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, May 28, 2014

A Leader's Quantum Wave

A Leader’s Quantum Wave

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

In quantum physics, matter has two forms, comprised either of “… particles, localized points in space; or … waves, energy dispersed over a finite volume” (Wheatley, 1994, p. 35).  At the subatomic level, matter changes form and adapts to the world in which it comes in contact; these changes are variable and unpredictable – “temporary states in a network of reactions that go on and on” (Wheatley, 1994, p. 69).

We can neither observe nor measure matter’s dual existence at the same time – that of a particle and the wave.  In a constant state of flux, it escapes our desire for a pause or a photograph.  This is a different approach to looking at the world than that of Newtonian science, where things are things … where particles travel distances to bump into one another; where things are more either/or than both/and.

Scientists are now seeing larger representations of these quantum-like microscopic phenomena in the world around us, or at least some similar manifestations of their unpredictable, interactional behavior.  I, for one, am seeing such when I envision the notion of our leadership, or better said, leaders.

A leader is both a particle and a wave – or said differently, both a thing and the energy dispersed.  As I work to get a better understanding of this, I think of the following:

Leaders envision themselves as many things, among them “a boss,” “a servant,” or “a change agent.” I hope not always “a driver of data,” yet that is for another week’s article.

At times, a leader’s colleagues and subordinates see him or her similarly (as a thing); we could call these leaders-as-particles.  Leaders are also the energy they disperse, with or without their awareness. To make my own quantum leap here, leader energy influences (or even becomes) the relationship that exists between followers/stakeholders and the organization, an energy that at times is particle-free, by its very duality of definition.  This we could call leaders-as-waves.

Consider the following: 

At times, we all think of work when we’re home in the evenings.  If a person at work with whom we have positive interactions comes to mind, then that person’s representation, or energy exerting an influence upon us, becomes the relationship we have with our work at that moment.  In that sense, the relationship is good, influenced and/or embodied by one person’s energy or form of matter, one existing in that moment as a wave.

At other times, we think of work and visualize a person with whom we struggle to get along.  With this person in mind, isn’t it true that we might think, “At times, work just stinks.”  Our relationship with work is influenced by the energy of the person’s waveform with whom we struggle.  That person’s very existence, as it contacts our mind’s eye, personifies the relationship between the work and us.

Another metaphor comes to mind – that of a hologram, where “every part contains enough information, in condensed form, to display the whole” (Wheatley, 1994, p. 112).  Any leader is that smaller part of his or her larger organization.  Given that in a hologram, “the image of the whole can be reconstructed from any fragment of the original image,” the leader-as-waveform personifies the larger organization for others. “Most organizations acknowledge that when a customer comes in contact with anyone from the organization, no matter his or her position, the customer experiences the total organization, for good or ill” (pp. 112-113).

As leaders, what is the impact that we are having on others’ relationships with their organizations when they are experiencing our waveform?  Do we realize what impact we have when we morph beyond our particle’s existence?  A leader’s wave energy influences punctuality, absenteeism, proactivity, passion, or anything else within the volume of an organization, that can make either a positive or negative difference in performance, product, or professional reputation. 


Wheatley, M. J. (1994). Leadership and the new science: Learning about organization from an orderly universe.  San Francisco, CA:  Berrett-Loehler Publishers, Inc.


Dr. Ryan Donlan is continually inspired by students and colleagues in the Department of Educational Leadership in the Bayh College of Education.  After a meeting with Ph.D. student Russ Simnick who is well versed in quantum physics, Dr. Donlan visited Dr. Steve Gruenert, Department Chairperson, fellow author, and friend, who lent him a copy of Wheaton’s book.  What you have here is Dr. Donlan’s neophytic attempt at putting something together that he has just discovered for himself, with a little help from his friends.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Curricular Gaps in Preservice Education

Curricular Gaps in Preservice Education

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

Some argue that flexibility and adaptability in our nation’s educational workforce are skillsets that preservice training leaves out, whether in preparation for teaching or educational administration.  Others would say this is not so.

