Thank you for visiting the ISU Ed. Leadershop. Our intent over the past few years has been to field-test community-engaged writings for PK-20 practitioner conversation -- quick, 5-minute "read's" that help put into perspective the challenges and opportunities in our profession. Some of the writings have remained here solely; others have been developed further for other outlets. Our space has been a delightful "sketch board" for some very creative minds in leadership, indeed.

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Monday, September 29, 2014

"Calling" 4th and Inches

“Calling” 4th and Inches

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

            The Indiana State University Sycamore Football Team competed this past weekend against the Liberty University Flames.  At one point in this fairly close game, the Sycamores were “4th and inches.”  The typical decision here is to either take a risk and “Go for it!” with the run, or punt the ball more conservatively and rely upon your defense to hold the other line. 
The Sycamores “went for it” all right, in fact, deciding surprisingly to throw down the field, gaining sweet yardage and positioning themselves for an eventual score.

            I couldn’t believe they did that!!
            That’s risk-taking.

            In golf, we might do the same in taking a pin shot instead of laying-up, amidst complicated hazards in high winds.  I’m sure other analogies would fit us well, whether in sports, gambling, fine arts, or the world of business. 
            What I’m not so sure about is whether risks this big should be taken in education, as children’s live are involved.  It’s one thing to have “4th and inches”; that’s just our business.  It’s another to decide, “What’s next?”

I once took such a pin shot in a teaching hire, adversely affecting for a time the classroom instruction of children.  Felt remiss and took full responsibility.

I once threw down the field with a program of faculty professional development and ended-up glad my Board didn’t look too closely at the return on investment (regretted meeting that sales rep at the national conference).

I once put it all on red in a decision regarding student discipline and ended-up weighing the benefits of one who wasn’t at all interested, over the others who were adversely affected.   Not my finest hour.

            While I guess I could give myself credit for not being a K-12 coward when circumstances called for leadership decisions, at times I feel remiss that I didn’t approach particular situations with a bit more wisdom and conservancy.
            It would have been smarter as a building principal or superintendent to employ a building-level risk-benefit analysis when “bringing game,” much like I would imagine our fighting Sycamores did last weekend, eventually winning 38-19.  
            Unlike sports, however, in which I deeply respect the sacrifice and commitment of all involved, our profession is more a high-stakes obligation of human service, where every decision runs a risk of making lives better, or conversely, making lives worse through our every gamble. 

Sometimes, we don’t get another chance at the ball or a halftime in which to regroup.

            It is a rare day in K-12 education that circumstances would justify throwing on 4th and inches, when a whole lot of folks are trying to knock us down, and our children as well – many without protective gear or even a desire to be in the game. 


Dr. Ryan Donlan love a taking risks, yet reflects back upon the impetuous of his youth in striving to make a positive difference on behalf of children.  He strives today to encourage K-12 leaders to remain sharp, risk-tolerant, and creative in “bringing game,” while smartly coaching themselves to understand the consequences of every 4th down they face.  If you would like to help this non-athlete better understand sports analogies, or even the realities of today’s K-12 practitioner, please consider contacting him at (812) 237-8624 or at

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Natural Order of Things

The Natural Order of Things

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

Thank goodness for grandparents who have taken on the responsibility of raising their children’s children – their grandchildren – when life happens and circumstances necessitate.  A special place is reserved for those folks, from my perspective.

Yet, with much respect for their altruism, I can’t help but think that grandparents’ raising their grandchildren (more often than not) is not in the natural order of things.  Something is just a bit too onerous about it, for all involved, albeit of critical importance, as “someone” must do the raising.

I feel the same way about principals in schools who take the predominant responsibility for raising their students.  Thank goodness someone is doing the heavy lifting, yet it’s not really the most optimal arrangement. 

What do I mean by principals’ raising children? 

Principals have a tendency to “raise” children when they focus on “students first.”  In an indirect fashion, they raise children when they prescribe the HOW of instruction.  Principals more directly raise children when they prioritize the needs of students over the needs of the adults in the school buildings.  None of these situations bring about the most optimal results in K-12 education, from my perspective.  

Principals in the most ideal sense serve as programmatic grandparents. 

When principals have done their jobs providing for the care, feeding, and education of their teachers and staff (i.e. parenting the adults), a principal’s own children (faculty and staff) are able to serve as well-adjusted, programmatic parents to their students.  When grandparenting supplants parenting, something is just not right, albeit well intended.

With bad teachers, a principal’s parenting of students might be necessary, just as in the case when a child’s parent is not functional in the home, or Heaven forbid, in a tragedy.  Someone must step-in, for the best interest of the child.  Yet, with good hires and sound stewardship of faculty and staff, the proper order of things can be maintained, and school wellness can be the result.

My proposition is that the adults in our schools must focus on needs of other adults FIRST, giving each other encouragement so that they have the energy to parent.  It’s an adult-relationship thing – a social-capital thing.  In other words, from the standpoint of professional staff members, schools must really be about adults FIRST, if schools want to be about children MOST.

