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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Thursday, July 23, 2015

Hummingbird Bullies

Hummingbird Bullies

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

I once met the Sweet Polly Purebread of American education while on a school visit.  As a teacher, she was endearing, inspirational, and humble; she fawned over our team.
We thought, “Wow – This is what K-12 teaching COULD BE,” envisioning the amazing hiring decision made in bringing her on board.
For those who have never seen the classic television cartoon “Underdog,” Sweet Polly Purebread was the innocent and endearing “apple of the eye” of our canine superhero.
As excited our team was to see this teacher share her positive disposition with us, I was surprised later that day to witness from afar her public upbraiding of a student, while walking her class down the hallway.  I guessed that his excessive energy was not fashionable while visitors were in the building – probably one of those situations where kids were admonished within inches of their eyebrows prior to our arrival, and I wasn’t expected to be in that end of the building. 
Darn the luck.
Polly, catching me in her peripheral vision, retorted immediately to a plastic smile and what appeared from a distance to be positive reinforcement toward that same student, much to his disbelief. 
The look on his face said, “What?!?!”

This Sweet Polly Purebread might have been a hummingbird bully.

Hummingbirds frequent our back deck. 
My wife, Wendy and I have two feeders, primarily because of the bullying.  Bullying, you say?  Yep.  Bullying.
All we want is for these beautiful birds to drink from our feeders and of course, to get along, yet despite our efforts at providing more space to eat, we now have twice the bullying. 
This is eerily similar to what exists in K-12 education because our inabilities, at times, to discern what’s really happening in our schools . . . to see the fangs behind the facade.

Hummingbirds appear to be beautiful creatures, hovering above flowers and feeders to extract the nectar upon which they feed.  They are multi-colored, multi-shaped, and universally small and cute, so I never realized until recently that they had another side to their disposition.

Hummingbirds can be nasty with a capital N! 
They can be bullies with a capital B!

More now the rule rather than the exception, these seemingly docile creatures wait for others to visit the feeders.  When one hovers for a drink, another will fly at breakneck speed from a tree line 25 yards or more out, to deliver a “drive-by,” a glancing blow, forcing the smaller bird from the feeder and chasing him or her back to the trees, quite a distance away.
Sometimes, hummingbird bullies even hover under the rails of the deck, lying in wait until others try to feed, then delivering the sidewinding strike, sending them to orbit once again.
I would have never thought that hummingbirds could be bullies – too pretty, too small, too docile, and too unassuming.
Then again, I would never have thought that Sweet Polly Purebread could act that way toward students, when nobody else was watching.

Applied to our positions as school leaders, I would have never thought that the sweet daughter or the kind son of a soccer-playing, dinner-table-eating, church-going, working-class or mid-to-upper-level socioeconomic family involved in the National Honor Society, could be making the life miserable for any of our other students. 
I have found that at times, I was so wrong.
Hummingbird bullies are not what they appear. 
They could be in our advanced classes.  They might be in the locker room, plying their trade before the coach arrives.  They might be at the bus stops when parents aren’t around, or even in student clubs and organizations.  They might be on staff.
It becomes particularly tough to identify hummingbird bullying, as oftentimes, those who we perceive as kind and sweet (because they say nice things to us as other students walk by and ignore us) are operating in stealth, just around the next corner. 
Are hummingbird bullies smarter than we? 
I was reminded of this in an episode of the television show Rookie Blue a week or so ago, when a two-person prisoner transport was hampered by the more docile and unassuming of two prisoners, one appearing innocent and humble.  She tried to stab another, much to the surprise of the officers entrusted with everyone’s lives.

Who are our hummingbird bullies? 
More importantly, what are we doing about them, and for them, as they came by their ways through modeling, certainly overindulgence, as possibly even abuse and/or neglect. 
A first step involves an identification of that which we cannot see.


