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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Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Students as Repeat Customers?

Students as Repeat Customers?
By Kyle A. Thompson
Assistant Regional Superintendent
Regional Office of Education #11
Charleston, Illinois
Doctoral Student
Indiana State University
Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

Imagine this scenario:  You walk into a car dealership and are promptly greeted with “Hey there!  How are you doing today?  Anything I can help you with?” 
A salesperson connects positively with you upon arrival and enthusiastically assists you throughout your entire car-buying experience.  You leave feeling the customer service you received was excellent, knowing you got a great deal.  As importantly, you leave planning someday to return!

Now, picture this:  You walk into a car dealership without the immediate affirmation.  Folks are here and there, but no one connects.  You wander aimlessly for a couple of minutes until you have ask for help, begrudgingly interrupting someone in an adjacent office to the showroom.  You never really connect with the staff; in fact, your buying experience is a bit burdensome.  You leave thinking you’ll probably not return, good deal or not. 

Have you given any thought to your last car-buying experience? 
What was it like when you entered the doors of the dealership for the first time? 

Car buying can be a bit intimidating for some; to others, an enjoyable experience.  What is it that makes the difference, for you, between feeling invited and intrusive, or feeling comfortable or confused? 
One car salesperson that we know to be “The Best of the Best,” once remarked that the key to his success boiled down to one main thing: Repeat Customers. 

We know any individual can stop into a dealership, purchase a vehicle, and leave without ever returning, which can often be the case when seeing a specific vehicle in driving by the dealership that catches one’s eye.  Yet, would a dealership want the sum total of any given quarter’s bottom line, propped up solely by the sum of one-time purchases?  We would argue that drive-by purchases are certainly nice to have, but not sufficiently sustainable in terms of a business model.
They can supplant, but should not supplant one’s business plan.
Rather, it is when customers return to buy their second cars, or better yet their every car thereafter, that determines long-term success and sustainability. 
This is the case both in business and in P-12 education.

What if we looked at our students and families as if they were buying a car – Our schools as dealerships, selling opportunities for great qualities of lives?  How do we greet people upon their entering our dealerships every morning? 
Do they get the service they need? 
Will they be our repeat customers?

            The reasons people return to their car dealerships for another purchase is the same reason students and families return to our schools – or not. 
Positive interactions. 
Peace of mind. 
The belief they are getting an all-around great deal! 
The belief that their needs matter.

How do we offer these?

First, by ensuring that students are treated from the moment they enter our showcase to the minute they leave with a world-class buying experience.  Most car dealerships have a lounge area with free popcorn and coffee designed to make the experience better.  Where is the commons area in our buildings that promote a sense of community?  What are we doing to go the extra mile? 
For some, the car-buying process can take only an hour or two, but for others it may take an entire day.  When we take into account online shopping, phone calls, test drives, and counter offers, it can be an exhausting day even if positive.  This is because all potential buyers bring different currencies with them to the deal.  Some have money to put down on a purchase; others don’t.  In addition, some are savvier in negotiations.  In terms of what they bring interpersonally, some are more open and flexible; others are more pensive or rigid.
Likewise, all students bring different currencies to school. 
Students learn at different paces and have preferred learning styles -- auditory, visual, kinesthetic, etc.  Some have greater abilities to bring something to the deal, which make teaching and learning easier on everyone (e.g. prior learning, academic aptitude, or home-fostered motivation). 
No matter the currencies brought upon arrival, it is important for us to be patient and allow students the necessary time to complete their test drives (formative assessments) in order to affirm what they have, listen to their needs, and seal the deal (pass tests, master the standards, or even better, learn things that they’ll remember).
            Similarities between schools and car dealerships are endless. 
According to Sinek (2014), “Customers will never love a company until the employees love it first” (p. 177). Sinek’s intention was not to make a direct comparison between business and schools; nevertheless, his work brings to mind the potential number of direct parallels between automotive dealerships and education, and thus, the probability that students could very well never love their schools until their teachers and others inside, DO. 

