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, January 28, 2014

Too Fast for Conditions

Too Fast for Conditions

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

Under pressure to reach our destinations in K-12, we travel with others who are heading the same direction.  How fast should we go?

For the most part, we travel a similar speed, or at least within a standard deviation from the mean, it seems.  Our speed limit and even its minimum are for the most part, set.  We’ll pass folks here and there, and at times … we’ll be passed.  The legalities, norms, and folkways are generally respected, as we have shared expectations under which we operate.  It’s just the way we roll.

As a profession, we indirectly encourage each other to comply with a K-12 speed limit as we travel from August to June.  We start and end at around the same time, attend the same meetings, listen to the same performance expectations, share instructional pacing strategies, and as metaphor would suggest … listen to the beat of the same radio station while traveling.  Critics would argue, “Easy-Listening,” although I’m not sure that’s really fair, given how hard we work. 

Yet despite new genres and artists, many in education still listen to melodies that take us back to when we were in school.  Some even drive their fathers’ Oldsmobile’s -- creatures of habit, if not history. Willard Daggett once stated, “The problem is not that schools are not what they used to be; it’s that they are” (Daggett, 2004).

A few examples: Running schools when adults are most alert, not the children … sorting students by same-age grade levels … making children start an entire grade over if they fall short of expectations.   The latter is sort of like starting again in Indiana if our car runs out of gas in Nevada, on the way to California. 

Those are our practices.  What is interesting is that we still find them as normal … acceptable.

Further …

We anxiously await test results that arrive at the sound of an alarm clock, perennially.  Encouraged to do things the way things “should be done,” we operate in an arena where outliers are dis-incentivized; transparency is unsettling.

I’m actually a proponent of “outlier behavior.”  What troubles me is that we are not giving equal credence to efforts on both ends of the speed-limit spectrum for efforts in programmatic improvement. 

We seem to value speed over slowness. 
We seem to value seat time over skill development.

At least we behave that way.

In doing so, we oftentimes unintentionally vilify tortoises over that of hares.  Cohort-based graduation rate sanctions are one example, for those who don’t complete in a timely fashion. Tortoises that show success are not provided ample credit, as it happens too slowly for those enacting minimum speed limits. 

At the same time, hares that show success may be glorified and encouraged to sport their wares for potential replication, even among dissimilar contexts. Programmatic commercials are produced for best-practice gatherings.  Participation in the audience is, at times, mandatory for the tortoises, those purportedly needing technical assistance. 

Mainstream thought defines schools too slow as “failing”  -- teachers too slow as “lazy” -- students too slow as “unmotivated” -- families too slow as “uninvolved” -- leaders too slow as “not up to the challenge.”  In this context, one hare’s commercial becomes another tortoise’s entrée on a cafeteria plan of school reform.

Have we considered the inherent risks of trading methodical pace for moving too quickly?  

With hares, a problem exists that is more pernicious than a tortoise’s “slow and steady.”   It involves the notion of Driving Too Fast for Conditions.

Driving too fast for conditions can have real consequences, not just a matter of raising the ire of those who desire a more comfortable speed.  It can impact immediate lives, inconveniencing a good many, while impairing entire systems designed for smooth travel. 

Consider what can happen in moving too fast:

Impaired visibility can impinge upon our ability to see danger that lies ahead. When not able to see what we are approaching, we can hit an obstruction that would allow us time to act if we were traveling more slowly. This could have a pinball effect.

Decreased traction can cause us to lose our footing, with the resultant instability causing us to veer off course, possibly colliding with something we cannot avoid. A potential pinball effect could result here as well.

On the roadways, impaired visibility and decreased traction can cause loss of life.  In K-12, impaired visibility and decreased traction can cause loss of livelihood and learning.

What about the “conditions”?  What variable helps us define speed that is simply “too fast”? 

Conditions in education involve the contexts in which we do what we are being asked to do.  When pressure is on to perform, the conditions are more tenuous -- we experience the metaphorical equivalent of hail, sleet, or snow. Smart folks slow down and proceed cautiously. Others blow by us at a high rate of speed, causing a temporary reduction in visibility for all around.

