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.

We believe that by kicking around an idea or two and not getting too worked-up over it, the thinking and writing involved have even greater potential to make a difference on behalf of those we serve. In such, please give us a read; share with others. We encourage your thoughts, opinions, feelings, and reactions to our work and thank you for taking your time. You keep us relevant.

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Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Is "Data-Driven," Drivel?

Is “Data-Driven,” Drivel?

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

It’s fashionable for us in K-12 education today to be “data-driven.” 
High-priced, drive-by consultants tout its sexiness; bureaucrats at times encourage our pledge to its cause, and even the occasional principal proudly proclaims it when interviewing for jobs or speaking at the local civic-group luncheon.
What’s up with that?
My question is, “If K-12 leaders are data-driven, who or what is doing the leading?”  [i.e. the driving]
Answer:  Might be the data, not the leader. 
That’s not good.
We, at Indiana State University, have the privilege of sponsoring Ph.D.-level dissertation research, chairing many dissertations, probably numbering in the 20’s or 30’s for each of us who serve in this role. 
So we know data.
We like data. 
Data isn’t the enemy here.
Yet, our K-12 perspective on “What data DOES,” as well as “What WE DO with data” (in terms of our leadership and instructional planning), might very well be.
Data are incredibly important in finding answers to our profession’s important questions.  Yet, alone, data are incomplete.
Data position us not necessarily to find answers to all of our questions, yet instead to ask better questions.
Our use of data needs a complement – something additionally to inform what we do –  so that we can make sense of our numbers toward improving our schools. 
It needs “story.”
Consider this:  Do we spend as much time forming plans of action to address the stories behind our data in K-12, as we do devising battle plans to attack our numbers?  How fashionable is it to ask “Why?” or “Are we sure?” in our grade-level or content-area meetings? 
How sexy is it to say, “So what?”
If those questions are encouraged, that’s great.  But if we are hearing, “The numbers speak for themselves,” that’s simply an inaccurate statement.
At best, shortsighted.
Closer to home we might ask ourselves, “Are PLC’s data-driven?”  
Are they as well, “story-driven” or even “student-driven”? 
I hope the latter two, more of the time. 
As we collaborate in schools, might a qualitative approach, turning story into code into themes into findings, be more effective in terms of school improvement, than disaggregating the next batch of formative assessment scores? 
Don’t get me wrong: Data walls are not the enemy, but if they “drive” what we do rather than “inform,” they’ll most assuredly generate output, in terms of teachers’ triaging whatever’s urgent at the moment, yet they’ll do little to affect longer-term input to the equation of student outcomes, such as organizational wellness, school and family partnerships, teacher efficacy, student readiness for learning, or overall school culture.
Again, rather than data-driven; how ‘bout data-informed.
Let’s change the term.
Let’s change the bumper sticker.
Is our drivel regarding “data-driven,” in actuality, some well-intentioned eye candy that places undue pressure upon everyone in two academic areas, at the expense of other developmental experiences that would better allow teachers to teach, and students more often, to be children?
Moreover, what is this saying about leadership at all levels in K-12, when a responsibility such as driving is relegated.


Dr. Ryan Donlan is not really on a soapbox, as much as he is on a mission to reframe the good work of educators in a way that our public, our policymakers, and even those in our profession, can understand.  He questions that if we don’t own our narrative, and the terms we use, then who does?  If you would like to contact him, please be encouraged to call (812) 237-8624 or write at  He would love to hang-out.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