Dr. Ryan Donlan specialized in identifying and intervening with Hummingbird Bullies, and would love to spend a bit of time talking with you about yours.  Please feel free to contact him at (812) 237-8624 or at

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Professional Induction: So Little Time to Get It Right

Professional Induction: So Little Time to Get It Right

By E. Scott England
Northside Elementary School
Fairfield, Illinois
Doctoral Candidate
Indiana State University
Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

A university supervisor once said, “Student teachers are great for a building because their positive attitude is infectious while renewing the energy in veteran teachers whom may have fallen into a rut.”
This is an interesting thought, yet at the same time, a bit alarming, isn’t it?  We’re depending on a commodity to strengthen our work force that is not only dependent upon the supply and demand of candidates entering a profession that is currently under the siege of criticism by those who cannot teach, but also a commodity that doesn’t even stay in the profession once given the keys to enter. 
The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future (2003) reported, “After just three years, it is estimated that almost a third of the new entrants to teaching have left the field, and after five years almost half are gone” (p. 8).  In other words, one out of every three student teachers that bound through our halls purposefully on a mission to change lives will be gone nearly as quickly as they entered. 
Where does that infectious, positive attitude go? 
Where do these young teachers go?
Teacher leaders and administrators are tasked with many duties in their ever-changing and demanding roles.  While the mantra of one’s given focus is typically shared in terms of “students, students, students,” one of the most important duties should be that of talent scouting and taking care of the adults.  In short, K-12 education should be figuring out how to keep its good teachers.  Some say this can be done by improving working conditions (Ingersoll, 2002) and/or offering mentoring support (Darling-Hammond, 2003).
We might agree.
While working conditions can include salary, benefits, time, and support, we find the latter two particularly powerful, much more than the first two. 
Most teachers entering the profession have an idea of what their salaries will be; they know the benefits as well.  Further, most did not go into our noble profession extrinsically motivated.  Yet, once arriving in our profession, teachers at times are given keys to their rooms, instructions on what to teach, and little more than that as everyone gets busy, real quick, as soon as the students arrive. 
We feel for the teacher who must put in extra time outside of contractual hours trying to establish an inviting classroom by creating a meaningful educational environment and figuring out how to teach what is required with little or no resources or assistance.  It is much more the exception than the rule nowadays, yet the reality still exists – and if for one . . . that’s too many.
Veteran teachers know what this feeling is like.  Some went through the same thing, 10, 20, or 30 years ago.  We have heard over the years veterans joke that this is a right-of-passage that teachers must endure in order to earn their keep.  Any right-of-passage that cannibalizes our young and has reverberating effects upon school children is no one’s right, in our book.
Leaders need to step up to end this mentality, where it still lingers.  A right-of-passage in teaching should be that feeling at the end of the year when students have made significant gains in learning.  When students have that “Aha Moment” and are elated to share and thank a teacher. 
One such important component to reframing a new teacher’s rights over the past few decades has been the advent of mentoring in schools, for those new in our profession.  This has come about through a variety of circumstances, some discovered through good research on best practice and others through state mandate; nevertheless, it has shown some definite potential for enhancing one’s quality of life in the classroom.
Admittedly, some teachers have viewed mentoring as a waste of time, oftentimes because of assignment practices by building leaders (assigning veterans based on seniority, as extra pay is involved, would be one example).  In any matching of persons and personalities, the right fit can never be ensured, and sometimes even with the best, most selfless intentions, things don’t work out.   In other cases, an optimal match can be influenced by the structures put in place to support the relationships that we hope to foster, and the teaching and learning that mentoring can provide.
Let’s consider the university model.  Support systems are in place for teacher candidates when they are student teachers.  A university supervisor serves as a guide through that semester-long student teaching experience.  This supervisor reviews lesson plans, offers suggestions, observes teaching, and makes the necessary criticisms and praises as the teacher candidate progresses. Then like that: The supervisor is gone, off to tend to a new flock needing guidance.
Could we offer similar structures in mentoring to our new teachers? A more clinicized practice of professional induction and training?   Some states require this by statute, of course, yet why wouldn’t we do it, just because it’s common sense and the right thing to do?
What if three years of an intensive mentoring program led to not only higher retention in new teachers, but also provided a continual source of liveliness that infected an entire school?  What if it helps spread a positive virus of collaboration, life-long learning, and fellowship?  We call this social capital and understand that it has a positive impact on student achievement (Leana, 2011).
Mentoring can be relatively inexpensive to a school district (or even free to some).  A possibility exists for two teachers to engage each other in learning—feeding off one another to create sensational lessons and learning opportunities.  But buy-in must be present in both the novice and veteran teacher. 
Not to mention, buy-in from the building’s leader.
Dr. Beth Whitaker at Indiana State University, in her role as the Director of the Faculty Center for Teaching Excellence, offers this to university faculty through a concept known as Teaching Triangles, where faculty members from different disciplines (and even mixed among undergraduate and graduate faculty) provide judgment-free feedback and collegiality by visiting each other’s classrooms over the course of a given school year.  Not only do they learn from each other, but their camaraderie and connections made bond them together and provide the support and synergy that keeps faculty excited about their place in the profession.  It makes for better teaching.
Could mentoring in K-12 be a triangle, expanding upon our current bi-angle, where it exists?  Interesting thought.  Maybe we should just get our bi-angle correct, before getting too radical.
All that said, it might be time we changed any old mindsets regarding professional induction where the “rights of passage” mentality still intersects with a “set-it-and-forget-it” reality. Retention and satisfaction must be at the forefront of a leader’s priorities. 
Mentoring could be a cost effective way of improving a school.


