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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Thursday, June 26, 2014

Upon the Right Place

Upon the Right Place
A Cross-Cultural Perspective on an On-the-Job Focus in Education

By Dr. Fenfen Zhou
Visiting Scholar and Associate Professor, Shanxi Normal University, China
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

I enter into the meeting room, look around, and notice that tables were situated in a boardroom style, chairs arranged adjacent to one another, one-by-one. The tables provide a space in the center of the room.  My curiosity was aroused when I noticed white, round, little cards on the table. Those little, round cards were confusing to me, a mystery haunting in my mind.

Sometimes the card took the form of a square ceramic plate, with a similar function: to put one’s bottled water or coffee cup upon it.

Is that necessary? Or just something distracting? I thought further and decided, “Let me just watch!”

Dr. Ryan Donlan looked around his table for the card, and upon finding one, put his bottled water upon it. Dr. Steve Gruenert entered with a drink; I neither cared nor knew what it is.  I was just interested in how he dealt with the square ceramic plate.

Ha, he sat his cup on the plate as well, and so naturally. Noticing that everyone always kept his or her cup upon on the card, I saw that during the course of the meeting, the card was moved a little at times, but most of the time, it just stayed on the original point. People were not distracted by their protocols of keeping their bottles on the cards; they just put them back after drinking, very naturally.

The knowledge that this was the right place for one’s cup was built through habit!

This reflection let me think more openly, as one would look at a kitchen. The island board, the dishwasher, the thoughtfully divided drawer for silverware, and so on; all that lends itself to a fine division of clear responsibilities.

That is the answer!

I remembered a point of confusion that always hung around me upon arrival in the United States. When I went different offices, most American offices were clean and well-organized. And when I would arrive at someone’s door, I would be greeted by a very pleasant response. As a visitor, this quick and kind treatment was a surprise.  It also showed me that Americans loved their jobs and held a positive attitude! BUT, how can they develop the positive attitude about their jobs, I thought? That question confused me a lot.

I even asked the local school leaders whom I was job shadowing, but they looked like I just confused them with my question!  It appeared that my American friends and colleagues have been used to enjoying their jobs with the same manner as they put drinks upon cards.  It is such a routine perspective that they don’t even realize the uniqueness of their doing it.  But for me, it was a miracle!  That is a good deal of why I tried to find out the answer.

Now, back to the card in the meeting. The card symbolically gives me the answer!

If we think of ourselves as the bottle, and the card, our direct responsibilities in our jobs that we place ourselves upon, with items on the table being other aspects of our jobs, or as Americans say, the many hats we wear, the metaphor seems to make more sense.  If we always do the job we’re supposed to be doing, just like having our cups rest upon a coaster in the right place, it reduces the chaos in our work.  This focus allows us to use our own jobs to bring out the best in other people, resulting in its own positive feelings about what we are doing. 

I am better understanding that if we concentrate on the human element of doing our jobs – the person-to-person relationships – and always keep in mind that people are our most important responsibility when entering our offices, we’ll in turn will get used to it, and we will find even more amusement in what we are doing professionally. 

Further, if everyone can easily come to this point, office work can be easygoing, and organized as well!


Dr. Fenfen Zhou from Shanxi Normal University is spending a year in the United States to collaborate with Dr. Ryan Donlan in the Department of Educational Leadership at Indiana State University. She is actively involved in scholarship regarding schools and teacher preparation and is keenly interested in furthering her understanding of western culture and its implications for teaching and learning.  Dr. Zhou can be contacted at 

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

"Out-of-the-Park" Summertime P.D.

“Out-of-the-Park” Summertime P.D.

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

Educational leaders across the country are fine-tuning and implementing their summertime professional development for K-12 faculties and staffs.  As I am asked from time to time to comment on leadership and staff development, I would like to share some “must have’s” that I would use, myself, for the most impact and best outcomes. 

My ideas are not necessarily out-of-this-world; however, at minimum, they’re out-of-the-park. 

I’m betting they’ll make a positive difference in outlook, perspective, and even the professional efficacy of faculty and staff as we move from one school year to another, mindful again of what conversations we have … and how.

In hosting summertime P.D., I would encourage you as school leaders to employ the following TOP TEN:

#10 – Provide as much for the needs of adults attending the events as you provide for the need to have information disseminated.  Focus on relationships over tasks, as the more important goal should be to develop people.

