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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Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Organizational Moments of Weakness

Organizational Moments of Weakness

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

If a moment exists when a person improves, then a moment may exist when an organization improves.  If these are true, moments may exist when an organization becomes weaker, as well.  
Our better leaders are aware of moments when their organizations are about to become stronger and will protect those moments.  Yet, we would argue that it is rare, indeed, when leaders are able to discern when their organizations are nearing a point of becoming weaker and intentionally do something to arrest those moments. 
Comfort precedes an organization’s potential for becoming weaker, while discomfort precedes an organization’s potential for becoming better.  Discomfort strengthens organizational acuity.
Further, as we are comfortable, we perceive one’s becoming weaker as more a 10K walk, than a 100-yard sprint.  Nothing could be further from the truth.
People experience moments of weakness, perhaps when they are trying to diet and are surrounded by food, or while trying to quit smoking is in an environment full of smokers.  In just about any case when a person is trying to change a habit, it becomes difficult when others are holding onto that habit, even enjoying it.  It seems the person trying to change would be better off to avoid these places of temptation.  Maybe so, however, people cannot expect completely to do so for the rest of their lives.  
Those who are more resilient make it through, and those less resilient typically do not. 
What provides for the resilience people need when they face moments of weakness?  Can organizations develop resilience to help weather those times as well?
One way to examine this is to first break down what it is people actually do to improve, and to consider at what point in any training regimen does a person get better.  It seems that we may see gradual improvements over time, yet do not as often consider when “moments” happens.

The question posed here is, “At what exact point (moment in time) does improvement occur?”

·      When a person starts the training and an emotional change surfaces?
·      When a person continues the training after the initial charge has faded?
·      When a person begins thinking about the task in a new way?
·      When a person first finds the task getting easier?
·      When a person reflects upon his or her new capacity, thus, raising the bar?

As we reflect as authors about the personal and/or professional learning experiences that we have had in our own lives, we think back to such activities as playing sports, doing school, making friends, dating, teaching in K-12, assuming that first principalship, networking professionally, and more recently, chairing dissertations.  In all of these situations, we started with one skill level, then over time (in a training regimen, with intermittent bouts of becoming a bit weaker here and there, as implementation dips are to be expected), we more often than not, improved our skills to tackle the demands placed upon us.
We were seen as more effective over time. Something must have sparked forward progress along the way. 
A spark. A moment.  A very brief period of time. 

Can we make the conceptual leap to the organization with all of this?

When organizations attempt to change – change a habit/ritual, change a performance expectation, or change the outcomes of performance investments – what kind of structures may be necessary for the organization to have moments, and along the way, to become resilient to challenges (moments of regression) from internal/external forces attempting to draw the organization back to equilibrium?
To comfort.  
Whatever these structures may be, they exist as “moments,” and not in extended episodes, or even in windows really.  Our strengths and weaknesses, as well as opportunity and threat from without, accord us only fleeting, oft-indiscernible, and hard-to-hold-on-to moments that are most crucial in leveraging what could be a year-long, or multi-year strategy for organizational improvement.
Is there a crucial point in time when the improvement is about to happen and those in charge of protecting it unintentionally sidetrack the progress?
Cluelessly, as well? 
Can a teacher teach something, then begin the next lesson component too soon . . . just (perhaps seconds) before the previous lesson was internalized as useful, or relevant?  
Just before it was learned? 
If that grain of possibility exists, then perhaps leaders need to think not only about the classroom implications as teachers dump too much content onto students, but also how this applies school-wide, to organizational learning among adults.

Consider principals who schedule professional development days for their faculties and staffs:
How much do they allow to be placed on their agendas? 
Are only so many minutes devoted to particular agenda items? 
How is this decided? 
How much do principals protect the necessary time for deeper conversations? 
Do principals resist the temptation of moving to the next roundtable prompt, as they notice time for lunch approaching, or a few tables waning in interest, discussing soccer games and checking their texting devices?  Just because we desire a collaborative culture does not mean people know how to collaborate.

Let’s now bring a very important “inverse” to the table: If the moments prior to learning are crucial, then aren’t as well those moments just prior to becoming weak?  

