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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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Of Benefit and Burden, Leadership's Call

Of Benefit and Burden, Leadership’s Call

By Dr. Steve Gruenert
Associate Professor and Department Chairperson

Dr. Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor

Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

Of benefit and burden, leadership’s call. 

Often we find people using analogies to help us understand how leadership resembles other aspects of life. We hear such comparisons as:

Farming – Leadership is like leading cattle or planting seeds;
Military – Leadership is like taking a group into battle to accomplish a mission;
Orchestra – Leadership is like coordinating many pieces to make one opus;
Home building – Leadership is when we have a strong foundation so as to bring together independent contractors to build a unifying vision.

Is it possible that leadership theory can help us respond better to alternative issues in life?  Can it be of benefit in that regard?  Does leadership’s practical application create within us the tools for unlocking situations unrelated to its mainstream definition?

Further, does it make us better teachers, parents, friends, drivers, or bowlers? Does it support our efforts in playing golf, buying food, or planning a vacation? What about fishing or wine collecting?

Before we move deeper into the philosophical, think about how many uses a paperclip might have, other than that of clipping papers:

Unlocking a door;
Pushing the reset button on a remote WIFI;
Hanging an ornament;

Think similarly about the many alternative uses for a plastic bottle, other than holding liquids:

Cutting the top off and using as a funnel;
Filling with sand and using as an anchor;
Filling with air and using as a float.

Is leadership a paper clip?  A plastic bottle? 

The point is to think about something that has a more profound impact on what it was not intended for, than upon what it was. Yet, in doing so, that “something” might have an adverse impact on itself.  We could say that it has a burden that its benefit might beget.

What’s the point?

Helping others to become effective leaders is what we do.  If one registers for our classes, completes our assignments, and then never becomes a leader, did she or he waste time? Or conversely, are there positive payoffs come from knowing this stuff, even if not operationalized directly as coursework would suggest?

Principal interns who never become principals tell us that they are better teachers because of the experience during their final semesters.  They note developing qualities such as the following, even through the study of theory alone at times, and how each contributes to something different than our intended destination for them:


Yet, at the same time, Principal Interns who never seek the principalship mention that they can never really “go back.”  “We’re thinking differently than our classroom neighbors,” they say. 

Leadership: Of benefit or burden?

Think about the leadership skill-sets that might make one particularly successful in the following:

Selling a Car
Joining a Church
Going on a Diet

Yet, can leadership become as much one’s millstone as it does one’s magic wand?

Consider an airline pilot’s burden while not in the cockpit, yet while flying as passenger.  Or how Presidents age through knowledge of our country’s affairs.  Coherence is oftentimes borne of an aggravated acuity, offering weight among wisdom. 
Some contend the middle ground, a pedestrian’s existence, is actually preferred. They note being follower accords folks their “9-to-5’s,” yet more importantly, “their weekends.”  We know first-hand how difficult it is, for better or worse, to “turn it off,” and with that inability, sometimes we become the turn-off’s.  

Of benefit and burden, leadership’s call. 

Except in rare circumstances that we must accept as our millstones, we’re glad we answered the call, and hope you will too.


This week’s Leadershop contribution by Dr. Steve Gruenert and Dr. Ryan Donlan is much like the conversations they inspire during class each week – Tools to invite transformation of one’s intra- and inter-professional journeys into something much different than when they began.  If you would like to unlock something disparate within you as you work to unlock others, please feel free to contact Dr. Gruenert at or Dr. Donlan at

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

"Trash" as an Independent Variable

“Trash” as an Independent Variable

By Dr. Steve Gruenert
Associate Professor and Department Chairperson

Dr. Brad Balch
Professor and Dean Emeritus

Dr. Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor

Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

I doubt most of us have super-clean cars; many of us may even feel a bit uneasy when someone whose car is immaculate offers us a ride. It’s not so much we feel remiss, as a bit out of place, yet admittedly, glad we didn’t offer to drive without some lead time. 
Even if we buy a new car, how long do we try to prolong that brand-new look? At some point, it is only natural to forego that new-car smell for something more natural, more fitting, as the preferred state for many things is one that is used, like a good pair of old jeans.
New cars, new houses, new friends, new jobs, and new environments – they all have a breaking-in period, a point that has an expected transition from “new” to “used” and thus, toward a state that is much more “user-friendly.”
Recently a qualitative study was conducted at one elementary school to explore potential themes that may help explain why this high-poverty school was having academic success. The investigator observed people as they went about normal routines. Yet, the unkempt condition of the surroundings was a distraction for him.  It was not really a terribly ‘junky’ place, but the level of “trash” (e.g. littered, or in a lived-in, inelegant state) did breach a threshold of attention beyond what an average school might display.
While interviewing educators at this school, however, the researcher found an abundance of affect for the school and one another. Leadership was praised. Respondents used the term “family” quite often. A collaborative school culture of trust, loyalty, and mutual respect among the adults in the building was evident (Fullan & Hargreaves, 1996).