Our better leaders possess both talent and skill in defensive driving.  They know the speed to select given conditions presented, to maximize control.  This is not “playing defense,” by any means – it is simply a safer way to deploy a smart offense.

I pose this as a prelude to a conversation in what we value … and what we should consider valuing, as we define success in K-12.  Should we value the quickest path to increased student achievement?

I recently returned home from a trip out-of-state after traveling 45 miles per hour on a 70 mile-per-hour expressway.  I made it home a bit later than I anticipated, late for dinner even, but I was still able to enjoy the warmth of a reheated meal, the company of my wife and children, and the reflections of a trip well traveled.  I’m not sure that all those whom I saw in the ditch along the way can say the same.

I acknowledge that a few who drove my route at 70 miles per hour were hugging their children even earlier than I.  I’m sure they ate on time and probably begrudged me for my slower speed as they passed [I understand sign language].

Even with timely completion of their trips, I don’t use define their exploits as exemplary.  Conversely, I think they were reckless, not at all the standard bearers of how to travel from point A to point B in the conditions we experienced.  They may have even run others off the road. 

I think of a family on Interstate 69 climbing out of the top, actually the side (situated on top), of an overturned vehicle.  Do our slower moving students feel this way, after teachers blow through a text chapter on their way toward readiness for yet another standardized test?

I wonder how often a “too fast for conditions” is calculated before we put on a pedestal those who finish first in K-12. How often are circumstantial conditions factored-in as the alarm clock rings on our perennial worth? 

We might instead consider taking a more careful look, over time, at what constitutes successful K-12 travel and completion, considering more the conditions that interfere with learning and those who finish safely, more often.


Daggett, W. (2004, June). America’s most successful high schools: What makes them work. Conference Presentation, 2004 Model Schools Conference, Washington, D.C.


Dr. Ryan Donlan is a fan of those who resist the temptation and pressure to sprint, leap, and react quickly to changing mandates, moving targets, and shifting circumstances in education.  If you are a fan of taking a pause to prudently gauge a next step, please feel free to say “HI” to Dr. Donlan anytime by calling (812) 237-8624 or writing him at He would enjoy your company and support.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Managing, Mushing, & Motivating

Managing, Mushing, & Motivating

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

Weather-Induced Visions

Successful leadership is Dog Sledding.  In particular, it is managing, mushing, and motivating.  We came upon this thought as our Midwest recently transformed into a wintery, frigid landscape reminiscent of Jack London’s Call of the Wild.
 Our otherwise temperate surroundings were more befitting for teams of dogs, weather-proof gear, and maneuverable sleds than they were for our typical transport, as countless school leaders found themselves figuratively mushing toward uninhabited offices – a leader’s call of responsibility, or as some might say, an instinctual respite. 
In actuality, many of us could not make it out of our homes or neighborhoods.  The going was tough, yet this gave us more time to “think” of our responsibility each other.  Among countless friends and colleagues came a strength of team conviction – one of neighbor helping neighbor to accomplish urgent tasks that none of us could do alone.  How sad for those who felt they were without a team.
This synergy was as important for us at home that week, as it often is in school.  We know that in education, the terrain is often unforgiving; the need for a team approach to any challenge is critical.  What we do, week-in and week-out, could in actuality be considered managing, mushing, and moving, a seasonal metaphor, yet one that’s both evergreen and ever needed.  Consider the following:

In the Arctic, the most impressively outfitted musher would be shivering, trudging hopelessly without a well-organized and trained team to power a sled toward a destination.  Only when the gangline runs from lead dogs, through the team, and to the musher’s control, does the operative collaboration of dog sledding exist. 

In K-12 education, what is our gangline, the line that allows the combined effort to be greater than the sum of individual effort?  We ask this, as educational leadership is much akin to mushing: it takes an interconnected team driven by instinct and training to inspire and to ensure student achievement.