Yet, it is interesting to hear from undergraduate candidates and to envision how we could put science to the measurement and validation of a few anecdotal perspectives (a hint to those designing dissertations). Consider the following:

In a panel of those recently involved in preservice training, candidates said that their university experiences left them “completely unprepared” to deal with the number of days off from school due to inclement weather this past winter, and beyond, the many days that started with two-hour delays, where upon arrival, students often proceeded straight to specials (music, art, and physical education) and then to lunch, leaving core-content instruction for the afternoons.  All this took place amidst pressure for student performance on standardized tests.

Can we at the university do anything about this? 

No, not the inclement weather -- Rather, in helping candidates develop their flexibility and adaptability for educational careers without making them too uncomfortable?  And where does true learning exist, amidst a reasonable level of discomfort?

Let’s see – How to encourage flexibility and adaptability … We could:

1.     Ask students to prepare presentations and (to their surprise) ensure that the technology does not work for the presentation.
2.     Change the rules of an assignment a day before deadline, or the morning of the deadline … or ask students to develop rubrics for their presentations to include negative scores.
3.     Invite unanticipated visitors to class, including the employees or family members of candidates, to up the ante in class discussions or to simply make them nervous.
4.     Provide verbal directions to visual learners and visual directions to those more auditory … or ask individual learners to work in teams and team learners to work individually.
5.     Assign each person on the group project one of the following roles: leader, leader’s supporter, quiet worker, lazy slug, saboteur (without telling folks about others’ respective roles).
6.     Inform students that everything they create during the semester will be “open-source” and encourage everyone to borrow freely from their colleagues’ work.

We wonder how much of these techniques would engender adaptability and flexibility.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to guesstimate that the level of angst and potential pushback for pioneering professors, courageous (or stupid) enough to provide these experiences, would assuredly offer its own disincentive.  Ironically, however, these approaches (to which many might cry afoul) may very well be the training our graduates need to handle the challenges provided to them upon graduation.

Some would say that we in preservice education circles are too pillow-soft to provide REAL, unanticipated experiences demanding the bottom-line risk or even the failure needed to effectively promote flexibility and adaptability in our future generations of educators.  In avoiding such, are we choosing instead a safer route for ourselves, and thus, leaving our newbies exposed to packs of jackals once in the workforce? 

Even more interestingly is what might happen if students manufactured experiences on their own that pushed the envelope – i.e. taking REAL risks of growth (and failure) by going where no current preservice training has gone before.

We heard recently of the student who responded creatively after hearing an instructor’s final essay directions, “Please offer an example of how you have exhibited COURAGE as a student of higher education.”  Shortly after the test commenced, the student approached the instructor’s desk, submitted his essay, and walked out of the room. 

It said, Give me an A.  How’s THAT for Courage!”

We wonder what curricular gaps this instructor’s approach might have addressed, depending on the response provided.


Dr. Ryan Donlan and Dr. Steve Gruenert are hoping that further research is conducted to determine, scientifically, what is left out of preservice education (and what are the results) for leaders and teachers in our nation’s schools.  If you would like to inform them of your research or pose research questions for others to consider, please don’t hesitate to write them at or 

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Subtracting for Additive Leadership

Subtracting for Additive Leadership

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

The textbook Tao Te Ching illustrates one of the foundational schools of Chinese thought, Taoism.  Translated, it is “The Book of the Way and its Power.”  Its author was reported by some to be Lao Tzu, an older contemporary of Confucius and an historian, who was last seen riding a blue water buffalo into the sunset of his life.  Well, other explanations for the book’s authorship include the fact that it was an anthology of Taoist sayings (Introduction by R. Wilkinson, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, Scotland) (Tzu, reprinted with English introduction and translation, 1997).