A hypothesis:
“Trash” is good.

A question or two, to ponder:
Is it possible that students drop trash on the floor not in disrespect, but as a way to make it more like home?  After all, how many students go home to ultra-sanitary conditions? How many have bedrooms (where most homework is done) where it is difficult to find the floor? And when the floor cannot be found, who are the only ones who have most problems with this?  -- Those who oftentimes find it most difficult to connect the students (and those without the direct stressors of today’s homework) – their parents.

Does it take a sociological or anthropological imagination to consider: Could student achievement be strong at this school, not despite the litter, but because it is there?

Alternative theories tell us,
Research in higher education finds that students living on campus are more likely to be successful when they encounter living conditions that are approximately the same to that, yet not less, which they experienced at home.  Semi-private bathrooms, technology connectivity, and air conditioning are a few minimum expectations.  The question that this theory suggests to us is, “What does less mean?”  If less comfortable with respect to living and working conditions, then the trash hypotheses might have merit for a good number of our students.

The theory of Broken Windows tells us that people will sense permission to further trash a place that seems to already be a mess.  Is this a sign of disrespect, an attempt to “norm”-alize their behavior, or one of intentional interior decoration, with an eye toward a preferred ambiance, given what is familiar?

What exactly are we trying to say here?
There may be a point where our efforts to keep everything hyper-tidy intimidates learners. An overly sterile, institutional climate simply may not enhance a robust teaching and learning environment.  Comfort, trust, respect, and a strong sense of professional family may be hindered. 
It may liken itself to one’s eating out in a five-star restaurant.  If this is not your norm, can you typically relax?  The expected formality, protocol, sense of quiet, adherence to long-standing traditions, and the disconnect from day-to-day reality is intimidating for many.  Unwritten rules that we do not even understand (what to do when the wine is brought for our inspection; which fork among the five arranged do we use; what to do with the cloth napkin if we need to use the restroom) can bring consternation, especially if we are trying to impress those with whom we dine.  And we’re well-adjusted adults.
What about those younger, less mature, more impressionable, and insecure?
An educational parallel:  Is it not interesting that the further one matriculates from kindergarten through twelfth grade, the further their classroom surroundings remind us of our bedrooms? 
We notice today the intentional, warm, and yes, the cluttered nature of many of our highest-functioning elementary classrooms.  Coats and book bags are hung haphazardly upon pegs on the walls, bins of supplies are stacked in myriad places, and colorful carpeted areas with rocking chairs abut congested tables with blocks, gizmos, and buildable apparatuses. 
Desks are found in different configurations, sometimes on a daily basis – atop them crayons, worksheets, books, and even at times now, technology.  With learning centers abound, tight spaces are arranged as best they can for up to 30 children at a time.  A visiting adult can barely find a spot to sit and typically has to settle for a diminutive chair near the wet and puddled, boot and glove section.
Yet children are happy.  Teachers are teaching.  Children are learning.
Routines are established.  All in these cluttered classrooms know where to look for the materials to do what teachers ask them to do.  Students proceed on cue to bins, cubbies, and supply shelves, handing out scissors, stencils, string, and Styrofoam.  They step over the stacks and walk through the piles; in their world, trash is a treasure.
Fast forward to high school. 
Bells ring.  Students arrive to sit in desks or at tables that are only theirs for an hour.  People are prompted to perform the parallelism of a perpendicular world.  With some exceptions we realize, walls are more barren, except for content-area reminders of theorems, theses, computations, and conjugations.  One might spot fire drill instructions next to the mission statement required by school administration, and possibly some motivation posters purchased during the bygone era of one’s new classroom smell.
Comfort and ownership as students age-out are the rarities.  When found, these classrooms serve as certain respite where those marginalized by the right angles of right answers seek refuge, when they need the comfort of home.
Why do we more often fumigate, while students matriculate?  Why not get a bit trashier?  Kick off our boots; put our feet on the desks, and live a little. Or at least, a little more comfortable, from a learner’s perspective.
We are not suggesting schools adopt unsanitary conditions, nor create environments where health and safety are compromised. We do not believe our world (inside or outside) is better when we encourage littering. In fact, schools are a reflection of their local communities, constructed and maintained with tax dollars.  As such, community norms will clearly influence building conditions. 
But how crazy is it to think that people would learn better during the instructional day when they are in an environment in which they are more comfortable -- if every scrap of paper raises the ire of hallway patrols; if every dropped pencil is deemed contraband?  If everything has its “place,” determined solely by adults who do not share the same values as students or come from their neighborhoods, does this contribute or inhibit our students from focusing and opening themselves to learning.
            To extend this further:  Could anything else in our students’ school environments create a disconnect or discomfort in the setting in which they are expected to arrive daily and perform academically?  Further, could we have a blind spot to things as disconcerting to our students as “trash on the floor” is to some of us?

