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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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A Unique Tool, Re-Offered

A Unique Tool, Re-Offered

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

As I recently had the privilege of presenting Personality, Identity, and the African American Student Experience with Dr. Kandace Hinton at the Indiana State University Student Success Conference, and in that venue had an opportunity for dialogue with many around campus regarding current pedagogy in our nation’s schools. It is from that experience that I got the idea to “re-offer” an earlier ISU Ed. Leadershop article from October 5, 2012, originally run under the title of A Unique Tool for Achievement.  I have made a few editorial changes and am presenting it below, as it is well worth our continued conversation.


After years of “reform-this” and “redesign that,” we’re left with the sobering reality that a gap continues to exist between the educational performance of students in our nation’s schools.
I have shared in my classes, in previous Leadershop articles, and in many speaking engagements, that if we are to be effective in our classrooms and schools, we must shift our personality energies while communicating with students. A wonderful example of the relevance of this information is Dr. Dianne F. Bradley’s, A Unique Tool for Closing the Gap (2007), published in the Spring/Summer edition of the Journal of the Alliance of Black School Educators.  The article is fairly easy to find with a quick, on-line search.
Bradley (2007) builds on the work of Dr. Taibi Kahler regarding the six personality energies that reside in students and are important in children’s academic readiness and potential for learning in school. 

These personalities are as follows:

The Persister – This personality processes the world through its beliefs and has the qualities of being dedicated, conscientious, and observant.
The Thinker – This personality processes the world through its thoughts and has the qualities of being logical, responsible, and organized.
The Harmonizer – This personality processes the world through its emotions and has the qualities of being compassionate, sensitive, and warm.
The Rebel – This personality processes the world through its reactions and has the qualities of being spontaneous, creative, and fun.
The Promoter – This personality processes the world through its actions and has the qualities of being charming, persuasive, and adaptable.
The Imaginer – This personality processes the world through its inactions and has the qualities of being calm, reflective, and imaginative. (Kahler, 2008)

            What is interesting about Bradley’s work is it offers a NEW explanation for our nation’s continuing achievement gap (albeit “2007,” I realize). She noted classroom teaching methodologies in our nation’s schools mostly reflect White/Anglo values, which are a mismatch with the preferred learning pattern for African American students. Bradley addressed the issue from an embedded values standpoint, those that are nurtured, celebrated, and reinforced in the home lives of students.  

Her points were as follows:

Oftentimes, the communication barriers that exist between mostly white teachers and their African American students (boys, as one example) result in referrals for disciplinary action, rather than teachers’ using the healthy differences that exist in communication as teachable moments to enhance learning (Bradley, 2007).  Teachers sometimes do not “SHIFT” in their styles of communication, and when not doing so, they cause problems for themselves and their students. 
            It is not so much a refusal to shift, I would contend, as it is an unawareness that entirely different communication and cultural patterns exist, those that should be learned, valued, and utilized in classroom instruction.

            The Euro-centric classroom should not be the only game in town. This is critical for both teachers and instructional leaders to understand.

            Preferred learning patterns of Euro-Americans focus on competitiveness and individuality.  Euro-American households encourage their children to learn to sit still from an early age and passively receive information that is being taught.  Conversely, African American households tend to be more group-oriented and less competitive, with more “vocal response, physical movement, and verve” (Bradley, 2007, p. 22). 

Higher energy learning strategies are oftentimes absent from Euro-centric instructional techniques.  Higher energy learning strategies are “a must” for an African American student audience.

            What is particularly interesting about Bradley’s research is that she overlays the preferred learning styles of Euro-Americans with those of Kahler’s personalities of Thinker and Persister. These personalities focus on valuing individuality, time orientation, work and achievement orientation, and competitiveness. Preferred learning styles of African-Americans, conversely, align more with Kahler’s personalities of Rebel and Promoter.  These personalities focus on communalism/group orientations, reactions with movement, action/excitement, and relevance (Bradley, 2007; Kahler, 2008).