#9 – Teach faculty and staff on how to become better teachers of students, more so than how to become better teachers of content.  Students who are at-risk of failure at times will learn more for the people they admire and the feelings they have about themselves, than they will for extrinsic rewards (or threats) or love of content.

#8 – Avoid mentioning “the state” (state or national government), unless you are speaking about positively (and then, use their agency’s actual name).  Saying “the state [this or that]” foments an “us” versus “them” mentality, through verbal inflection alone.  It then trickles down into teachers’ lounge conversations and eventually to classrooms.  It really doesn't do anyone, any good, and speaks ill of your leadership and management.

#7 – Similarly, try something completely different:  Make no mention of last year’s test scores or the upcoming year’s assessment cycle.  Avoiding the term “data-driven” would be a good first step, as those who are driven by numbers oftentimes fail to learn from those who are “data-informed.”  Would a conversation on teaching and learning be more appropriate?

#6 – Ensure that all on your leadership team listen to faculty and staff, much more than they talk.  As my friend and colleague, Dr. Linda Marrs-Morford, mentioned this week in a meeting she was facilitating, “That’s why we have two ears and one mouth.”

#5 – Use theories of andragogy and heutagogy, when discussing pedagogy.

#4 – Hold the event somewhere else than your school or the school district (speaking of “out-of-the-park,” what about a park?).   Ensure a festive atmosphere, with music, food, and comfort.

#3 – Provide child care and children’s activities during the event, so that the attention of parents can be fully on the event.  Wouldn’t something fun and educational for the kids be really cool?

#2 – Incorporate stories that inspire.  If you do not tell the story of what you’re all about, someone else will be assuredly telling theirs.

#1 – Thank folks for what they do and especially for whom they are.


Dr. Ryan Donlan believes he has this all figured out.  If you would like to join the conversation, please feel free to contact him at (812) 237-8624 or at at anytime.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Do Schools Need Leadership?

Do Schools Need 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

On a sign in our town: Are you a leader? Hiring managers for new business.  

This is an example of the typical confusion that exists in the general public between two very different terms, leader and manager.  For those who know the difference, the sign might imply that leaders need not apply, as they are not being recruited.  We doubt this was the business’s intent, as most businesses want leadership.  Leadership is the reason an organization succeeds or fails, so people think.  

One question on our minds amidst the Death and Life of the great American School System and the subsequent Reigns of Error (Ravitch), as well as our attempts at Catching Up or Leading the Way (Zhao), in an era with perplexing Focus (Schmoker), would be, “Do schools need leadership?” 

Consider what takes place within …

Learning is a transactional process.

Students listen to teachers and then determine which part of that stuff they will believe, and thus which stuff will be useful in their lives. The useful stuff is kept in their minds for future reference; the other stuff is dumped. Yet, heaven forbid that some of the discard might be on “The Test,” so what can a teacher do to help students keep the useless, yet prescriptively pertinent stuff in mind at least until the test is over?

Answer:  The teacher needs to find a way to motivate the students to drag around a few bricks: Quid pro quo.  Is leading a part of this?

Again, learning is a transactional process.

Educators need students to produce outcomes that at times, have little value to students, and at times, even teachers.  It’s a microcosm of the larger scene of national pressure upon educators to produce test-do’ers, the contemporary definition of good students.  Like with certain forms of grunt work, most people don’t like to dig holes, but many will do it for money, or in response to a force greater than themselves. Students will produce irrelevant outcomes if they are bribed enough, or threatened … teachers as well. 

If this is true, that is, if doing school the way it must be done today necessitates extrinsic bribery and bullying, then success in school requires a more transactional approach, person-to-person.  This is a bit more complicated than allowing for intrinsic motivation to flourish in terms of interests, aptitudes, and abilities.  Forced fits take more finesse, requiring someone in positional authority to serve as a concierge, a steward of interaction, a savvy sentry, one who wields both the carrots and sticks toward a prescribed outcome.  In the classroom, the teacher is one such steward, managing relationships toward content outcomes of another’s bidding. 

In the school, the principal manages similarly.

School the way it is currently defined today, from without, might have no place for leadership.

One could contend that with our current situation, leadership impedes stewardship.  It certainly might impede regimentation.  True leadership might get in the way of management’s careful negotiation of relationships between teachers and students. With the current outcomes expected of American schools and students, management is the more efficient means for ensuring a predictable and expected product – test-passers – than asking some conceptual visionary to take us forward, somewhere.