The term “Tao” is often used in ancient Chinese teachings.  It means the “way” or the “path,” and illustrates a set of principles providing a framework for life and living in Chinese society.  In a sense, the Tao is considered the “ultimate reality” (Wilkinson, in Tzu, 1997, viii).   It is interesting what we can glean from Taoist teachings with respect to differences in Eastern and Western culture, as well as the way countries develop and systems operate, even school systems. 

Colleague and visiting scholar, Dr. Fenfen Zhou, recently provided a copy of the Tao Te Ching, which offers thoughts to consider for this week’s Leadershop.

From Chapter 48:

Learning consists in adding to one’s stock day by day;
The practice of Tao consists in ‘subtracting day by day,
Subtracting and yet again subtracting
Till one has reached inactivity.
But by this very inactivity
Everything can be activated.’
Those who of old won the adherence of all who live under heaven
All did so by not interfering.
Had they interfered,
They would never have won this adherence. (Tzu, 1997 Translation, p. 51)

It is interesting that such a small Tao passage can take exception with the notion of learning, and in doing so, make so much sense to those who embrace education, yet are willing to unlearn to understand it even more.

Consider the following: A great strategy to win a golf match is to send your opponent a book with 101 golf tips. If you don’t have that much time, just leave a copy of Golf Digest sitting in the car when you pick him up. The idea is to get him thinking about his swing – with about 20 swing thoughts all wanting his attention, his swing will suffer given all the new information.

Just what are we adding to our “stock day by day” (p. 51) as practicing educators, that forces us to think too much about our swings? 

A few questions come to mind:  Among new insight into the ways children better learn and adults could better teach, are we actually learning too much?  Are we in a maniacal race for coverage of something overly complicated and developmentally maladaptive during children’s formative years, when they could be best left alone to play?

In considering this, imagine if you would a bucket full of data, any data. Now we will pour the data into a bucket called “information,” using a funnel that separates the two. Some of the stuff will become information and get through; much of it will be noise and will not be of much use. Now pour the information into a bucket called “knowledge,” using a funnel that separates the two. Some of the information will become knowledge; some of it is just information. Each bucket weighs less than the previous one. Using the knowledge we have, pour that stuff into the “wisdom” bucket, or maybe by now it is just a small cup.

From metaphor to meta-analysis -- What are the research-based statistical studies really telling us about teachers’ impact on children or leadership’s influence on student achievement?  Are they telling us anything extra that demands important space alongside all else in our heads?

We think fondly of the principal who runs not from place to place – the principal who rushes not to script the next lesson – the principal who is, in a sense, “inactive” (potentially to his or her occupational peril) believing instead that through a daily professional pause, “everything can be activated” (p. 51).   Could this principal be  “subtracting and again subtracting” (p. 51), making space to provide people what they need?  

In computer lingo this might be called de-fragmenting the hard drive.  In a spiritual sense, it may be called a walk through the wilderness.  In education, it is the mindset some teachers have, realizing students do not come to us as blank slates (Pinker, 2002).  As a qualitative researcher, it is the process of coding hundreds of pages into a few themes. In statistical analyses, we use factor analysis to let 30 questions suffice for 100 without losing the essence of the interrogation.

To stop and smell the roses does not make one lazy; it is a way to let the environment come to us rather than forcing ourselves upon it.

With all we have learned about leadership in the last many years, through training-upon-training, article-upon-article, edict-upon-edict, study-upon-study, and nugget-learned-upon nugget (that which has added to our stock), we may wish to ask the question, “Have we augmented or cluttered what we hope will allow us to find the light of our offices’ doorways and beyond, the rest of the school? 

And others,

“Have all the theories and professed best practices paralyzed our abilities to swing naturally?”

“Are colleagues able to subtract-away the mainstream distractions in order to get back to why they went into our profession?”

“Are we too focused on the large bucket of data when there is a small cup of wisdom?”

And finally, “Can we perform simple subtraction, that which builds upon addition?