How about the following:
·      Adults who wear suits, and thus, become suits;
·      Euro-centric instruction in a world of diversity;
·      After-school bells that drive kids from our buildings, those signaling the beginning of latchkey time and adult recess;
·      Children penalized for arriving at school late, when they arrive (especially if without supplies); and
·      Bullying, especially that performed by adults.

The question we have as we conclude this week is one of perspective.  Are we seeing what we should be seeing when something unsightly catches our eye on our public schools.  Rick Dahlgren and Judy Hyatt have encouraged us to ask three Classroom Integrity Questions of instructional fidelity when deciding whether to act, or not to act, when something paints our radar as adults working with children:

“Am I able to teach?”
“Are the other students able to learn?”
“Is the student able to learn?” (Dahlgren & Hyatt, 2007, p. 88)

Admittedly, they pose this more in the context of student behavior, but we think it applies environmentally as well. 
At present, would it be fair for us to assert, for critical conversation, that a hyper-vigilant quest for an antiseptic educational climate that meets the needs of adults may win us approval from our custodial staffs (and those whose names are on marble plaques of recent school renovations), yet it may inversely affect the levels of comfort, trust, respect, and strong sense of professional family that is critical to keeping the embers of elementary-level interest burning brightly into a flame of lifelong learning and contribution.
If this is too absurd to even think about, you may be missing the imagination needed to reimagine how we do school.
Said differently, shouldn’t we be just a little more trashy?


Dahlgren, R., & Hyatt, J. (2007). Time to teach: Encouragement, empowerment, and excellence in every classroom.  Hayden Lake, ID: The Center for Teacher Effectiveness.
Fullan, M. & Hargreaves, A. (1996). What’s worth fighting for in our schools? Columbia University: Teachers College Press.

Dr’s Steve Gruenert, Brad Balch, and Ryan Donlan encourage your comment and contribution to this subject.  Feel free to trash their perspectives if you like by joining our Leadershop conversation and offering thoughts of your own.  They can be reached at,, or  We appreciate your spending five minutes with us this week!

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

LODGED in K-12 Education

LODGED in K-12 Education

With our state's standardized testing season again upon us (and probably yours as well), please take respite in this popular read from November of 2011, and share it with someone feeling lodged, as well.

By Robert Frost, 1928
The rain to the wind said,
“You push and I’ll pelt.”
They so smote the garden bed
That the flowers actually knelt,
And lay lodged – though not dead.
I know how the flowers felt.
(In Latham & Thompson, 1972)

… So says today’s K-12 educator.
            In this national race toward psychometric measurability of everything “education,” are we considering how the educators are feeling? You know … the “good folks.”