Again, we do not believe that only slow processes of atrophy influence a school’s decline over time.  We believe that actual steps backward take place quickly, and solidify themselves as the principal moves to that next agenda item or calls the group together to make the next big point, all because an agenda checked-off or a lesson plan followed is conceived as best practice in K-12.  All because of a principal’s perceived pacing guide, the staff may have come to the edge of internalizing a new mindset, only to have that moment of improvement stopped due to the clock.
We ponder how often schools create unknowingly, a pernicious moment lasting only a few seconds, through a leader’s action or inaction, as the organization is teetering on the brink of getting better or getting worse, and in that absence of good leadership, the organization then slips backward abruptly, for the longer-term.
Can a missed moment of improvement prompt an unwanted moment of weakness?


One will often see Dr. Steve Gruenert and Dr. Ryan Donlan standing far off to the side at professional development events for K-12 educators, watching the organizational learning taking place, or not, rather than walking from table to table listening to the conversations taking place.  What they wish to do at this point is to put research to their theories.  If you have anything to offer, please don’t hesitate to contact them at or at 

Thursday, May 21, 2015

A Weight-Bearing Limit

A Weight-Bearing Limit

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

            My wife Wendy and I feel fortunate to be living in a small neighborhood, a few miles from downtown Terre Haute, Indiana, with most roads in our subdivision designed as cul-de-sacs.  It’s a great place for our children to grow, play, and learn as they run from yard to yard with friends, mostly out of the path of traffic, except for our subdivision’s main artery.
            Most in the neighborhood were excited recently as two of the few remaining empty lots were purchased near the back of the subdivision, and construction began.  The rumble of cement and materials trucks in early spring was something that we hadn’t seen, and nightly strolls past the foundation and rough work were filled with anticipation.  Thoughts of property values going up, admittedly, were part of the conversation among friends and neighbors.

            Forward progress, however, has come at a price. 

It appears that the weight-bearing limit of roads-not-yet-stable from the melt of ice and snow had been exceeded.  Our subdivision’s main artery has crumbled this spring in a number of places.  The once-attractive cul-de-sac of the two new homes is in disrepair, and bicycle rides for the children have become a bit clunky, when moving from someone’s house to another’s.
We hear of an eventual repair, yet ask ourselves . . .
            Why the seeming rush to move things at such a pace, when the fragility of early spring conditions is a blinding flash of the obvious?  Why not wait just a bit more time, and give conditions a bit longer to settle, so that the neighborhood can bear the load?

            As I sit on my deck this evening, I cannot help but think of K-12 education, as I ask:

            Who or what is our “road”?
What can it reasonably support?
Is our “weight-bearing limit” being exceeded?
            Is something crumbling?

            I also ask . . .

            Who is the “truck driver”?
            What is the “load”?
            Are there pressures to move too quickly?
Could we be delivering what we deliver, more carefully?
            Finally, what will happen to the eventual value of our “property,” if we exceed our weight-bearing limit over time, while going too fast for conditions as the roads we’re traveling fall apart?


Dr. Ryan Donlan is worried about the roadway of K-12 education.  He ponders, “Are standardized test scores, school rankings, and prescriptive pacing guides encouraging students to become test-takers and assignment-doer’s, rather than playground collaborators and inquisitive learners?” If you would to discuss, deliberate, or even debate a point or two, please do not hesitate to contact him at (812) 237-8624 or

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Classifieds

The Classifieds

By Steven Bair
Director of Operations
Beech Grove City Schools
Doctoral Student
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University
Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