Subtracting for Additive Leadership

Knowing One’s Stuff, and Self
Meeting People Where They Are
Doing What Needs to Be Done
Excess Learning
The WAY … The PATH


Tzu, L. (1977, Reprinted Work) Tao te ching. Hertfordshire, SC: Wordsworth Editions Limited. (Original text published 480-222 BC).

Pinker, S. (2002). The blank slate: The modern denial of human nature. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

Dr. Ryan Donlan and Dr. Steve Gruenert made sure to write this Leadershop article at a place free of distractions, said differently, a place minus any learning that would get in the way of their subtracting for clarity.  Please feel free to subtract time from your schedule and write them at or  They would be happy to erase something on their calendars for you.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Leadership and Life's Resume

Leadership and Life’s Resume

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

When I was once buying a vehicle, the salesperson said, “Gosh, it looks like your vehicle doesn’t have a clean CARFAX.”  This was no surprise to me, yet it did impact the tone and tenor of the conversation regarding trade-in value, as both he and I understood it. 

I was reminded of things that have happened in my past, this last weekend, while listening to one of the better Commencement Speakers I have heard in some time, Sally Neville, an alumnus of Indiana State University. 

During my years working with at-risk teenagers, I held a very large picnic each summer for all of the new students coming to our school.  Many of them had parents, guardians, and loved ones who had not graduated from high school.  A good number were products of the criminal justice system.  Many had children, as children.  They had Life’s Resume with them.

Our main goal of that first experience was to provide hope to students and families that they were now in a place that would not judge them … a place that would offer them a fresh start.  Yet no matter what we provided over the course of their time with us, the hard fact was that to a certain degree, past life circumstance would impact them.  And in turn, our students would, in part, define the limits of their capabilities, based on Life’s Resume.  This was our most pressing challenge in educating them, beyond that of academic deficiencies upon arrival.

We live in a world where Life’s Resume is ever-present.  It does seem, more often than not, that as often as we say, “Out damned spot; out I say!” the Hamlet of our existence will not allow for its removal. 

This happens on both personal and professional levels, where Life’s Resume endears us to others, or not … enhances opportunities, or not. 

Consider how much better of a position we are in to look for a new job in school leadership when the Board is not actively trying to fire us.  Our 14th Amendment right to “Liberty” even accords us at times, a certain degree of due process, when Life’s Resume could potentially impinge upon our rights to future, gainful employment.

Think about how the following may impact Life’s Resume – in particular, on any new opportunities (professional or personal) that could come along, or not, as well as how we view the world and our capabilities within it:

Getting Fired from a Job.
Teachers Who Just Don’t Understand Us.
What Our Children Do When We’re Not Looking.
Having the Wrong Last Name, in a Small Town.
An Undiagnosed Disability.
Parents Who Modeled Inappropriate Dispositions for Us.
Bullying in School or in the Workplace.
Unresolved Grief.

So in terms of K-12 leadership, what is our responsibility? 

First, K-12 leadership must recognize that if we do not have items adversely impacting our own Life’s Resumes, then we may be operating from the perspective of privilege (without truly seeing this in ourselves), and thus, lacking empathy. 

Second, K-12 leadership must teach children and families how to be efficacious in a world that incentivizes acceptance of circumstance, one’s “place,” and semi-related …  entitlement. Pillow-soft platitudes and hugging children harder won’t provide for the skills to obtain jobs with medical benefits when the predictability of the school years gives way to adult challenges. 

Finally, K-12 leadership must ensure that all of us look upon others, as Commencement Speaker Sally Neville suggested, standing in awe of the burden they carry, rather than judging them on how or why they are carrying it. 


Dr. Ryan Donlan tries to consider what Life’s Resume has accorded others in each conversation he has with colleagues, friends, and those whom he doesn’t even know, each and every day.  He may not get it right each time, but he’s mindful that he is a pretty lucky fellow, and others may not be.  Dr. Donlan can be reached at (812) 237-8624 or at