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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.

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