            “Although we cannot make sweeping generalizations about the way that students of various races, cultures and personality types learn, certain patterns exist” (Bradley, 2007, p. 29).  The Euro-centered approaches so prevalent in our nation’s schools work just fine for those students who are logical, responsible, and organized, as well as those who are dedicated, conscientious, and observant.  Yet these approaches work not as well for our students who are more spontaneous, creative, and playful, as well as those who are charming, persuasive, and adaptable.
            Bradley encourages the use of more culturally competent instruction, in conjunction to those strategies that are mindful of the theories of Kahler’s Process Education Model (2008), as “employing these practices will help us begin to close the gap that keeps students whose learning patterns differ from their teachers, from achieving in school” (Bradley, 2007, p. 30).
            It all begins with an understanding of those who are different from us and our willingness and abilities to shift into others’ perceptual and communication frames accordingly.  As educators and leaders, we OWN the responsibility to shift, as well as the understanding that all personality energies are equally “OK.” 
Some students, because of their personality structures, perform better than others in school (within a Euro-centric-structured system), and unless we are willing to reframe how we think of school organization and delivery, we will be working against the natural and beautiful attributes of many personalities as we try to promote content competence.

Our responsibility starts with holding up a mirror to ourselves, realizing that although divergent personalities of every race, color, and ethnicity are currently “OK” as they come into our schools, our teaching and leading, as we serve it up for them, “might not be.”

Dr. Dianne F. Bradley has authored/co-authored three books:
Effective Classroom Management: Six Keys to Success (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2006), Here’s How to Reach Me: Matching Instruction to Personality Types in Your Classroom (Brookes, 2002), and Teaching Students in Inclusive Settings: From Theory to Practice (Allyn and Bacon, 1997).


Bradley, D. (2007, Spring/Summer). A unique tool for closing the gap.  Journal of the Alliance of Black School Educators, 6(2). 20-31.

Kahler, T. (2008). The process therapy model. Little Rock, AR: Taibi Kahler Associates.


Dr. Donlan share research interests with Dr. Bradley and has spent time talking with her at conferences of mutual interest and would love to extend this conversation at or via (812) 237-8624. 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

In Leadership's Wake

In Leadership’s Wake

By Dr. Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor
Dr. Steve Gruenert
Associate Professor and Department Chairperson

Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

Two planes damaged, one down in flames, near Lake Superior.  All eleven surviving, including two pilots and nine skydivers, who through training, courage, split-second decision-making, and a bit of blue-skied fortune, made the best possible outcome out of a mid-air catastrophe.

 Some accounts speak of a burble as the cause.

A burble, similar to a boat’s wake, is what occurs as objects move through a fluid or the air.  The field of aerodynamics describes it as a dead-air space directly behind a traveling object, such as that behind the falling skydiver or the moving plane.  In actuality, this seemingly dead space actually generates a powerful recirculation.  Its swirling can actually draw things into the moving object from behind, causing a bump or collision. On the highway one can feel this “draft” behind trucks pulling on the vehicle following, if too close (on the upside, it helps with gas mileage).

NASCAR drivers live in this space.

Viewers watching NBC recently may have seen the two planes collide over Superior, Wisconsin, near Duluth, Minnesota.  From video shot through skydivers’ helmet-cams, it appeared that one plane came up from behind the other and crashed into it. Speculation is that the forces involved might have been a burble from the leading plane, which had the potential to create danger for even the most experienced pilots trying to move people into close proximity for some formation teamwork.

It is interesting how the environment can influence well-intentioned people wanting to collaborate, as collaboration can often be an unnatural act … or we wouldn’t be struggling to sell it.  

Organizational leadership has burbles, those spaces of seemingly dead air behind one’s movement, those with recirculating forces swirling in stealth behind a forward moving leader or initiative.  Someone or something hopping behind, yet too near, can actually create problems.  Sort of reminds us of a legislative bill coming out of committee with a rider attached too closely that causes collision in spite of the best intent of those driving the main package.

Who or what could experience the vacuum of recirculation, or the ping/pong effect, of burbles in leadership?  A few may include …

… Those trying to ride too closely on the coattails of others making change quickly;

… Those sprinting to jockey for position amidst a new company “order” after a new boss is hired;

… Those affiliating themselves too closely with a unidirectional platform or someone tunnel-visioned.

In another’s burble, one loses touch of his or her controls, becoming a pawn of the forces circulating, some unpredictably and errantly, with no rudder to avoid collisions.  In a burble, one may hit the backside of that which creates the forward movement or change in atmospheric condition, causing potential damage to the change-agent as well as others affiliating too closely.

