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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


  1. Dr. Donlan, I completely agree with your analogy. I prefer to call it re-parenting. I find in turnaround schools you have to examine the habits formed or allowed by previous leadership. The challenge comes on when to make the switch; the switch from grandparenting to parenting--and getting out of their way. I feel one has to focus on student (grandchild) welfare first. I don't mean entirely. I mean you have to model a "student first" vernacular and environment, then analyze how your children (teachers) got away from that focus. I have found that at low performing schools the teachers want to parent but they have been beat down by numbers and inspections and local media so they "hole up" and become defensive. We, as leaders, must be aware of that and bring out the parent in those teachers. Allow them to see the potential in their children (students) so they can reconnect with the parent (teacher) inside. Thank you for a thoughtful blog. I like the reminder of not being an overbearing or enmeshed grandparent...especially since I'm so darn young. Thanks, Ryan. Be well.

  2. For your perusal, Dr. Donlan.