First-Exchange Theory

First-Exchange Theory

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

Upon receiving my doctoral degree in education, I made the mistake of answering my cell phone, “Hello, Dr. Donlan,” while traveling with my mentor and Dissertation Chairperson. 
He tactfully reminded me that I shouldn’t do that. 
Upon joining the faculty, I used “Dr.” in introductions for a short time, until reminded by a faculty friend that it was turning-people off.
Since then, “Ryan Donlan” has promoted better relationships, a small discovery that I am using in theory and practice to see how it applies in K-12.
First-Exchange Theory, I might call it.
I have noticed that over time, our students, even those at the doctoral level, most often use the term “Dr.” when referring to faculty, even when we use both of our first and last names in introduction. 
It’s nice that they understand the benefits of a right-sized bit of formality.
How does this play out in the K-12?
Similarly, yet with a bit of a twist, when we factor-in introductions between parents and teachers.
My wife and I use “Mr., Ms., or Mrs. So & So,” when referring to our children’s teachers (no “Dr’s” to date), even when teachers use both their first and last names in introduction.  I just can’t envision myself calling my children’s teachers by their first names, as I want to establish a certain degree of decorum.
After all, they’re TEACHERS.
As one who studies schools, I have the privilege of visiting K-12 schools across Indiana and beyond, so I notice things.
Here’s what happens in a greeting, from time to time:
 “Hi, I’m Ryan Donlan; very nice to meet you.”  Hand extends and is received . . .
“Hello, I’m Mr., Ms., or Mrs. So & So.” 
Handshake concluded.

Maybe it’s just me, but something about this type of response is a bit off-putting, almost as if it is a frontloaded strategy to establish a line of demarcation in a food-chain relationship, with me on the lower end.   I wonder how often parents in introductions with K-12 teachers feel near the bottom.
[Or students at universities with their professors]
An educator’s understanding of First-Exchange Theory might improve all of this. 
It’s a simple theory that I’m developing – an effective formula for K-12 educator/parent initial interactions, launched by teachers. It includes educators first being REAL, then being RESPONSIBLE.
Here’s First-Exchange Theory in action: 
Educators that are superstar communicators don’t use “Mr., Ms., or Mrs. So & So” to introduce themselves, unless they are meeting young students, of course. 
I find that those who use “Mr., Ms., or Mrs. So & So” as their names with other adults, are typically the more mediocre and didactic – and celebrate Fridays.
Superstar communicators, rather, are REAL, using both their first and last names in greeting other adults, and in doing so, put people at ease. “Hi, I’m Sandy Starr, 10th Grade English Teacher, so very glad to meet you both.  Thank you for visiting.”  
Continuing my theory on optimal communication, superstar parents would then respond by referring to those same teachers as “Mr., Ms., or Mrs.” even though they know the teachers’ first names.  "It’s so very nice to meet you, Ms. Starr, I’m John Upbeat and this is my wife, Joy, and we look forward to Sunshine having you as a teacher.”  Note parents using both of their own names.
The theory suggests that even mediocre parents can be so inclined to “act superstar” in their responses (as above), if teachers deliver their first greetings appropriately. 
Those not even mediocre, maybe not so much.
The theory then calls for the roles to reverse themselves, as superstar teachers then address parents with RESPECT.  “I do want to say, Mr. and Mrs. Upbeat, that your daughter, Sunshine, is wonderful to have in class, and if I have any questions about how best I can serve you all, would you mind if I give you a call?”
A great relationship is launched.
Well, it works for superstars, anyway, as they seem to understand the natural order of things and what people need in an interaction.
First-Exchange Theory:  Being REAL.  Being RESPECTFUL. 
And in doing so, being humble, open, OK, and transparent.
I know these observations may seem rather small in a world of big issues.  As First-Exchange Theory may not necessarily correlate to better student scores on standardized tests, I’m not holding my breath while waiting to be asked to offer PD on the subject.
Not just yet, anyway.
Over time, I believe it would make a difference.
The fact remains that if the first seven seconds define much of a relationship’s potential among schools and families, this critical time in connecting (or not) might bear a closer look.
It might even merit some research.
In our interactions each day, aren’t we in actuality teaching others, purposefully or incidentally, about the snug fit we have for our own professional skins, or conversely, our need for a power differential to compensate for any social awkwardness that we may be harboring?