Is it possible to get sucked up into a negative burble? Some leaders in actuality provide a pernicious leadership vacuum, influencing the path of positive people through their undertow.

To be ALL IN, yet in another’s burble, is not an optimal perspective from which to co-navigate or fly in formation.  Even with positive leaders, those nearby who are ALL IN experience, at times, learning vacuums, creating a climate of overly ambitious curiosity toward improvement or even blind allegiance to change at the expense of recognizing what should be left alone?

Can we get too close and possibly lose something, such as perspective, understanding, or identity, in that process? Of course we can, as burbles create blindness … helplessness … danger, and a false sense of security

Another way to think of a burble in leadership is that seemingly dead, yet deleterious swirl that occurs in the wake of a charismatic leader’s leaving the organization for other opportunity -- folks in the trail swirling haplessly, running into one another, wanting to jockey for position yet pathetically rudderless … colliding and wondering where the forward momentum had gone.  Disempowered … disemboweled. 

Both positive and negative leadership opportunists work well in this type of setting. Negative leaders, in particular, look for opportunities to evangelize their beliefs, as they understand that when people are about to crash, they will often look, in panic, to anyone for help.

Interestingly, this recirculation of movement may lead to organizational vertigo, a sense or perception of improvement or forward movement when nothing is happening.  Physiological vertigo causes people to lose their balance as “crystals” in the inner ear become detached, floating around.  These crystals, when functioning correctly, tell us when we are upright, prone, stable, or falling.  When dislodged, they provide the owner with a sense of movement, when in fact he or she is still. This distortion provides yet another example of how negative leaders can arrest the development of an organization, even when they believe they are doing the right thing.

Whether the problem is from following someone too closely or from an inner sense of not functioning well, we oftentimes in organizations receive feedback from sources we cannot see (burbles) or from oft-times reliable sources that have become untrustworthy (vertigo).  And sometimes the feedback is without warning, either of great danger or that which is most critical to survival.  

As a leader in education, or even as a follower, are you creating a burble somewhere out there, or … are you caught in one?  Might you be experiencing vertigo?

No matter your circumstance, as did our skydiving friends far above Lake Superior, open your eyes, deploy what training allows, DO SOMETHING … and allow for a safe landing:  For yourself, for your colleagues, and for your organization.


Dr. Ryan Donlan is a former U.P. Michigan skydiver. Dr. Steve Gruenert now employs him to help K-12 educational leaders make sense of circumstance.  Dr. Donlan and Dr. Gruenert hope that you will help them continue their conversation at or 

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Byproduct

The Byproduct

By Tom Balitewicz
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

            In the late 1800’s, before the advent of the Edison light bulb and the electrical current to illuminate it, humans unshrouded the darkness with the power of hand-held lamps fueled by kerosene, a refined product of oil.  The earth was perforated with thousands of wells with the intention of drawing millions of barrels of oil to create light in homes during a time when most of humankind was still living by a solar clock.  Kerosene was king during the reign of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil.

            For years, Rockefeller dominated the industry … eventually, a magnate on the world stage. However, much to Rockefeller’s chagrin, an Edison invention, paired with Tesla’s alternating current power, created inexpensive, stable and seemingly permanent light throughout a home or city. Ultimately, these inventions would supplant the kerosene lamp. Realizing his empire was in peril, Rockefeller turned again to his rivers of petroleum, extracting from the earth in the midst of his own personal crisis, a new byproduct, gasoline.
            We served as principals in two different decades, yet our experiences with the byproducts of our profession found similarity in their evolutionary development, albeit through tragedy. 

One of us served as principal on December 14, 2012, when one of most horrific events in American history occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut.  The loss of innocent lives was incomprehensible, and the reverberations of the tragedy are still felt today. The aftermath was sadly reminiscent of the school shooting at Columbine High School, in Columbine, Colorado, on April 20, 1999, when another of us served in a similar capacity.  Through the ripple effects of both experiences, a reevaluation and reconfiguration of school security and the principalship took place across every school district in the United States.  Both Sandy Hook and Columbine, as well as the hundreds of tragedies that did not garner national headlines, created professional byproducts that we experience in the principalship today.