After all, our metaphorical plane’s route is already programmed.  We’re on automatic pilot and at a prescribed cruising altitude, scheduled to land somewhere around testing time.  Certainly not Finland.  Or even China, as they are busy moving away from what we have become.

Leaders are people who are paid to think of tomorrow and build new structures to get us there, not necessarily what is expected currently in our K-12 schools.  Better employed with the demands of today, leaders might be subcontracted like interior designers for the organization’s structure when a facelift is needed to produce better widgets, or like travel agents working to book our tickets when the next set of rules moves the target destination. Leadership’s outsourcing would be convenient, in that they can be asked to leave when their thinking gets too crazy. Nobody would feel obligated to laugh at their jokes, nor would anyone feel obligated to pay them outrageous salaries while they lead the maniacal race for someone’s dangled dollars.  More then could be spent on teaching to the next test. 

Leaders live in the future. We need people who can help other people manage the present, as that is what is expected of us.

We need stewards.  Managers are the stewards.

If we claim that schools are not places for leaders – that they are places for managers – we should not be ashamed of it.  Management is just as challenging as leadership.  We shouldn’t believe all those publications, pundits, and pontificators that glorify leadership as the top of the executive food chain, those that decry management as a lesser life form.  These folks make a repeated mistake of equating leadership with positive organizational change and management with the maintenance of status quo.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  After all, not all leaders could be managers; that would take a deep understanding of people and the putting of their needs first. Many strong managers could do leadership if they were allowed to look outward or move forward creatively.  

Think of the irony involved with leaders in education today, those who are out front with all of their hyper-vigilant visioning, championing, and charting in order to increase performance on tests, all the while their people are imploding because they know it is the wrong thing to do. We call that leading.

How often does America legislate for doctors “what” defines a healthy patient?  How often do we mandate the “how” of a nurse’s care?  Leadership still exists in that profession, at all levels.

Yet, what about in education? To deny that K-12 administrators must spend their days counting beans, looking at the bottom line, and hoping to show a profit rather than leading, is a bit naïve.  Equally naïve is the notion that the folks forced to play this game, teachers and students, do not need much time and attention, care and feeding.  If test-doing is the game we are in, then we need to get good at it.  Getting better at it involves stewardship of our people as we are forcing an extrinsic system upon many who are hard wired for intrinsic need fulfillment. 

Our current system, if we were being quite honest, is afraid of leaders.

In education, if we are to maintain what we have become, let’s allow building administrators to unapologetically be what they need to be – managers – in systems that require stewardship to keep everyone on the same page, in a book that non-educators are writing.


Please be encouraged to join the discussion with Dr. Donlan and Dr. Gruenert by writing them at or at  They would be happy to talk leadership and management, at any time.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Schooooooool's OUT FOR SUMMER!

Schooooooool’s OUT FOR SUMMER!

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

The countdown began last August or September … “180, 179, 178” … and ends for many this week, with a “3, 2, 1 … ZEROOOO.” 

As Alice Cooper sang long ago, “Schooooooool’s Out, FOR SUMMER!!!”

Some in our profession mark yearlong tallies of the countdown in their classrooms, to the delight of students.  It is as if educators and students, alike, now seemingly have much to celebrate amidst sunshine and lemonade. 

Yet, let us consider as well, what else may be happening for the next two-to-three months:

The onset of forgotten academic content;

Increased costs for child care in families;

Sweltering heat with no respite for the impoverished;

An end to cafeteria food, and thus … “food,” for many;

Idle time for kids, in which they can learn from the unwritten curriculum of smoking or imbibery;

Hours and hours of daytime drivel, where television hosts bring together belles of the barroom and their babies’ daddies to discuss the foreign language of monogamous relationships;

General increases in crime and hospital emergency room traffic in many locales; and of course …

Fewer adult role models making a positive impact upon impressionable children.

I’ll skip my typical “21st century, yet-still-in-an-agrarian-calendar” points of contention, as we might have a deeper problem here, evidenced by the fact that much of our hoopla comes after 36 consecutive “TGIF’s” celebrated, with a similar number of morose Mondays mourned in our K-12 classrooms. 

Enjoy your summer.


Dr. Ryan Donlan is wondering what all of this summertime celebration is really about.  Conversations among his doctoral students from the Indianapolis area inspired him to visit his back deck this week and put some thought into this whole notion of the “Big Countdown.”  If you would like to spar with him a bit about the relative importance of summer vacation for K-12 students and our profession, please feel free to throw-down at or (812) 237-8624.  Might do him some good.