Dr. Ryan Donlan makes mental notes as he meets people and finds it very hard to turn-off “leadership” and its implications, at the classroom, school, or district level.  If you can help him refine his thoughts and make meaning of them, please be encouraged to contact him at (812) 237-8624 or at  He would love to hear from you.

Monday, August 10, 2015

A Mouse in the Hunt

A Mouse in the Hunt

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

I have heard for years about the outstanding service provided by those employed in the Disney organization, yet it wasn’t until this past week that I saw it first-hand. 
Our family went on a trip to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida.
As I find it hard to turn-off my faculty role, I couldn’t help but noticing things about the Disney experience that apply to K-12 leadership. 
First, the Disney “cast” – everyone from the bus drivers to the Mouse in costume – considered Walt Disney World our family’s home.  “Welcome Home” was a common expression on Magic Kingdom Express shuttles, at our resort hotel, and in the various parks we visited. 
It felt like our home, with most of the good stuff, and more.      
In addition, Disney cast members used every opportunity to celebrate people individually and to invite them to feel special.  My wife and children had never visited Disney, so they got the “First-Time Visitor” buttons, yet even though I mentioned that I had been there as a child, so did I. 
Another example -- my daughter Katelyn’s birthday is in July . . . mine too.  Given the number of weeks hence, we were still given “Happy Birthday” pins.  Must’ve heard a hundred times, “Happy Birthday Katelyn, and to you too Ryan.”  
We were celebrated.
Moreover, the “Disney default” to [what could be considered] shortsighted questions, as I often ask them, was not a weird look or rebuff, yet instead a kind affirmation and an explanation that did not embarrass me in front of my children.
One example was when I asked a counter clerk for a tour of Cinderella’s Castle after the late-night fireworks.  I didn’t realize that Disney really doesn’t give tours of the Castle (a short walkway under an arch is what is available, unless one has reservations for a Princess meal upstairs).  Yet at 11:00 p.m. after a long shift, this cast member’s response was very cordial, even in that this was probably the thousandth time something similar was asked since her shift began. 
Some might say that we in public education could take a page out of the Disney playbook for welcome-home treatment, celebrations, and affirmations.  To a degree, they may have a point, as we can always improve.  Yet, something else was in play that I feel in fairness to those serving in K-12, I should mention.
I call it having a “mouse in the hunt.” 
It has to do with parents.
Probably the more familiar expression would be “having a dog in the hunt” (or some investment in what one is experiencing) yet “mouse” seems appropriate, given last week’s location. 
Having a “mouse in the hunt” seems to influence how parents behave while bringing their children to a place that they hope is going to be life-changing – like Walt Disney World (or I would argue, school).
To explain this “mouse” thing, let me share that I was standing directly in front of Cinderella’s castle at 8:30 p.m. getting positioned among a crowd that would grow to thousands for the Disney parade and fireworks.  I knew it would be a long evening, but Wendy and I were on a mission to provide memories for our family. 
Among us were countless parents much like ourselves – dinner-table-eating, manners-modeling parents, who understood that everything our children noticed us doing that evening would one day serve as a playbook for their own parenting.
What fascinated me, however, is that some others were there as well – ones very familiar yet much different, including those folks that we see treat counter clerks with disdain at our local gas stations . . . those who yell at their children at the county fair, even louder when others are listening . . . and those who expect to be first in line when they arrive late. 
These folks were there too, among thousands crowded tightly.
Yet, amazingly, much more so than usual, these folks were on their better behavior. 
And their kids were watching.  Their kids were learning.
It was cool.
The reality was that the behavior of most of these folks was better than they typically display at home, in our local communities, and most certainly in our schools.
As I pondered this, I hoped it was because they knew the value of Disney as a once-in-a-lifetime learning experience for their own children . . . or a byproduct of the way the cast around them was inviting them to feel.
Yet, my pragmatism suggested to me that the better behavior might as well be a result of deeper investment (monetary or otherwise), which resulted in folks stepping beyond old habits and checking themselves?
A result of having a “mouse in the hunt.”
Given this possibility, how does this apply to K-12 education? 
Could we as educators more often encourage (or require), at minimum, a mousely investment on the part of parents and stakeholders, coupled with a bit more that we can do ourselves as K-12 cast members, to garner the cooperation and better behavior from parents that I witnessed in Disney? 
Would this be volunteering?  Paying a fee?  Logging time at home spent in support of their children’s academics?
Not sure.
Maybe over this next school year, we can develop ideas to put more of the “mouse in the hunt” in our partnerships, subtly requiring more of families though investment, while asking even more of our own cast members in terms of welcome-home treatment, celebrations, and affirmations.
Through such, children and parents might, more often, consider our schools and the experiences we provide, destination events, as we know them to be.