            One of the many changes expected in schools across our nation was the limitation of public access to school buildings, particularly as it pertained to traffic through student entrances in the morning and afternoon, as well as during the school day. Principals were charged with ensuring that without fail, entrances were better supervised; staff member were stationed at schoolhouse doors not only to welcome students as they entered into school, but also to visibly scan for those who could pose a threat. During the days, doors were locked.

            This came as an intrusion into many of our routines.  Some of us at the secondary level disliked the job at the beginning, as standing by a door for 70 minutes each morning seemed “oddly elementary.”  Others candidly shared it was a waste of “our valuable time.”

What about families who needed our return calls? 
What about parents needing our time before rushing to work? 
What about the hallways or commons areas that needed patrolling? 
What about supervision for morning detention? 
What about ..?

Prior to such national events, it seemed that for principals, our mornings were “ours.”  We would arrive at school early to plan for the day, to return correspondence, to push paper and pencil, and to review the building for cleanliness.  With our changing circumstances, the principalship became more scripted from without.  We embraced our new responsibilities as best we could for the safety of our children. Some of us thought, especially in the wake of the first tragedy, What the heck, eventually the dust will settle, and with some good fortune, we can get back to normal.

We know now that this probably will not be the case.

            As with both Columbine and Newtown, the first week or so had profound relevance to all involved in the “new normal.” Even though these towns were thousands of miles away from us, many in our care were shaken. Some students were fearful to attend school; many families were afraid to send them.  Thus, a principal’s presence at the front door had a calming effect on most everyone.  A principal standing by a door communicated security; it represented the notion, “Not on my watch!”

            In both circumstances, with the first couple weeks of each tragedy in the rearview mirror, students segued into their developmentally appropriate, catatonic states in the morning. As a result, it seemed that our newfound morning jobs lost their luster. 
Front door duty became a bit boring for the principal. 
A new game was needed; new byproducts needed manufacture. 
We needed Gasoline.

In both of our leadership circumstances, a decade apart, a similar byproduct seemed to emerge within us.  It involved using our time at the front door as a teachable moment – one in which we would teach ourselves a thing or two; one in which we would teach others.  One in which all would learn as a result.

Whether through greeting everyone who entered with a robust “Good morning” or through challenging ourselves to manufacture something positive from each day’s better-than-yesterday’s door challenge, it was GAME ON!  Not only did we find that our new game resulted in more positive connections with students and the families, we found that it also had a positive effect upon the acuity with which we could serve as diagnosticians of learning.

A school-readiness check-up presented itself to our principalships each day. 

Students, over time, learned to expect our daily greetings; many even depended on them.  Little would they know we were teaching, learning, gauging, and referring.  On days we could not be by the door, students would share that they missed our morning banter.  One student even told her mom that she had to be dropped off at Door Two because that is “where [her principal] was,” and it was her ritual to say “Hello” in the morning.

Byproducts such as these have allowed leadership to perform exploratory surgery into lives of students, establishing authentic connections that have allowed for higher levels of understanding and trust. These byproducts also have given us an opportunity to demonstrate the caring spirit that we have for all of our students. They have invited us into deepened leadership efficacy through better ways of knowing.

Principals at the door certainly enhance security, but with our new game, we can also enhance acuity as well. Each morning, we are better able to see our students who are dropped off in Escalades, as well as those deposited in Chrysler K’s.  We now better see the warm embrace between child and parent, or conversely the slammed door that stomps to the schoolhouse. Either way, as principals, our new byproduct now allows us to be the first to influence “what happens next” in a child’s life.

The merits of gasoline are, at times, debated, but couldn't we say that it is much more useful in society today than our original use of kerosene? Would this be similar in evolutionary circumstance to the fact that our new byproduct in K-12 leadership is now much more rich, rewarding, and results-driven, than that which we led with prior?


Tom Balitewicz and Ryan Donlan welcome the opportunity to learn more about the ways in which you connect with your students for deepened abilities as diagnosticians of learning.  Will you please consider contacting them at or at They would definitely enjoy the conversation!

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

What Would Atticus Do?

What Would Atticus Do?

By Maria Woodke
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

An endearing classic for many generations is the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee.  Lee’s characters are rich in development, offering a mosaic of qualities found in the spectrum of humanity, especially her main character, Atticus Finch. Personifying the author’s optimism in the potential of humanity, Atticus represents those qualities that we all wish more of us would possess … those transcending “self” toward something greater.