Scott England and Ryan Donlan believe that the most powerful impact on our profession includes the new candidates that we bring in as first year teachers.  If you would like to talk further with them about ways to “protect our new,” please feel free to contact them at [] or


Darling-Hammond, L. (2003). Keeping good teachers: Why it matters, what leaders can do. Educational Leadership, 60(8), 6 – 13.

Ingersoll, R. M. (2002). The teacher shortage: A case of wrong diagnosis and wrong prescription. NASSP Bulletin, 86(631), 16 – 30.

Leana, C. (2011, Fall). The missing link in school reform. Stanford Social Innovation Review. 30-35.

National Commission on Teaching & America's Future. (2003). No dream denied: a pledge to America's children. Retrieved from

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Tin Plates & Twine

Tin Plates & Twine

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

            This summer has been more of a challenge for my wife, Wendy, and I, as we plant and tend to our garden.  The deer in our yard are more active, and we can no longer secure protection for our seedlings by using simply the same posts and chicken wire that kept rabbits at bay in the past.  After a few tomato-plant top-offs by our four-legged friends, we resorted to a combination of sprays and granules, and even a plastic-encased deer-repellant contraption that we heard was much the rage on golf courses.
            Didn’t work too well -- More nibbles, just about when the nurseries were starting to run a bit short. 
We needed something else.
            What we found was a YouTube video showing a gentleman who had constructed a tin plate hanging by a string, which banged against a stick that was stuck into the ground when the wind would blow.  With an old bamboo pole, some twine from the garage, and a three-pack of tin pie pans from the local shopping center, we had a better fix than all of those sprays, granules, and golf course solutions combined, for a total of only 88 cents. 
Works like a charm.

            Made me think of what we do nowadays in K-12 schools to protect our own seedlings as they grow and develop.  Might we be overcomplicating what we are demanding that teachers provide to our kids in order for them to blossom? 