We propose this metaphor not as one of a leader ordering and staff pulling the weight, but as one revealing the deeper, symbiotic relationship of leader and team:  That a living system of interdependence exists in each and every team-based accomplishment, with the leader inextricably linked to the forces that power the journey, which if absent, would result in ineffectiveness.    

The Need for a Team

When venturing into the expanse, a leader must have both vision and the capacity for adventure in order to survive.  Envisioning a destination is one thing; guiding a team to reach it is completely another.  This is where efficacy must transcend personal capacity.  Without a well-organized and cared-for group to pull together, the envisioned destination would never be reached. 
Much as mushers need sled dogs to traverse an arduous terrain, educational leaders need people with whom to share the energy and the challenge of forward movement.  Despite our drive, our passion, or our intentions, without a team we are simply standing on a sled, ineffectually stranded with neither tool nor transport. 

Building at Team

A leader with an understanding of how to build and direct a team knows to capitalize upon the strengths and talents of team members, as each cannot serve in every role.  We could all learn from the fact that lead dogs set the pace and the direction for the entire team while swing dogs guide the rest of the dogs in following through curves and turns.  Team dogs provide power, whereas wheel dogs are closest to musher and provide stability. They fear nothing, certainly not the sled close behind.  A misplaced dog will manifest a musher’s management struggle, yet all will perform optimally when correctly hitched into harness and position.

Who on your team holds these roles? 
Is your team in proper alignment?

Consider further parallels to K-12 leadership: Managing scientifically, the musher provides commands, yet also knows when to run behind the sled to assist, knows when to command the team to slow, has the awareness to apply the snow hook (emergency brake), and always knows when to care for the team’s needs.  In this journey, sound management is no one’s apology.

            Buckingham and Coffman (1999) expressed similar sentiment in encouraging managers to focus on their team members’ strengths and talents.  When concerned with aligning individuals to roles, they suggested four major responsibilities of management:

Selecting team members for talent;
Defining the right outcomes;
Focusing on team members’ strengths;
Helping team members to find the right fit. 

More so than the musher, we would argue, the K-12 leader-as-manager must be more cognizant of the team’s psychological needs. Members of the team need clear expectations and purpose.  Outcomes, as well, are an essential part of maintaining a healthy, well-functioning group.    

Driving and Caring for the Team

Gibreath and Benson (2004) explored how supervisor behavior contributed to employees’ psychological well-being. This is all-important when driving a team forward. Applying an expectation to a team member is similar to the musher’s call – applied correctly, it may produce positive stress (eustress) with a desired outcome and even a curative effect; applied incorrectly, it will result in negative stress (distress) with psychological and physical harm (Lazarus, 1993). 
Educational leaders must understand that specific leadership behaviors, such as evaluation and authoritative communication, at needed times, can be stress-inducing strategies with beneficial benefits for teachers and for student achievement (Van Vooren, 2005).  We should not wince from the duty of our call ... the call to "Mush!"
Applying stressors to team members is a tricky game of motivation for leaders, one that must be applied to each individual differently … one not to be taken lightly.  Just as the musher must be aware of the interactions of the dogs based upon each dog’s idiosyncrasies and the context of the interplay, leaders can be more effective if they understand that individuals have particular needs to be met – those that vary among contexts and will have predictable, sequential reactions to distress  (Kahler, 2008).  If we gain a deepened understanding of whom we work, we will be equipped with more efficacious relationships.


Successful leadership is Dog Sledding.  It is comprised of the managing, mushing, and motivating, as well as aligning team members correctly. It involves meeting needs and understanding the reactions to what we ask.  Our best in K-12 leadership capitalize upon these understandings, yelling, “Mush!” and in doing so, allow their teams to reach destinations abound, well-beyond the sum of their individual parts.  


