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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

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