Dr. Ryan Donlan considers it an honor to be able to sit-back and think about things that will allow us better to serve children and families in the K-12 experience.  He also strives to find ways parents can invest their talents to make the most out of their children’s learning experience.  Please feel free to contact him at any time at (812) 237-8624 or at 

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Living the Leadership Launch

Living the Leadership Launch

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

            K-12 school leaders have an incredible opportunity this time of year – To rededicate themselves through their own reinvention in the noblest profession on earth, while making a difference in the lives of children. 
Toward this end, I offer the following as thoughts on how leaders might consider “living the launch” of a new school year and enhancing their positive imprint upon it.

Leaders might consider prioritizing relationships over tasks as they meet and greet both staffs and students.  If leaders have hired well, the tasks will take care of themselves.  The more leaders read from lists, the less they are leading and the more they are devaluing those around them.
Leaders might consider celebrating and prioritizing their roles as managers – those who focus inside the organization and take care of their people.  Those who join-in on the fashionable criticism of “building management” while touting their wares as “instructional leaders” probably can’t manage all that well, anyway, from a people standpoint, which results in dissatisfaction that trickles down to the kids. 
Leaders might consider holding whole-school meetings each week during the school year to tell stories and articulate the message of what’s important, what’s to be valued.  If leaders are not telling the stories of the school and its heroes, someone else most assuredly will be.
Leaders might consider treating the adults who work for them individually and equitably, rather than equally. If leaders meet with push-back on this, it might be more telling of the trust (or lack thereof) that their staff members have in them, than of any perceived recalcitrance of bargaining unit representatives.
Leaders might consider that the organizational cultures within their schools may not be what they seem.  What leaders believe to be collaborative cultures, may in fact be contrived or at best, comfortable.  If reflection among adults is not at the edge of uncomfortability, then learning is not occurring.  Best to get a “second read” on culture from a trusted #2.
Leaders might consider that if we really want schools to be healthy places for teaching and learning, it’s all about adults FIRST, so that it can be about children MOST.  As I often share with K-12 leadership groups, consider how many times it is wise to put the oxygen mask on a child “first” in the event of an airplane’s cabin depressurization, or how many times it is good for couples to focus on children in their marriages “first,” before focusing on their relationships as couples.
Leaders might consider that it is ALL of the people in the organization that promote success.  Like a pit crew on a race track (with students as “drivers,” racing toward successful futures), ALL who influence lives, either directly or indirectly, are important.  How often do we thank the back-office business folks, transportation mechanics, or foodservice staff (both in and out of our buildings)?  This is important while leaders are wandering around, hopefully without their tablet devices.
Living the launch involves “continuing to live accordingly” as the school year sets in and moves through its annual cycle, keeping an eye on those things important as other things urgent challenge us.


Dr. Ryan Donlan is continually inspire by those leaders who put themselves out there each and every day to do thing right AND do the right thing on behalf of the folks they serve.  He would like to offer "thanks" to the leadership team of the Warsaw Community Schools, under the leadership of Dr. David Hoffert, for inspiring much of this week's content and hopes this contribution will be found relevant to all of us as we launch the 2015-2016 school year. Dr. Donlan can be reached at (812) 237-8624 or at