Buckingham, M., & Coffman, C. (1999). First, break all the rules: What the world’s greatest managers do differently. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Gilbreath, B., & Benson, P. G. (2004). The contribution of supervisor behaviour to employee psychological well-being. Work & Stress, 18(3), 255-266. doi:10.1080/02678370412331317499

Kahler, T. (2008). The Process Therapy Model: The six personality types with adaptations. Little Rock, AR: Taibi Kahler Associates, Inc.

Lazarus, R. S. (1993). From psychological stress to the emotions: A history of changing outlooks. Annual Review of Psychology, 44, 1.

Van Vooren, C. L. (2005). A model of school reform: The principal's use of positive stressors to change teacher behavior in title I elementary schools. (Order No. 3191758, University of La Verne). Retrieved from


Rex Ryker and Ryan Donlan are on-campus in Terre Haute, Indiana, each Wednesday in the Ph.D. Residency program.  If you have comments or helpful suggestions on how we can all manage, mush, and motivate through educational inspiration, please consider writing them at or, particularly if you wish to connect on those days when they are working together.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

"ALL In"

“ALL In”

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

My son recently played Superheroes, saying to some of his imaginary compatriots, “Are you guys ‘ALL In’?” 

After receiving satisfactory response, he said, “OK … let’s DO this thing!”

A pint-sized esprit de corps.

“ALL In” is an interesting colloquialism, used at times by those consulting in school change, contending that a leader’s asking “Who’s ALL In?” makes for a quick barometric reading of who’s got your back and who’s ready to effect change. 
Doesn’t it?

My doctoral students the other evening quickly reminded me, however, that the notion of “ALL” is contextually specific and sometimes can even cannibalize its own existence. 
Let me share how “ALL In” popped into my mind this past week.

I was driving down I-70 near the border of Illinois and Indiana, when I thought of the foot of snow that fell on our Wabash Valley just a week prior. During the snowfall, I was in my own version of Heaven-on-earth with the sub-zero temperatures and the opportunity to use my Northern Michigan snow scoop.  Truth be told … I probably drove around on area roads just enjoying the moment, when I wasn’t supposed to do so. 
The weather reminded me of my principalship in the U.P., when seeing 20 – 30 snowmobiles parked outside my office on schooldays was more the norm than the exception. Things didn’t need to grind to a halt with winter’s blast. 

As I drove further into Indiana, I resolved myself to the fact that the brown of snowless winter had returned.  In the parlance of this week’s construct, it appeared that my new home was not “ALL In” to the white stuff. 

Yet to its credit, South-Central/ Southwestern Indiana is “ALL In” to some other nice things:

A Long Gardening Season;
Excellent Schools;
A Good Cost of Living; and
Sycamore Hospitality.

It’s just not “ALL In” to Winter. Mother Nature just doesn’t say to herself, “Let’s DO this thing!”   

The positives of being “ALL In,” thus seem, contextually specific. 

Turning to education –

How does the notion of “ALL In” apply to those of us who are working hard to make positive changes in schools, students, and communities?  Again, consultants have said that “ALL In” is good.  I have been taught as well through example that the best of us aren’t afraid of being “ALL In” to whatever we were doing.  My heroes, as immediate supervisors, certainly required it.

I vetted my metaphorical rambles with doctoral students from Northern Indiana later that evening – “Our Need to Be ‘ALL In’ as Educators,” -- “Hallway-to-Hallway Commitment” … “DOING Things 100%” … “Staying the Course.”   After all, aren’t Kotter and Cohen’s (2002) first few steps in the school change process (after Increasing Urgency) – Building the Guiding Team before Getting the Vision Right?

Many would contend that leaders should be in the school business of getting those who are “ALL In” on our teams and getting rid of those who are not.  Is this a good practice?  I thought so, on balance, and readied the first volley:

I argued that when we, as educators, are “ALL In” … we’re:

Vested in what happens;
Committed to a cause, even if uncomfortable;
Willing to make the best of circumstance;
Standing steady, whether the ground we’re on is firm or not;
Owning-up to who we are and what happens around us; and
Saying, “If kids are not learning, it’s our fault.”