            In many cases we’re expecting our teachers to use the most cutting-edge of sprays, granules, and contraptions-of-pedagogical-prowess to promote growth, all in a garden reminiscent of Robert Frost’s poem Lodged, where “The rain to the wind said, ‘You push and I’ll pelt.’”  
In some “best-practice” circles, even the “How” of education is being prescribed (and proscribed), along with the “What.” One example includes teachers being admonished by their principals not to teach from behind their desks – they are evaluated, in part, on how often they move around.  This is intended purportedly to maximize engagement, or at minimum, to increase motivation. 
I would ask, “In whom?”
Today, teachers need to unpack “this” and unbundle “that” . . . they must Professional-Learning-Community “this” and Response-to-Intervention “that,” in order to receive praise from their bosses.  There’s really nothing wrong with these expectations, by and large, yet something begins to derail a bit with universal edict. 
Mike Schmoker’s (2011) approach is more my style, encouraging folks as the title of his book says, to Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning.  In the spirit of focusing on what’s important, I’d like to put in a pitch for an icon once considered “the baby” of good teaching, hence seemingly discarded with “the bathwater” of those who have demonstrated not-so-good teaching.
            That baby – The traditionalist-master:  The teacher who comes to class every day and after greeting students individually at the door, sits down and asks them to open their textbooks to page “such and such.”
The teacher who holds court from behind a desk, with a confident persona that far surpasses the squeakiness of many who break a sweat in their Bobbleheading, running around here and there, while working twice as hard as the students. 
The teacher who offers some tried and true bells and whistles for students who will need skills at navigating textbooks.  I have a nephew who took a firefighters’ certification exam recently, who had to study over the holidays from a book that appeared three inches thick.
The teacher who sits and talks, looks and listens, checks for understanding [yes, from behind the desk], and commands a presence so that all know what is expected of them, and all rise to the occasion.

            It’s precisely this teacher, the traditionalist-master, whose room feels predictably comfortable for students – like a learners’ living room, a public-school/paver-stone patio, a curricular café, or even a scholastic support-group lounge – where the comforts of casual conversation and mutual dignity allow for a pressure release. The traditionalist-master’s classroom is a place where permission is given to be oneself, and to learn.  It is a place where as a student, everybody knows your name, especially the teacher, where cliques don’t exist (because the teacher won’t tolerate them), and where predictability of regimented routine is a welcome respite from the unpredictability of childhood or adolescence.
            Or from Bobbleheads who run around.
            It’s a place where tin plates and twine offer solutions to learning challenges, in a society that has become so technological and chemical in its problem solving, overloaded to such a degree with options that children’s efforts to learn, grow, and prepare for our futures are inhibited.
            Unfortunately, the traditionalist master’s classroom has been given a bad rap by others in our profession who sit while they teach, as well, yet command neither the presence of personality nor the content credentials of our best.  They sit while teaching (or not), yet in these circumstances, desks are not used as altars of learning; they are used instead as fortresses of distance, shields against the discovery of incompetence.
            It’s sort of like what we profess about lectures nowadays, versus what’s really the problem with them.  When lectures are a problem, it’s not the lecture as a teaching strategy that’s the problem; it’s the person delivering the lecture that’s the problem.
            I’d like to champion the use of tin plates and twine in our teaching, and in doing so, put in a vote for those who teach from behind their desks, and are really good at it. 
The traditionalist-master’s classroom may be a more effective way to make a lasting difference on behalf of the children whose needs require the care and feeding that “tradition” provides, where they can find success in K-12 academics, in education beyond, and in life.


When thinking of the traditionalist-master, Dr. Ryan Donlan oftentimes thinks fondly of those from his past who he has seen make such a positive difference in the lives of students who struggle in school.  Dr. Donlan offers admittedly that his perspectives here are more those of intuition and observation (at times, n=1), than from science or research.  If you would like to offer friendly points of debate, please feel free to contact him at 812-237-8624 or at


Pickerick1. (2013, March 19). How to keep deer out of your garden or tomato plants organically. [Video file]. Retrieved at

Schmoker, M. (2011). FOCUS: Elevating the essentials to radically improve student learning.  Alexandria, VA: ASCD.