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, August 27, 2014

From the Barber Shop

Please allow us at the ISU Ed. Leadershop to revisit something we shared with you in 2013.  


From the Barber Shop

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

When a barber sits next to you in a barbershop, awaiting his own haircut, you can plan on getting a good one, yourself. 

Good conversation, as well. 

That was the case last Friday, during my bi-weekly visit to Kent Taylor’s Barbershop in Terre Haute, Indiana.

The fact that my children, Sean and Katelyn, were with me made a story told by the awaiting barber particularly heartwarming, as my kids listened with interest.  They loved the story, and I was surprised that I hadn’t heard it prior. 

I’m sharing this story, details added from my subsequent inquiry, in this week’s Leadershop.  I have often found that as teachers, we borrow some of our better ideas from others.  That is the case with me this week.

Maybe one of you or your teachers would like to try this sometime.


A high school social studies teacher in Arkansas got permission from her principal and superintendent to start the school year without desks in her class.  No desks were present as her first period students arrived.

Students, surprised and finding they needed to sit on the floor, asked their teacher, “Ms. Cothren, where are our desks?”  The teacher responded, “You don’t get a desk until you can tell me how you earn one.”

Students responded, saying, “I guess we’ll have to make good grades.”  Ms. Cothren responded, “You need to make good grades, but that’s not how you get a desk.”

Others said, “It’s our behavior.  We have to behave, then you’ll give us a desk.”

“Well, you better behave in here, but that’s not how you get a desk.”

When the next period started, the process continued.  Students found no desks and were unable to provide a sufficient answer to the teacher’s satisfaction.  And as high school students would, they began calling their parents as this story is told, probably with cell phones, saying “Ms. Cothren’s lost her mind; she’s taken the desks out of the classroom.”

By lunchtime, the news media was at the school, reporting on the event.  In fact, all four local affiliates were on hand with cameras.

Ms. Cothren held her ground until the last class period.

At that time, students arrived again to find, “What else?” … no desks. 

They sat on the ground and stood against the wall, as all class periods had done before. 

Ms. Cothren said, “I guess I’m going to have to explain it to you.”

She then opened the door.

Into the classroom walked 27 veterans of the United States Armed Forces, each carrying a desk.  The veterans placed the desks in rows, then moved to one side of the classroom.

Ms. Cothren said to her students, “Guys, you don’t have to earn your desks after all, because these guys already did.”

“Every day you come in here and sit at these desk, I want you to never forget that [your desks] may be free for you, but [they weren’t] to these guys and for some of their friends who didn’t come back with them.

She then encouraged her students to sit in their desks and make good on what had been earned.


Now that’s darn good teaching, the kind often talked on in Kent Taylor’s Barbershop, and barbershops around the country.

After arriving home from Kent’s that afternoon, I found on-line, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee delivering this story at a speech at a national event in 2007, [among other venues in which he delivered it, I understand].  I tried my best to relay the quotations from his speech accurately.

“Many thanks” to the barber who shared this great story with Sean, Katelyn, my barber Kent, the folks who were awaiting haircuts, and me.

Who is Ms. Cothren? 

Martha Cothren taught this great lesson in 2005 on the first day of school in Joe T. Robinson High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Thank you, Ms. Cothren, for this incredible, teachable moment, and please extend my truest regard to the school leaders who supported your innovation (and with leadership excellence, probably grinned from ear to ear as the press gathered outside).

From the Barber Shop … I’m Ryan Donlan reporting.


Dr. Donlan considers veterans of the American armed forces true heroes, including his father and father-in-law who served admirably overseas, the former at the Berlin Wall helping others to freedom; the latter in Vietnam with his sweetheart, now “Grandma Kathy,” awaiting his safe return.  Please feel free to contact Dr. Donlan with stories of darn-good teaching at (812) 237-8624 or at  Or … see him at the Barber Shop.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Where to, Next?

Where to, Next?

By Sheila Akinleye
Doctoral Student
Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor

Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

Many of us have been there –with children who just won’t stop asking questions.  If your kids are anything like those of our respective families, then one of their favorite places for commentary, questioning, and even at times, cross-examination, is the car. They’ll want to know where we are going, what’s going to happen when we get there, and where we are going next, all in one breath.
            It dawned on us, that we as adults, who are oftentimes bigger renditions of our childhood selves, are little different from our children when it comes to seeking direction in the midst of uncertainty.  In our roles as leaders, just like anyone else, we have encountered situations in our professional careers where we began to wonder, “Where to, next?” …  “What move should I make?” … and “Where am I headed?”  
Wanting to keep our positions of leadership, ones of “Blissness as Usual” for as long as possible (ISU Ed. Leadershop, April 2, 2014), we seek comfort in knowing when to stay in our current roles, and then when, why, and under what conditions to move on (let alone “how”) professionally.  It is with this in mind that we began thinking about responding to these questions from the perspective of two important ideas, which can apply to the lives of other leaders as they consider new opportunities. Therefore, in the remainder of this article we investigate how self-direction and reflection, two important qualities for helping us become leaders, can assist in the discovery process of “Where to, next?”
Unlike the usual responses, including our logical appeals to patience and comfort in the unknown, which work about as well with the adults as they do to our children, this response requires the foresight and skill necessary to take calculated risks. We offer the following for your consideration:

“To know where we are going, we must know where we are.”

Our inquisitive children are known to ask good questions, such as, “How do you know where you’re going?”  An immediate and simplified response would be, “Because I know where I am and where I want to be.” This question is a great parallel for people who marvel at great leadership at work because the response given reveals the mind of a master at work.
The process of assessing where we are, upon which road we are traveling, and where to turn next, takes a good deal of effort for most.  Our best travelers are able to clearly define where one is in relation to where one wants to be, impacting how quickly one arrives at any destination.
For example, the standard route for most teachers desiring to become school leaders is to get an administrator’s license and begin shadowing an administrator at their schools or others’ schools. Yet, this isn’t the only pathway available to budding leaders desiring make a positive difference on behalf of children. Multiple opportunities present themselves.
Who will garner leadership opportunities the quickest -- most efficiently and effectively in whatever path is available?  It will be those who know where they are, of course.  Persons who are in places that allow them, no matter the circumstance, to leverage leadership traits and skills in whatever form (i.e. “to make things happen”) will be more apt to parlay their present circumstance to those of the next.  A case in point is the successful teacher leader who leverages skills and carries the clout of someone who “holds it down” in the classroom, walking the walk of one who inspires others to perform above their own expectations. No doubt those holding the keys to the next leadership opportunity will see such a person as more capable of exponentially expanding their immediate gifts in reaching students.

“To get to where we are going, the “who” we need to know is us.”

Leaders may be “found”; they may even be “created” in a sense, through careful coaching and leadership development.  Whether they are born is an ongoing debate.  That said, true leaders almost always share something in common, a presence, or as Jack Zenger of Forbes Magazine would call it, “self-awareness.”  Self-awareness involves knowing the effect we have on others around us, as well as knowing how we are being perceived, and even more importantly, using this information as a type of tool or instrument to get the job done.
Poor leaders often mistakenly believe they can travel where they want to go, focused on the job to get done, or even on others, before focusing on themselves.  By doing so, they inadvertently treat others as tools or instruments, when the more powerful tool, self-awareness, is working against them. This not only undermines their own successes, but also creates much unintentional inefficiency in their wake.
Viewing self-awareness from a different perspective, in their work, Beyond Drama: Transcending Energy Vampires, Dr. Nate Regier and Jeff King explain how to avoid the trap of the energy draining, dramatic theater that often happens in human relationships by adopting what they call, “The Compassion Triangle.”  Drawing upon the work of Steven Karpman, the authors define the three points of the compassion triangle as: persistence, resourcefulness, and openness.  Self-awareness, or having the presence of mind of a true leader, requires these same qualities.

            As a sage-like parent might respond to a child who asks, “Are we there yet?” leaders may be wise to encourage self-awareness in responding, “Does it appear that we are?” or maybe even one more reflective, “What does ‘there,’ look like?”


Zenger, J. (2014, April 17). The singular secret for a leader's success: self-awareness. Retrieved from

Regier, N., & King, J. (2013). Beyond drama: transcending energy vampires. Newton, KS: Next Element Consulting.


Sheila Akinleye and Ryan Donlan enjoy pondering how life and leadership intersect.   Their vantage points for the beginning of conversations often begin with themselves.  If you would like to contact either, please feel free to reach-out at or .

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

School-to-Prison Pipeline: Leadership's Responsibility in Effective Disciplinary Practices

School-to-Prison Pipeline: Leadership’s Responsibility in Effective Disciplinary Practices

By Jeremy Eltz
Doctoral Student
Indiana State University
STEM Coordinator
Indiana Department of Education
Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

