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Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Speth-Factor

The Speth-Factor

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

I have been searching over two decades for the secret ingredient to enhance student achievement in our nation’s schools, and I was excited recently to have come across a viable candidate.
The Speth-Factor.
Let me explain.
As parents, my wife Wendy and I have experienced slight trepidation at times when milestones in our children’s K-12 experiences would arrive, such as enrollment in Kindergarten, our family’s move to Indiana, and even our son’s recent ascension from elementary school to middle school. 
Sean’s a smart kid yet not particularly fond of academics (the book-work type).  He does well, in part, because he aims to please, and it will allow for less intrusion from his parents upon his personal and social time.  He’s the kid who would rather be playing a game outside, over that of sitting in a classroom. 
Thus, the thought of middle school academics worried us, as this is where I have seen too many students derail in struggle and begin making shortsighted decisions.  My final 11 years in K-12 leadership revolved around helping at-risk high-school students.

When I started seeing first-hand, the Speth-Factor and its influence on Sean, I began to understand the power of what needs to be part of every student’s K-12 life.

The Speth-Factor is my own “new” term, borne of an actual person – Mr. Dustin Speth, teacher and advisor at Honey Creek Middle School in the Vigo County Schools of Terre Haute, Indiana.  In a recent conversation with Mr. Speth’s Superintendent, Mr. Daniel “Danny” Tanoos, we concurred that one teacher can have an overall, positive effect upon a student.
Here’s how it works.
On any given day, when any school’s Speth-Factor is in play, students put forth much of their efforts in academics because they are inspired by a certain teacher.  It’s not so much for the content or for thoughts of future earnings potential.  It’s for a person, an adult, who serves as a role model.
In Sean’s case, it’s Mr. Speth. 
The Speth-Factor is not something bureaucrats can manufacture or parents can guarantee for their children through harping and helicoptering.  It’s something more authentic, probably encouraged by a great principal’s vision for instructional excellence and leadership support, much like Mr. Speth is provided at Honey Creek. 
My son’s Speth-Factor includes among many other things, warm welcomes each day, daily advice during advisory, vignettes about a teacher’s past pets, the occasional ad-hoc commentary on a local festival making headlines, and from what I hear, even a weekly teacher’s joke.  
Did I mention high standards as well? 
That’s an important part.
Those high standards include, from what I have heard recently from Sean, Mr. Speth’s sharing his own incredible record of attendance at work, much-the-model for his students.  A nice touch.
This inspiration is evidenced even more so by the fact that after Cross Country practice most evenings, Sean’s love-of-coach-and-sport has another contender for rounds in the dinner-table conversation – “Something that happened earlier that day in Mr. Speth’s class.”  When anything can be on par with Sean’s running through the woods, that something is really making an impact.
It all boils down to a teacher’s ability to connect with kids, making a difference while doing it.
It’s totally authentic.
It’s appreciated.
It’s the Speth-Factor.
And it works.
Thankfully, the Speth-Factor is bridging a gap and providing parents like us something that’s really cool in terms of school conversations with our son, at an age that is critical. 
I’m pretty sure that Mr. Speth has only a modest understanding of how much he makes an impact on Sean, and his other students, as the best teachers seem the most humble and unassuming.  They are their toughest critics.  I find that “The BEST” do what they do because of something intrinsic that drives them, and the fact that they care.
In my current role, most of my students are principals and superintendents, working on their Ph.D.’s.  In class and while providing schools professional development, I’m often asked about what schools can do to close achievement gaps.  I’m now offering the additional conclusion that if every student had the Speth-Factor, we might be in a lot better shape. 
With it, students feel connected, and student achievement is the natural byproduct.

Who is delivering the Speth-Factor in your school?
Who is achieving because of it? 

More importantly, who is slipping through the cracks in its absence, and is anyone holding up the mirror to ask, “Why?”


Dr. Ryan Donlan would like to thank those who helped him review and edit his article regarding The Speth-Factor, as it pertains to the student experience in K-12 education, including Vigo County School Corporation Superintendent Danny Tanoos, Honey Creek Middle School Principal Michael Cox, and of course, Sean Donlan.  If you would like to offer your thoughts, please don’t hesitate to contact him at (812) 237-8624 or at

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