  They’re extinguishing the morale in education; yet, are we as K-12 leaders responding with efforts to stoke our own fires?  Fire needs oxygen.  Teachers and staff need to work in a profession with an air rich with purpose … with acknowledgement and support for their craft.  While the heat of accountability requires data for policy making, ironically, with professional learning communities we can learn to use this very data to strengthen our efforts and praise our teachers.  We can fight fire with fire by using praise of true teacher success to breathe purpose within those we serve.  Further, we must.

Alere Flammam!

Fire-Building in Feeding Our Students – Alere Flammam

            Student motivation is of critical importance, a premiere responsibility of educational leadership.  Yet with ignition in mind, we must focus motivation beyond the need for students to do school or do school well; we must be more concerned with feeding the fire of educational desire, as that of paying it forward in our great profession, one worthy of their burning passion and life trek.  In other words, we must get beyond creating test-takers and school-do’ers and toward creating life-long learners and educational champions.  If our most-talented students hear, “Don’t go into education; you’ll never make any money” or “Teaching isn’t what it used to be,” then who will carry the torch forward to spread our flame?  We need these very students to soon fill our openings, to trust and choose us to educate their children, and to vote to support our efforts.  Can we serve in a way that those we are serving can serve beyond themselves … with a fire for education inside? 

Alere Flammam!

Fire-Building in Feeding Our Parents – Alere Flammam

            Year in and year out, Gallop Polls show that people report a belief that their local schools are doing well but that others are not.  The micro-perspective, local, is on target; the macro-perspective, state-wide or national, has a blind spot for our cause.  How do we re-kindle the macro-perspective?  Fuel would help, of course, yet the art and science of fueling our community’s support for education beyond their local doorsteps is a multifaceted task.  Our communities must know our achievements; they must know how they contribute to and receive from “the whole” of state and nation.  Communities must be educated on the truth of our efforts, and those hither and yon, and they must trust that we are good stewards of their monies.  Communities a-fueled do not hesitate to support referendums; they actively embrace their teachers and leaders, and they serve as the best educators of our students during the other 18 hours of each day.  We have seen that if we provide vibrant fires in our communities, their brilliance is quite hard, indeed, to extinguish, and the light of the path ahead is visible to all. 

Alere Flammam!

Fire-Building in Feeding Ourselves – Alere Flammam

            Finally, we must realize as we feed the fires of others, we must ensure to fuel our own.  We must tend to the tinder – to the valued building blocks and materials that help to start our fires in the first place, so that at times, we can use these to rekindle our own passion.  How can we stoke the passion of others if we cannot en-fuel ourselves?  It’s more than role modeling; it is a personal and professional necessity.  When we are able to serve as first responders-to-self … when we are able to sustain our own efforts as accelerants in lighting fires to serve current educators, future teachers, and local communities … then we can serve as champions of an illuminated path toward a greater school and society for all.

Alere Flammam!


Rex Ryker and Ryan Donlan are on-campus in Terre Haute, Indiana, each Wednesday in the Ph.D. Residency program.  Dr. Donlan's imaginary friend and hero was named "Siday Piday Sparks," of all things ("Sparks" tying in with the fireman thing). His hero's imaginary girlfriend, as a 10-year-old imagination would envision (and Dr. Donlan's mom would remind him), would be "Seedy Peedy."  Alliteration at an early age, onc could assume.  :-)   This may explain a lot about Dr. Donlan, or NOT, but we'll bet you are the best judge of that (and/or of him).  If you have comments or helpful suggestions in how we can fan the flames of educational inspiration, please consider writing them at or, particularly if you wish to connect on those days when they are working together.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Indiana A-F School Grading System: Does It Really Demonstrate Accountability?

The Indiana A-F School Grading System: Does It Really Demonstrate Accountability? 

By Dr. Terry McDaniel
Associate Professor
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

What does the letter grade of “A” mean to you? Does it mean excellence? Does it mean outstanding work well above the average expectation? One educational “fad” being promoted by many states, including Indiana is to grade schools and school districts by letter grades. According to the Indiana Department of Education website regarding the A-F school grading system, “Indiana’s A through F grading system gives parents, students, educators and communities a clear and concise assessment of how well their schools are doing. This system is a new and better way of measuring and reporting school performance each year, as required by state law.” But is it really providing a “clear and concise assessment”?
            The recent scandal of the change of a school’s letter grade by Former Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett has left many doubting if the letter grades are even an accurate measure of schools as was originally intended. This has tarnished an already-criticized system. Schools are left wondering if their scores are justified.
            Additionally many school leaders will tell you the accountability formula had many issues that seemed to grade schools unfairly. High-performing schools could “lose” a letter grade if they simply maintained their high achievement, for the formula has a growth component, which affects the final grade. The formula was also built on a point system that rounded totals in certain areas that could affect a final outcome. What about primary grades one and two which are not tested, but dependent only on grade three for growth?
            But even with these issues, the issue of accountability is sound. Schools need to be accountable. Yet, the true problem with the A-F grading system is simply,” What does an “A” or any letter grade mean?”   
Do you know how the letter grade is formulated for your school?  An informal poll will demonstrate that practically no parents can tell you the formula. Very few teachers and administrators can explain the formula. Legislators are very unlikely to be able to explain the details of the formula.  So how can anyone really know what a school’s letter grade means?
            Presently a study group is trying to revise the A-F grading system. But when something does not work, sometimes it is best to get rid of it. Throw away the A-F grading system for schools. This system tells the public absolutely nothing. It is flawed and antiquated. If you want to have an accountability system, stop making it so complicated that no one knows what it means. Make it simple.
How about this? Develop a Four Star system for accountability.
1.     Set a standard of at least 90% of all students in a school passing Language arts assessments. This will be End-of-Course Assessments for highs schools and the ISTEP+ for middle and elementary schools. If a school reaches this standard, the school receives a star.

2.     Set a standard of at least 90% of all students in a school passing math assessments. This will be End-of-Course Assessments for highs schools and the ISTEP+ for middle and elementary schools. If a school reaches this standard, the school receives a star.

3.     For high schools set a standard of at least 90% graduation rate based on a five–year window. (The four-year graduation rate punishes students who may need extra time for reasons beyond their control. Besides are we so intent on a four –year graduation of students or do we really want student to graduate even if it takes an extra year?) If a school reaches this standard, the school receives a star.

4.     For elementary and middle schools set an attendance rate of 97% school average for the academic year. (A 97% rate takes in account childhood illnesses and not pushing “sick” kids to come to school to affect others with their illness.) If a school reaches this standard, the school receives a star.

5.     If a school meets all criteria, they receive a four-star designation.

6.     Each school, for accountability with the public, will do the following:

a.     Post the school’s total language arts grades for each grade level and overall for the school.
b.     Post last year’s same scores for all categories.
c.     Post scores of state averages so the public can see how their schools measure compared to the state averages in each category.
d.     Ensure that the same would be done at the district level.

School Name
This Year’s Percentage
Last year’s Percentage
Stave Average
Percent of Students Passing Language Arts

Percent of Students Passing Mathematics

Elementary and Middle Schools Attendance Rate

High School Graduation Rates

It is simple, to the point, and easy to read. While critics and supporters may want to make adjustments to cover other areas, such as career readiness in high schools, certain adjustments could still keep a model that is understandable and would give the public a clear account of schools’ achievement levels. It is a standards-based model that simply provides a goal for schools.
Dr. Terry McDaniel has spent more than 30 years as a champion for public education in the State of Indiana.  Please be encouraged to contact Dr. McDaniel at Indiana State University at  There is no better friend to leadership!