            Four thousand eight hundred! 
This is the number of Classified Advertisements or what we call, “Help Wanted” posts that reside on a recent online trip to’s website. 
How did they all get there? Is there that much new job creation occurring? Naysaying political pundits may regale a lack of employment opportunity; however, the fact remains that opportunity exists, yet a good number of these slots go unfilled.
Maybe we just haven’t been watching enough Major League Baseball. 
Major League Baseball you ask?
Yes, MLB.  
Major League Baseball epitomizes the idea of the deft use of the “Talent Scout”!  
The league is loaded with scouts that scour high schools, colleges, minor leagues, their own organizations, and even the world to find individuals with unique talents to fit their positions currently open on their teams. They leave no stone unturned.  Their success at finding matches is directly proportional to their own job security. 
“Help Wanted” is not-at-all passive, on their clock.
Think of your organization for a minute.
Do you have a talent scout in your organization, one not as concerned with a list of skills on a checklist; rather, one with an uncanny ability to find those with the proper talent? Further, do you have one with a thirst for discerning the pearl from the not-so-obvious, answering two very important questions when making a match:
1.     Will the job fit the talents of the employee, and vice versa?
2.     Will this employee’s fit for the role make the organization better from a financial and cultural standpoint?
As Buckingham and Coffman (1999) stated, “The best way to help an employee cultivate his or her talents is to find a role that plays to those talents” (p. 93).
So whom is this scout in your organization that “master scout” who can effectively match talents to a job posting?
Maybe it is you, or could become you!  
Will you carve out time to prioritize this in your leadership role, whether principalship, directorship, superintendent, or otherwise?  The answer to your first question – your willingness to consider scouting on part with “instructional leadership,” is a tough swallow for some.  Yet, in doing so, you are much better able to ensure that your new charges will not only survive their career launches with you, yet will thrive, as well.
            Just like those in MLB, here’s the Playbook for how you do it.  
First, define the characteristics that are needed to successfully fulfill the position. Buckingham and Coffman (1999) would tell you to study the best people you have currently and determine what traits and skills make them successful. Ensure that those who you are scouting have it.  Resist the temptation to hire only on “potential.”  If they don’t have sufficient “actual,” move ON.
Second, take time and observe people. Ask yourself: What are their strengths? What are their weaknesses, and why?  Are they hardwired this way, so that they do this as effortlessly as breathing, or are they laboring to keep the pace?  Is the game at their level, or is it out of their league?  Be honest with yourself, and avoid at all costs desperation hire.  That will COST your organization, and more perniciously, your students.  Great talent scouts then make note of these findings when shopping around, referring back to them frequently when considering opportunity/costs with this applicant or that.  
The final step in the process is for you to approach potential employees and SELL, as would any good scouting follow-up, challenging them to open their eyes to roles in the organization that they can impact, and will in turn, positively impact them!  Keep in mind that the best will be shopping as well.  They’ll have options. 
Your serving as an effective talent scout will make your organization healthier, financially and emotionally.  You benefit from this as well, as the person who finds talent, champions talent, and nurtures such within an organization finds great reward through the dividends of investment, much as would any scout who sees his or her prospects grow in the league.
When you see that next job posting on your business’s website or email, slow down a minute and reflect about being proactive, rather than passive, as moving into scouting mode will certainly minimize the possibility that your competitor will do so without competition.
We suggest that if at all possible and within the realm of what your school attorney will allow, transcend the notion of what was formerly included in the “Classifieds,” and through scouting, keep what you are doing and who you are seeking, more “Classified.”


Steven Bair and Ryan Donlan believe that one of a K-12 school leader’s most important role is proactively seeking talent to fill open positions in our nation’s school system.  In all this talk of running schools more like businesses, to which they take exception from time to time, this is certainly one area in which they would concur!  If you would like to reach them, they can be reached at sbair3@sycamores.indstate or at 

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

A Better Return on Office Discipline

A Better Return on Office Discipline

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

            I often say I should have been a career Assistant Principal. 
Many years ago, I found that I did some of my best teaching when students were sent from class – to my office.
            My approach worked, yet wasn’t as popular with those who wanted children scolded, stressed, consequence’d, and healed.  It provided the groundwork for years of professional and personal reflection, inspired by the occasional, happenstance’d meeting of a former student, who was gainfully enjoying adulthood as we reminisced.
            Those conversations have convinced me that my time and attention were well spent.
            Now with time to write, I’m convinced that those entrusted with school discipline (i.e. student discipline) can yield a better return on investment, if they consider playing an age-ole’ game a different way.
            Our game as typically prescribed involves an oft-drummed mantra of “protecting academic time at all costs,” moving as many students as we can through the office and back to class during “non-instructional” time.  We have become efficient in imparting consequences for behaviors, ironically influenced in part by adult dysfunction and our inability to control our own profession’s drama. 
Capping this all off is our concluding sayonara to office-goer’s -- where we note the progressive, corrective nature of future visits, if they grace our revolving doors.