I argued further that when we, as educators, are not “ALL In” … we’re:

Putting each foot in a place that doesn’t complement the other;
Looking too much at “next” and not enough at “now”;
Trying to sell ownership as someone else’s;
Attributing fault through excuses;
Looking over our shoulder, hoping a friendly is behind;
Saying, “If kids are not learning, something else must be up.”

The folks with whom we work, I acknowledged, can be “ALL In” for both right reasons or wrong … good or bad.  We can’t always control for their intentions, those hidden.  Yet we still must build that team that is “ALL In.”

Some very bright people, however, our ISU “future docs,” quickly made some observations; they pushed back a bit, agreeing with some points yet noting the following:

What if “ALL In” is a pseudo concept?  After all, someone’s definition of "ALL In" could differ perceptually from another’s.  For example, a superintendent’s working 80 hours per week on curriculum and test scores, at the expense of his/her appearance at ball games, could be one example, with a Board of Education more interested in “Regionals” than “research papers.”

What if timing could play a factor?  For example, what if “ALL In” at one point in a school’s history could impinge upon another, such as during times of sweeping enrollment changes due to the local economy.

What if one’s being “All In” could, in actually, be a bit unhealthy?  For example, could one’s “ALL In-ness” prevent one from achieving balance of perspective or even the reserve of energy necessary for thoughtful leadership and good decision making?  That was their point on cannibalism above. 

I did concede that an educator’s being “All In” might be dangerous at times.  It may cost us a job … maybe even a personal relationship, such as a friendship that felt genuine.  I shared with respect to those who have made team sacrifice that I had not often heard that one’s being “All In” would cause a loss of self-respect … or even a next chance at being “All In” on something else. Special forces look for the those who will commit.

Yet mindful of the excellent points that our new group made, I asked myself in the hours that followed: 

To what degree do leaders who seek-out those “NOT In” enhance decision making?
Could compartmentalization empower leaders to make these choices, as they most certainly will slow the pace of forward momentum?
Does a deeper level of “ALL In” exist, which transcends marching orders or published mission? 
Could “ALL In” actuality mean “Not Being So”?  And finally …
Does “ALL In” make any sense in a profession of complexity amidst ambiguity?

New Northern Indiana Doctoral Student Mary Tracy may be closest to the point of how “ALL In” pertains to those who champion tomorrow’s future, when she said, "All in to me means caring so deeply about something that, good, bad, or indifferent, you go the course with a sense of conviction that is driven.  It does not seem daunting, but rather, necessary."


Kotter, J. P., & Cohen, D. S. (2002). The heart of change: Real-life stories of how people change their organizations. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Dr. Ryan Donlan tries to be ALL IN to the ISU Ed. Leadershop each week with five-minute reads for deep-thinking educators.  A heartfelt “thanks” and WELCOME go out to our new Ph.D. Student Cohort from Northern Indiana!!  Glad you weighed-in on the Leadershop.  Please feel free in sharing some ideas or writing of your own by contacting Dr. Donlan at (812) 237-8624 or at

Monday, January 6, 2014

A New Year's Resolution

A New Year’s Resolution

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


Dr. Steve Gruenert
Associate Professor and Department Chairperson
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

You’re a school leader … either at the district, building, or classroom level.  As such, you’re probably spending quite a bit of time with assessment – program assessment, standardized testing of students, teacher evaluations, and/or student grading, just to name a few.  Yet how often do you assess yourself?

We’re not speaking of that quiet reflection that happens on the drive home each evening on the return from school.  Most of us do that, and it’s very helpful.  We’re referring instead to the type of assessment in which you use real data to make informed decisions about your professional performance … with pre- and post- measurements providing answers as to whether you have “improved” at something.  In statistician’s terms … it’s has to do with the Effect Size. Dieticians may call it waist size.

We just said “stats.”  Better next say, as does one of our favorite television commercials, “It doesn’t have to be complicated.”