How often do we see children suffering in households if the parents are not well-adjusted.  Broken adults rarely help broken kids, or even those well-put-together.

Our best principals serve as grandparents – lights of continuing wisdom and inspiration for the adults directly raising the children in the building.  As grandparents, our best principals stop by classrooms from time to time to offer the hugs, smiles, and niceties that grandparents can offer, leaving further care and feeding of the students to their programmatic parents, with children energized from the experience, yet without too much spoiling.

I would certainly hope that the image of their grandparents our children see is not one affixed to a tablet, scripting how a teacher focuses on classroom-specific tasks that are devoid of parenting, albeit scoped, sequenced, and standardized.


Dr. Ryan Donlan is keenly interested in how adult-to-adult relationships in schools can enhance and augment the teaching/learning experience.  If you would like to discuss this with him further, please do not hesitate to contact him at (812) 237-8624 or write him at

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Patriot Day 2014

On this Patriot Day 2014, the ISU Ed. Leadershop would like to sincerely THANK the proud men and women of the United States Armed Forces, as well as the educators, public safety heroes, and human services professionals in this great nation and beyond, for working to make our world a better place in which to live, as well as to celebrate diversity and the freedoms provided to us.   

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Laboring on Projects

Laboring on Projects

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

Labor Day earlier this week brought with it a national celebration of the American worker.  It also served as a gift that families could use to spend time together before recommitting to careers and education for the fall season.

Our household served as a hub of activity, as much of my extended family stayed for the weekend.  My nephew Jenner, now attending Rose Hulman Institute of Technology, brought his family to town for the big move-in. Other in-laws were passing through on their way to Kentucky.  We also had our neighbors stopping by, as well as our friend and colleague from China, Dr. Fenfen Zhou and her son, sharing some of their culinary expertise and good company.

At the intersection of these visits was something that reminded me of what happens in schools each and every day: folks “laboring over projects.” 

In our case, it was the addition of an attic ladder to an existing 34” X 23” opening in our garage ceiling.  Thankfully, my father-in-law is a retired contractor and although a few years past his heavy lifting, is always eager to complete something for his daughter and her family.

I’m a pencil-pusher, pretty much useless in these projects, or one step above, yet have a positive outlook and will try to learn anything.

Here’s how we labored over project:  In examining the opening, roughly eight feet above the garage floor, my father-in-law said immediately, “Who cut that hole?!?” 

What I didn’t know at the time was that most attic ladder door units are manufactured at least 48 inches in length; ones available for purchase locally were 54 inches.  The hole wasn’t nearly big enough.  After grabbing whatever tools I had around the garage, we set to work.

There we were, my father-in-law, the seasoned veteran, with more knowledge forgotten in construction than most amass in a lifetime, yet no longer one to lift, pound, or carry all too much.  I’m there with a handful of hand-me-down, garage sale tools and “no game,” to speak of.  My wife, Wendy, much better at construction than I, is her father’s daughter, so that helped.  Thankfully, my brother-in-law returned from Rose Hulman about half way through the project, just in time to see me trapped in an attic, wondering how lag bolts worked, if that isn’t any indication of my expertise.  This was after all the electrical re-routing, re-wiring, cutting, sawing, climbing, and hammering to make a new hole in an existing garage roof.  With my brother-in-law’s rescue, we got the job done.  It was pretty difficult but a lot of fun.  We had a cheering section, and most of all, we were family.

I thought of some parallels to our schools.

Something (or someone) presents itself to us, having been cut the wrong size, shape, and utility level by people who created it without a clue.

We’re in charge of adding the proper features and attributes to make it useful, yet everything that is available to add is neither the right size nor the right shape, and we must do a lot of cutting and rewiring to even get things to fit.

Folks who have the expertise in doing this sort of thing are for the most part are retired and no longer perform most of the heavy lifting.  When available, however, they are willing to share what they know and can even pinch-hit when all else falls short.  They care deeply yet now live afar.

Others more enthusiastic are on-the-job every day yet might not have the expertise or the wisdom to tackle the toughest projects.

Many of the tools are antiquated and don’t work.

Someone repels-in from time to time and provides some quick answers that help in the short run, yet is usually from out-of-town and isn’t a regular.

Thankfully, we have people who love to work with one another and support each other to get the job done, as best they can.

Each day, another project presents itself, designed wrong, yet not through its own fault.  Those who built it no longer seem to hold as much responsibility, as they have moved on with their lives.

It’s up to us do the best we can with whatever we have available, working relentlessly to protect our investment from depreciation and our neighborhood, thus, from declining property value.

It seems that the folks working hardest in our American public schools are continuously laboring on projects, in a way eerily similar to the quality time spent with our families this past holiday weekend.


Dr. Ryan Donlan enjoys strolling around, finding parallels to the challenges educators face in American public schools.  He can be reached for conversation or commentary at (812) 237-8624 or at