            I’m not sure who really ever wins that game, except for the adults in schools who resist changing their approaches.  Thus, I have long suggested a game played with better investment, one that would yield a better return on student discipline. 
It would include the following moves:
            Move One – Connecting:  As school disciplinarians, we would not have students summoned to the office as a rule; we would instead meet them where they are, both literally and figuratively.  Our office visit would start with our walking about the school and strolling casually with those whom we need to meet.  We would shift both style and location to meet students where they are.  Everything about our persona would indicate that these students are not necessarily “in trouble”; rather, they are instead having a chat with an adult who cares.  We might even stop along the way for a conversation on a bench or in the commons area, if privacy can be maintained.  If students are sent from class directly to our office before we can reach-out to them, we might ask that they stroll with us as we run a short errand, something inconsequential or manufactured.  One example might be running something to the cafeteria staff, or grabbing something from the custodial lounge – places “safe,” never the teachers lounge.  The key here is to de-escalate calmly -- with finesse; sans threat –providing unwavering positive affirmation before official business is conducted.

            Move Two – Redirecting:  After listening to the student’s story (listening; not waiting for a pause in which we interject), we then do what is most-urgent:  replace the lost classroom instruction with something of our own, a teachable moment designed under a curriculum that we ourselves write, with or without our teachers’ knowledge.  This may or may not have anything to do with direct handling of the current situation and getting the student back to class.  It’s our gig.  It’s what we want to say and feel compelled to do so – it’s what we can share through story, possibly something that we know about communications and how adults and students can get along as members of different generations. Might even be something we learned from a mentor.  This is OUR opportunity to teach, to play the game of school discipline differently by ensuring that every time a teacher sends a student away from classroom instruction, we will replace the lost time with instruction of our own.  Students will never really get back those lost academic minutes, ones they may not remember anyway, from Mr. or Mrs. Mediocrity, so why not teach them something they will.

            Move Three – Contextualizing:  We can then begin the process of doing what most think we should do, admittedly something important:  discussing “what happened” with this student and unearthing an important take-away, more rehabilitation than retribution, yet the latter is not always off limits.  This is where we offer context and consequences in a way that students can understand, with clear implications regarding what they were doing, what others perceived, how folks were affected, and what they can do in order to get past, learn from, and move on.  This is most certainly the part that we report back to the teachers, whether or not we ever share with them our time spent in Move Two above.

            Move Four – Reframing:  In this very important follow-up step, we begin to have an even closer relationship with students, not so much by reminding them of Move Three; in fact, that would be counterintuitive – rather, through continued interest in who they are as people, and along the way, tactful revisits with Move Two.  We see them more often.  We notice them.  They know that they matter to us.  This amounts first to a continuation of Move One and a deepened potential for mentorship.


In a larger sense, we might even think of playing our different game by creating our own classroom – by intentionally supervising After-School Detention or Saturday School, where students who spend time with us are granted the opportunity to continue learning more about “our thing,” teaching’s and learning’s that over time can rapidly become theirs, if they accept the invitation.  Just think how often we sound like our parents when we get older.  Well, if these children lack parents (or good parenting), wouldn’t it be of benefit if they start sounding like us, once raising their own children?  Those are the larger implications here – generational impacts, if we let them take root.  If we’re good, students will remember what we taught them, years hence, when life requires those skills.

            I once knew a pair of school leaders who played a different game of school discipline in a secure detention center.  They found their “curriculum and instruction” of such interest to (and impact on) students, that children would violate their own court orders once released, just so that they could be sent back to the juvenile home. 
They had no support structure on “the outside.”
My colleagues solved this dilemma by starting their own school outside the detention center, so that students could attend while not necessarily adjudicated.  Generations of their students have been making better choices now for 30 years, with the founders’ finding that many “children” have raised their own children under the light, warmth, and guidance of a school disciplinarian’s care and tutelage.


Dr. Ryan Donlan has a specific curriculum and instructional design established for “Move Two” above, and he plans on putting it in book form, two or three book projects away.  He is not so naïve to think that this “better return” will come about easy; pockets of toxicity lie await in even the best schools, hoping that just such a discovery falls left or right of the monopoly on teaching and learning.  If you are interested to hear more about Move Two, please do not hesitate to contact Dr. Donlan at (812) 237-8624 or at