Elliot Washor and Charles Mojkowski (2013) noted how out-of-school learning and engagement increases student success and reduces the dropout rate.  While they certainly make an excellent point that we must think about “doing school” a different way, they also inspire us to think in the inverse regarding a school’s obligation to provide quality, out-of-school experiences in order to make this happen.  One could argue that schools today provide out-of-school learning experiences, but rather through the use of suspensions and expulsions, as opposed to intentional curricular design. 
This is probably not new information for anyone; yet rather, a reason to make the case that our most bleak schools and communities need our most dynamic, effective, and highly trained, capable leaders, with a laser-like focus on continual engagement and student opportunity. Not only on kids’ best days, but on their not-so-best as well.
Last year Indianapolis held the distinct honor of having a higher murder rate than Chicago.  Many of these murders go unsolved because no witnesses care enough to come forward.  On June 16th, 2014, a murder trial took place for one of many defendants, amidst one of many victims, both African American boys on the east side of Indianapolis.  Something happened between the two boys; now, both families are irrevocably broken.  A child’s life outcome may very well be influenced by where he lived.  Had these two boys lived in Carmel, one could argue they may have been roommates in college instead of rival drug dealers. Education or community assets might have prevented a mother from burying her son and then testifying at the trial.  Education or community assets might have prevented another young man from spending the next 45 years of his life in a 5x8 cell.
Much pressure is placed upon school leaders to save their communities and ensure their students don’t end up becoming statistics.  To expect school leaders to change communities might be a tad unreasonable; however, expecting them to do what they are able to do, and control what they can control, is not.  One such example would be in school discipline.
School leaders determine the consequences for students when their behaviors become a distraction.  School leaders decide how long to put students out on the streets when suspended or expelled, or conversely to keep them inside.  School leaders decide whether or not to allow students a viable, powerful out-of-school teaching and learning curriculum, such as that shared by Washor and Mojkowski (2013).  In other words, school leaders deliver a curriculum either by what they offer to students facing school sanctions, or through what they don’t. 
Several reports have come out recently depicting the state of our nation’s schools. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) released Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2013, research by Robers, Kemp, Rathbun, & Morgan (2014). They reported that in 2012, roughly 750,000 assaults and 31 violent deaths occurred in K-12 schools.  This report indicated that city schools had substantially higher rates of gang presence, classroom disorder, disrespect toward teachers, bullying, sexual harassment, and/or racial tension.  Black and Hispanic students still had the highest dropout rate at 7 and 14 percent respectively.  
From a financial perspective, it is cheaper to educate rather than to incarcerate.  The phrase, “school-to-prison pipeline” describes the all-too-common incidence of schools diverting students into the juvenile or corrections system. These schools are disproportionately urban schools in our largest school districts. NCES indicates the population of these schools is 38% Hispanic, 33% African American, 20% white, and 7% Asian (Robers et al., 2014).  Students are not graduating from high school to college, rather from the county jail to the state prison.
Typically, urban schools are staffed by well-meaning individuals, but those individuals are often culturally, racially, linguistically, etc. different from their students, which can strain communication and lead to personality conflicts.  In many cases, teachers simply do not understand their students, ethnically or culturally, and they do not live in the communities in which they teach.  Thus, the students in the most need of additional education and counseling typically are not well understood.  Consider the case of African American students, who represent 16% of the student population, yet account for 31% of school-related arrests (Robers et al., 2014). These students are also three times more likely to be suspended or expelled than Caucasian students, and students who are suspended or expelled are three times more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system.
We suggest that no silver bullet exists for effective discipline.  Yet, we do say, “School leaders, please take a note, that policies written by your district and enforced at the student level don’t always make sense or apply to the situation.”  It is more important to identify what factors culturally, socially, academically, and psychologically, lead this student to act this way. Sometimes the way we prescribe consequence is similar to a doctor treating the symptoms and not the cause, putting a Band-Aid on something malignant.
Such is the case with many exclusionary discipline practices that have been proven not to work. How could they work, when they lead to lost learning time and a lack of student intervention?  Across the country, 95% of suspensions are for non-violent offenses for things like tardiness, disrespect, disruptive behavior, profanity, and other seemingly trivial offenses (Robers et al., 2014).  One has to believe that a great deal of this boils down to poor communication between adults and students.
Our best school leaders know that every decision they make affects those around them and the future of our communities.  It is unfortunate that schools have to take much more responsibility for the well-being of children than the hours of enrollment per day would seem to necessitate, but that is the case, and our leaders have to be up to the challenge.
Our school leaders must even more effectively understand how current disciplinary practices and policies are leading to unintended educational outcomes for our most at-risk students – those that run counter to the principles upon what we wish our society to uphold.  With this in mind, can we find a way to honor the personalities and individuality of all students, and further, to connect with their caregivers and families in partnership?   
It’s not only important from a societal perspective, but it’s morally and ethically the right thing to do.


Robers, S., Kemp, J., Rathbun, A., & Morgan, R.E. (2014). Indicators of School Crime and
Safety: 2013. National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, and Bureau of Justice Statistics, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. Washington, DC.  