I’m not speaking on behalf of the small number of those in our profession who have placed their own agendas in front of quality education or those who are ambivalent to such a degree that they have neglected to be mindful of a need for continuous improvement.  Those are the ones, in part, who have given rise to the pushing and pelting.
I’m advocating for good folks, the educational superheroes who are the best possible role models for our nation’s children - those who are now under such extreme pressure to follow a mandated scope and sequence of test-centered curricula that their children can no longer enjoy playtime in elementary schools.  I’m advocating for folks who are no longer in charge of the “how” of what they used to do in their classrooms, and they need to be.
            It used to be that educators had as the final line of their job descriptions, “All other duties as assigned.” That was ok; the good folks accepted that. Today’s replacement: “All other duties that society abrogates,” goes a bit too far.
That, coupled with the fact that children’s potential for educational success is powerfully influenced before they ever reach our nation’s classrooms, makes careers in K-12 education ones in which only miracle workers should apply – ones through which only superheroes should aspire to leadership. 
Please be a miracle worker or superhero, in spite of the rain and the wind.
Consider what some refer to as the Stanford University Marshmallow Study (Prairie View, 2008).  Researchers placed hungry 4-year-olds alone in a room with a single marshmallow each. They mentioned to the children that if they did not eat their marshmallows before the researchers returned, they could each have two marshmallows.  Those who maintained the ability to control their impulses were seen during a follow-up study to have notably higher SAT scores than the children unable to control their impulses (Prairie View, 2008, citing Shoda, Mischel, & Peake, 1990).
Through such studies, one could surmise that a certain degree of emotional intelligence, or even school aptitude, is already present in children before they enroll in school.  Yet, even though parents and guardians are logically implicated as “responsible” for at least some of the disparities in aptitude and efficacy that exist in children upon enrollment in school, educators are still held 100% responsible for student achievement.  Where is parental accountability?  Why not shared accountability?
If politicians wish to sharpen their efforts on true and lasting student achievement, I would like to suggest a few areas through which they can concentrate that would assist in accountability for student achievement.
Legislation declaring that children’s playpens should not be strategically placed in front of televisions as de-facto babysitters for infants and toddlers from birth to age 3 would be a good start. How about local ordinances requiring that all parents, from neglectful deadbeats to two-parent career-aholics, “step-up” and spend more time with their children, so as to provide for the basic needs and language development? What about tighter regulations prohibiting the exposure of our youngest children to indelible messages of easy money without hard work or personal investment; as well as suggestions that parents turn away from their social networking sites in order to spend each evening reading to their children?  Sounds far-fetched and a bit too “big brother-like,” I realize, yet at minimum, encouraging public conversation of such would at least raise awareness of key variables impacting learning that school officials can’t control.
 A more politically feasible suggestion, perhaps: Through a reallocation of state budgets, consideration could be given to a statewide early education initiative that would allow all children, from birth to Kindergarten, to receive a free book in the mail each month, mailed to them personally, an idea now championed in certain local communities through philanthropic support and trusted partnerships.  One such champion of these efforts with a deep love for children is Mike Dewey, an educational leader and friend of mine – a true superhero – who has advocated that all children have reading materials at home (Bay-Arenac, 2012).  I would encourage those criticizing good educators to think “more like Mike.”

Wouldn’t it be nice if those currently pushing and pelting would exercise their leadership to un-lodge our heroes in K-12?  The “good folks” need to feel a little less like the flowers in Frost’s poem, and others more responsible for the plight of our nation’s achievement need to feel a bit more of the wind and the rain.


Bay-Arenac ISD Imagination Library, a Dolly Parton-Inspired Program. Retrieved from

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

Prairie View Process Solutions Group (2008), July. The Capabilities Awareness Profile Informational Guide. Training conducted at Prairie View Process Solutions in Newton, Kansas.


Please contact Dr. Ryan Donlan anytime with thoughts or comments on the Leadershop's articles, as he can be reached at or at (812) 237-8624.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Will I Lose Touch?

Will I Lose Touch?

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

 [We originally ran this short article in the ISU Ed. Leadershop in 2011.  As we are nearing completion of another year-long Principal Internship experience at Indiana State University, we thought it might be helpful and informative to run again, this topic that is often on the minds of new and aspiring leaders.  Enjoy.]

            Healthy reservations were expressed to me in a question asked recently by a future Principal:  “Will I lose touch with students when I move from the classroom to school leadership? I don’t want to lose the one-on-one connections I have.”