You don’t need graduate-level courses in statistics ...
You don’t need to purchase SPSS analysis software …
You don’t need a great deal of mathematical prowess …

You simply need to make a New Year’s Resolution. 

Say it with us … “In 2014, I will conduct some Action Research.”

You could get very serious about it, as our participants in the Indiana Principal Leadership Institute are doing this year, and that would be fantastic.  To say that these folks are burning bright with high-octane leadership development would be an understatement.

Yet, with all on your plate right now, you might just want to keep things simple as you begin measuring … modestly. In fact, this might end up taking things off your plate.

Here’s an example of how easy action research can be: 

A leader could …

Put together a short survey for staff regarding your use of time at faculty meetings and gather the results anonymously.  Take a look at what they say. Then make a change in what you do (i.e. incorporating one of Whitaker and Breaux’s 40 ideas for Ten-Minute Inservices, or something like that). Ask again, and again look at the results in March.  If things are going the way you want, keep doing what you are doing.  If not, tweak things a bit, and re-measure in May.  Review your results yet again, and decide what’s next.

It’s that easy.

Here’s another:

Put together a short survey for staff regarding your effectiveness as a school leader (or for students as to your effectiveness as a teacher) and gather the results anonymously.  It’s a quick, 360-degree input thing.  Then … start a fitness or reading regimen and pass-out the same survey in March (that is, if you maintain your regimen).  Take a look at where you are.  Tweak things if needed; look again in May.  Review your results and move ahead from there.

Admittedly, a bit of care needs to be taken to control for the natural, research limitation of leaders’ asking subordinates about leadership effectiveness.  Key communicators from faculty, or even school counselors, can typically help with questionnaire dissemination and tabulation.

Let’s ask ourselves a few questions that we could possibly research. After all, the process is what is cool, even more so, at times, than the results.  

Would drinking less soda allow one better to handle student misbehavior?
Would working out with a friend after school allow one better to “leave work, at work”?
Would starting a book club, where teachers pick the books, change the dynamic of lounge conversations?
Would thanking people more often cause resentment in some who value only authentic praise?
Would dressing more casual, or more formal, enhance parental relations?
Would bringing alumni to faculty meetings reduce faculty misbehavior, yet at the same time, could it drive resistance underground?

Consider these definitions on Action Research cited by authors in a National Council of Teachers of Mathematics publication:

Action research is a form of investigation designed for use by teachers to attempt to solve problems in their own classrooms.  It involves systematic observations and data collection, which can be then used by the practitioner-researcher in reflection, decision-making and the development of more effective classroom strategies. (NCTM, n.d., citing Parsons and Brown, 2002)

Or one we like even better …

Action Research is a fancy way of saying let’s study what’s happening at our school and decide how to make it a better place. (NCTM, n.d., citing Calhoun, 1994)

As you work with teachers, staff, and stakeholders, holding them accountable for their own data on performance and asking them to take the initiative to improve upon where they are, can you put yourself out there as an example of someone “living your own charge”?

Make a resolution; lead by example. 

Make some time as we return from the holidays to hypothesize; MEASURE SOMETHING. 

Take ACTION … do  RESEARCH … then talk about it.

Once measured, do some homework on what you have measured, borrow from others, and then simply DO something different [even something small, yet significant and different].

Then around March … measure again.

This New Year’s Resolution doesn’t have to be complicated.


How is Action Research Defined. (n.d.). National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. Retrieved at

            NCTE notes the following resources for its quotes:

Calhoun, E. F. (1994). How to use action research in the self-renewing school. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Parsons, R. D., & Brown, K. S. (2002). Teacher as reflective practitioner and action researcher. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.

Whitaker, T., & Breaux, A. (2013). The ten-minute inservice: 40 quick training sessions that build teacher effectiveness. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


Dr. Ryan Donlan and Dr. Steve Gruenert are faculty members in Educational Leadership in the Bayh College of Education at Indiana State University. They are working to encourage principals in Action Research as member of the Design Team for the Indiana Principals Leadership Institute and can be reached at or at