Washor, E., & Mojkowski, C. (2013). Leaving to learn: How out-of-school learning increases student engagement and reduces dropout rates. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Jeremy Eltz and Ryan Donlan believe in the collective capacity of policymakers, statewide stewards, and local educators to make a positive difference in education on behalf of children, families, and communities.  They can be reached at or at

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Leadership is Not Always the Solution

Leadership is Not Always the Solution

By Steve Gruenert
Associate Professor and Department Chairperson
Eric Jackson II
PhD Student
David McGuire
PhD Student
Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor

Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

Too often we hear pundits in K-12 education using leadership as the solution to any problem. “With strong leadership anything can be accomplished!” they proclaim.  The problem with this statement is that when something fails, it has become fashionable to blame leadership and move on, when other factors regarding the success or failure of schools are well in play.

The Merriam Webster dictionary defines leadership (noun) a few different ways: The position of leading a group, organization, etc.; the time when a person leads; and/or when one has the power or ability to lead.
Leadership under all three definitions might only be good for leadership.  In schools, for example, it can only do so much.  To those who decry that leadership has the ability to “fix” K-12 education, we offer a few thoughts regarding potentially, a more accurate depiction of the breadth and depth of leadership’s influence.

Leadership does not necessarily fix bad teaching.  It cannot necessarily improve one’s learning, as leadership is not necessarily efficacious cross-contextually.  We cannot naturally apply leadership skills to other domains in our life and guarantee a high level of success; in fact, we may make things worse.  Think of the fact that if leadership is the act of getting others to do something they would not have done otherwise, then when sitting around with friends, the use of leadership would be more akin to manipulation. As leadership requires followers, wouldn’t we be subordinating our spouse or partner when we tried to lead in that context?

We can all remember being in elementary school, at the front of the line where we were called the leader.  In high school we may have been a captain of a varsity sport, president of a club, or just a leader in our circle of friends.  Those situations illustrate that leadership is what it is, and not too much more. Once we return from the elementary restroom, we’re back to being students.  Once off the field, we are simply teenagers once again.  When with other groups besides our small circle, we’re not necessarily the ones with any elevated status.

Yet, we cast leadership with a broad brushstroke and over-glorify its power to handle what society throws at us as educators.  We also lay blame to leaders when things don’t go well.  We fire the boss.  Poor leadership might not be the reason schools are failing.  It certainly is not the reason the bread won’t rise or why it rains … why we lose golf balls … why we get parking tickets … why the computer froze …  or why we can’t stay on a diet.  Some may try to make an indirect link to leadership for these phenomena; those are the people who call for the coach to be fired when the franchise president hired the players.

To them we say:  “Stop using leadership (or the lack of) as the reason bad things happen.  Stop the over-simplification of everything - as a result of one concept.”

When in an argument with friends, try using Fullan’s six steps, or slide into one of Bolman and Deal’s four frames when you are not catching fish.  I’m sure they’ll be inspired to take a bite.  The next time you need to help someone fix a flat tire, consider Johari’s Window. When someone’s punching you in the nose, “Seek first to understand,” as Covey might suggest …

Viewing the video Derek Sivers: How to Start a Movement (see YouTube), we quickly discover that leadership is over-glorified. In this case, the video depicts one “lone nut” who is acting weird.  It takes a normal, second person – a follower who people respect – to take the leader’s message and make it useful - to create a movement.

The next time something goes wrong, try not to seek out a person or action related to leadership as the cause.  Instead, open your eyes and look around.  It is not strong leadership that prevents adversity.  Nor is it strong leadership that works through adversity; it is strong people.

Leadership is more of an opportunity than a person, more an event than a position.  The Chinese philosopher and poet Lao Tzu once said, “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”  

This is not to say that leadership doesn’t have its place.  The next time you get a chance to lead something, do it.  After all, leadership can at times, provide someone upwardly mobile and opportunistic a bigger office, an increase in salary, and in some cases, less work.  At other times, leadership can allow us truly to make a positive difference in people’s lives.

Yet, while leading, don’t over-estimate your impact, as leadership might only be good for leadership. It may just be a tool.  Some would even say that once the system is fixed, the tool could then go back into the toolbox, contrary to the typical message delivered at anyone’s next high-priced conference event.

In times of war, we hope to have strong leadership to get us through each battle.  However, if we had strong management, we would have never gone to war.


Steve Gruenert, Eric Jackson II, David McGuire, and Ryan Donlan all approach leadership from different perspectives, but what they do have in common is that they ALL approach leadership.  They’re also keenly interested in what you think about their Leadershop contributions this week, so please consider shouting out at,,, or