            Natural apprehensions are to be expected in this transfer of professional responsibilities; after all, no prescribed class rosters or officially scheduled students will fill a leader’s playbook each day through which to foster and maintain positive relationships.  Plus, the fact that one’s locus of responsibility expands from 30 to 150 students all the way to 300 or 3000, as well as dealing with faculty and staff issues, is enough to get anyone’s attention.
            Well, I can say, without hesitation, that “all is good.”  I have found through many years of building leadership that a principalship was even more satisfying than a position as classroom teacher to forge one-on-one relationships with students and to make a positive difference.  This has to do with three variables:  (1) A principal’s paternal/maternal identification as a leader, (2) Autonomy for targeted/assisted intervention, and (3) Authority through which to make life-changing decisions.
            First, as principal, students often identify with you either paternally or maternally, influenced in part by the “in-loco parentis” factors of school cultural symbolism, those that occur visibly through a leader’s participation in school-day presentations, greetings, events, rituals, ceremonies, and celebrations of school life and identity.  As principal, you not only become the living logo of the building, through which school mission and vision are embodied, you also become a father or mother, a “dad” or “mom,” to students. 
Your role is such as the building’s premiere parent, and because of such, students will do what they typically do to maximize their desires for parental “permissions.”  They’ll attempt to please you, of course, and even look up to you at times, yet they’ll predictably also play “parent versus older siblings” and seek YOUR help in trumping what another in authority has demanded of them.  What this amounts to is much traffic to your office, as well as many attempts to get your ear, from all in the school community. 
To say that these experiences with you are anything less than impressionable for students would be an understatement.  Through your interactions, students hang on your every word, carrying your messages to others willingly, serving up the knowledge gleaned as most worthy of family (school family) discussion.  Your presence and symbolism have great power and impact; please realize this humbly and responsibly.
            Second, as principal, despite all that confronts you from “without” – such as the increasing responsibilities in dealing with the market forces of school competition, standardized testing pressures, classroom observation logistics, data analysis responsibilities, and curricular mandates -- the lion’s share of your time each day is spent interacting one-on-one, or in groups, “with people.”  You spend much time communicating with those who work each and every day to help your school reach its goals, thus allowing you opportunities to build, what Sergiovanni (2009) would call, relational trust with your followers.  I would suggest that with this in mind, much of your time, energy, and focus is rightfully placed upon the needs of students.
Powerful to note is that as principal, for the most part you are not required by assignment to attend to specific tasks during externally prescribed periods of time.  You set your own schedule to the degree that emergency circumstances and your superintendent will allow. In such, you decide upon whom or what to focus.   Imagine the opportunity to focus on children each morning in the manner in which you choose -- to foster relationships with students, as each and every day provides the need for positive adult-to-child intervention. 
Before school begins each day, as Principal you can watch closely and identify those kids who are coming to school in need of most help and attention.  You then have the opportunity for a kind word, some unencumbered moments of your time, an invitation to your office, and even some personal effort to make things a bit better for them.  Imagine from the standpoint of a struggling student, the meaningfulness and memorability of a school leader’s taking the time to provide a helping hand … just because the principal cares enough to do so. I would argue that there is not a better anvil and hammer to forge relationships than your ability as a principal to “care.”   
Tough (2008) noted the importance of an educator’s caring, stating:
It was the X factor, the magic ingredient that could outweigh all the careful calculations behind [a school’s] strategy for success … what made a difference in many students’ lives was a personal connection that was impossible to measure and difficult to replicate.  If the kids didn’t get that, all the tutoring in the world might not help them. (p. 186)
Educators’ demonstrating “care” in the most arduous of circumstances was Tough’s (2008) example, through which heroes made a positive difference.  So can you.
To those who believe that school guidance counselors have this as part of their job descriptions – “Absolutely.”  They most certainly do, as schools are not limited in the number of heroes they employ. Yet, there’s no substitute for a principal’s taking time as well to individualize and act on behalf of students, within the framework of his/her expertise, authority, interest, and compassion.  There’s enough “need” to go around in today’s schools, as children come to us more broken all of the time, in need of heroes.
            Finally, as Principal, you have the greatest authority within your building to use your panoramic perspective to “do what’s right” and make a positive difference.  You see the entire picture and can act upon it. Students and staff will seek you out for redress of  “wrongs.” Even in times in which you try your best to act discreetly and confidentially, news will spread regarding your actions. This can be used to your advantage; after all, you have the power to act when others do not. People will know more about you than you realize; they will identify closely with “the you” that your office, your beliefs, and your deeds represent.  You will create bonds with others simply because they respect and admire what you have accomplished.  You are a living logo with visible authority to wield great power on behalf of the underdog.
Thinking back to one of my most meaningful experiences as a K-12 leader, I was tending to paperwork in my office in the half hour or so after I announced to students in a school-wide meeting my retirement-of-sorts from the K-12 public schools.  As most students and staff were back in class, a small group of students filed in and sat with me, some with smiles and well-wishes; others in tears.  What surprised me the most was the fact that a few of the students who were crying were not those whom I was even aware of close feelings on their part. The authority through which principals make life-changing decisions brings us closer to students than we may ever realize.

            Our relationship with students, upon taking a position as a building leader, may not be exactly the same as it was while a faculty or staff member, yet it will most certainly be “as close” and “as powerful,” if not more so.  We don’t lose touch.  It’s all good!  Yet, I caution that with this realization of potential for strong connections, we also understand that a direct result of factors (1), (2), and  (3) above, can be as much negative as positive, if we are not acting with virtue, mission-mindfulness, and student-centeredness.  Amidst the challenges that school leadership brings to those of us willing to accept the invitation come the greatest possible rewards through relationships with students and stakeholders lasting a lifetime.


Sergiovanni, T. (2009). The principalship: A reflective practice perspective (6th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Education, Inc.

Tough, P. (2008). Whatever it takes: Geoffrey Canada’s quest to change Harlem and America. Boston, MA: Mariner Books.