Atticus, a lawyer in 1930’s fictional Maycomb, Georgia, is intelligent, kind, scrupulous, and genuine.  He shows courage in taking the difficult, yet necessary actions of which others are too ignorant or afraid.  He leads with a quiet dignity … by example, both in his community and through the rearing of his children.   Atticus teaches his children to empathize and to find the best qualities in others, even when it is most challenging.  He teaches them one of the greatest habits that one can display over a lifetime – to forgive in advance.

In a particularly poignant scene, a man angry with Atticus has spit upon him for representing a black man in a rape trial.  To his daughter, Atticus says, “If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—until you climb into his skin and walk around in it” (Lee, 1960, p. 22).

Atticus could see that the man’s actions did not negate the good he had within; Atticus chose, rather, to forgive in advance, as the man acted only upon what he knew. He was not inherently evil; he was only as good as circumstance would allow. 

Just how powerful could be the combination of Atticus’s qualities if applied to K-12 leadership? 

Those of us successful in K-12 leadership often fancy ourselves reflective practitioners, analyzing aspects of our professional performance with effort while tucking away ideas for growth continually. When things get a bit personal, we admit hesitantly the possession of our hidden, pride-protected zones kept under lock and key, those stubborn areas inhibiting our abilities to delve satisfactorily into our actions … certainly into our motivations. 
We often proclaim, with conviction, “We are right!” with our foundations rocked when “found out” otherwise, especially by ourselves. Yet, the best in us recognize limitation; our most honest looking glasses acknowledge fallibility.  In these circumstances, the strongest peer into our reflections, saying, “Yep, that’s part of the me that makes, me, Me.”

Given our imperfections, what do we do when confronted with colleagues unlike ourselves, those who do not share our visions, philosophies, or beliefs about education, let alone what is best for students?  What do we do when challenged by those who make decisions that we believe will have adverse affects?  How do we act when individuals behave in a manner not befitting team, as we would captain such?

            More importantly, how does our authenticity measure up to that quintessential leader, Atticus Finch?  Where is the sweet spot between the leadership characteristics of altruism and utilitarianism, one that allows egoism to travel pensively, if not honestly?

Some of us are fortunate to say with confidence and truthful resolve that we display many of the qualities of Atticus’s character.  We are the ones who work successfully amidst the most difficult of relationships, those monthly, weekly, or even daily tests of our professionalism.
We are the ones who, more often than not, balance the “ism’s” above.

Yet, consider what Atticus said to Scout about truly understanding a person – the part about considering everything through the other person’s point of view: 

How many of us do that? 
How many of us lead while being not about us?
How many of us understand where others stand in terms of where they sit? 
How many of us are equipped to climb into skin-most-foreign and walk about? 

            Buckingham & Coffman (1999) offered advice on how we can disagree, agreeably, with colleagues.  They maintain that great managers know “people don’t change much” and urge managers not to “waste time trying to put in what was left out” but to “try to draw out what was left in,” for “that is hard enough” (p. 57). Many in our profession spend time trying to put into others what was left out and unwittingly discount much of what we should be doing to draw out their best.

Is that what Atticus would do?

            Buckingham & Coffman (1999) noted actions that could be interpreted as part of the playbook of Atticus Finch, although with our making this connection for them, post-publication. They said, “Great managers look inward.  They look inside the company, into each individual, into the differences in style, goals, needs, and motivations of each person . . . these subtle differences guide them toward the right way to release each person’s unique talents into performance” (p. 141).
What would we see if we took the time for this inward focus?  Would we better be able to model in leadership what Atticus modeled to Scout through restraint, humanity, and parenthood?  Could we better forgive in advance?  How would our profession benefit if more often than not, we were to engage in what Buckingham & Coffman (1999) called the “conscious act” of “finding each person’s strengths and then focusing on those strengths” (p. 143)?

We believe that’s what Atticus would do, and we can’t think of a better act to follow. 


This Ed. Leadershop collaborative contribution is an outgrowth of an original piece by Maria Woodke that she prepared for the Department of Educational Leadership in the Bayh College of Education at Indiana State University.  If you would like to contact Maria Woodke, or her 2nd author of this collaborative piece, Ryan Donlan, please feel free to do so at or They would be interested in hearing your thoughts on the influence of Atticus Finch on contemporary educational leadership.