Check out the parallels we have provided in Table 1 below:

The World of Business & Automotive Dealerships
The World of Education and P-12

Sales Manager
Service Department
Support Personnel
Students (and families)

Different Shopping Styles
Different Learning Styles
-       Online
-       Auditory
-       Phone
-       Visual
-       Test Drives
-       Kinesthetic
Buying takes 1 to 8 hours, depending upon what the buyer brings to the sale, and what the salesperson and finance folks can do with it.
Students learn at different paces, some needing more time to make their decisions; others needing more time for the schools to provide what they need in order to move on.
The economy’s influence on business and purchasing power of customers
The community’s influence on its schools and supports available to students
Team Atmosphere:  Sales, Finance, Service,
School Climate: Lesson, Support, and Relationships.
Business Philosophy and the Way Business is Done
School Culture
The fact that the atmosphere can be perceived as intimidating, or not.  Either way, car buyers have preconceived notions and prior experience.
The fact that the atmosphere can be perceived as intimidating, or not.  Either way, students and families have preconceived notions and prior experience.
No-obligation test drive
Opportunities to have positive experiences with lessons without an expectation that the grade on the trial, will be that entered into the book.
School/Student/Family Compact
Don’t want a “lemon”
Don’t want THAT teacher who the principal has done nothing about for 15 years.
Standard vs. Luxury Package
The reality that there will be different outcomes, hopefully maximizing the return on what students and families are able to invest.

Of the many comparisons we make, the dealership owner may be a superintendent working behind the scenes to see that basic operational needs are met and paychecks signed.  The service department is the crucial support personnel our schools depend on to give you every fifth oil change for free.  It is our nurses, counselors and cooks who ensure our customers are running well on the inside. 
Let us always be sure to show those folks they are appreciated.
The sales manager is the steadfast principal working diligently to serve his sales force (the teachers and staff) and customers (students and families) in any way possible. 
As Buckingham and Coffman (1999) wrote in First, Break All The Rules, talented employees need great managers. They don’t mean managers in a sense that they count the absences and patrol the hallways; rather, the authors’ definition of manager is one who has an inside focus on the organization and takes care of the needs of the people.  Thus, it is the building principal who sets the tone for what the atmosphere will be like in all departments throughout the dealership.
Are we giving our students the equivalent of the ultimate car-buying experience, the luxury package?  After all, they don’t want a lemon, no matter what they bring to the lot, themselves. 
It takes the effort of everyone in the dealership to generate a happy customer.  So, we ask you: Would your students be repeat customers?

Buckingham, M., & Coffman, C.  (1999). First, break all the rules: What the world’s greatest managers do differently. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Sinek, S. (2014). Leaders eat last: Why some teams pull together and others don’t. New York, NY: Penguin Group LLC.
Kyle Thompson and Ryan Donlan encourage P-12 educators that in addition to students’ being, as some would argue, clients and products, that they are also thought of as customers as well.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that they are always right, but rather their needs are met to such a degree that their definition of right aligns with ours.  To be a part of this conversation, or even a repeat customer to such yourself, please don’t hesitate to contact them at or at

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Expanding THE WIN; Paring the Competition

Expanding THE WIN; Paring the Competition

By George Philhower
Assistant Superintendent
Western Wayne Schools
Ph.D. 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

We have recently been struck by the thought that we need to get better at “doing school” with our students and families instead of “doing school” to them. 
Moreover, we need to expand THE WIN.
The trouble is that many aspects of school were not designed with students and families at the center of consideration.  In fact, some aspects of standardized school, as we know and experience it, can be counterproductive to ensuring all students succeed.  They even perpetuate losing.
Much of the work being done in schools these days is in effort to increase the passing rates on standardized tests.  However, this standardized (if not misapplied) approach is not meeting the needs of the non-standardized students that we serve, and ironically it is these individuals who must develop their abilities to create and innovate if they are to give our country its competitive edge.
National initiatives such as No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and/or the Every Student Succeeds Act, as well as our local efforts through various Response-to-Intervention (RtI) approaches, have reminded us of the importance of supporting all students, and we have seen some positive inroads as a result.  However, a well-intentioned focus on intervention often leads to discussions about what we need to be doing to students in order to “help” them achieve.  Before long it can become dangerously easy to begin seeing students as things-to-be-changed, or worse, as the achievement scores themselves.
We might rather consider that if our goal is to help all students reach their potential “to win” in P-12, we must ensure that they are active participants in the process, empowered in partnership, and that we do “with,” rather than “to.” 
The longstanding and tiresome, political popularity of standardized tests and our addiction (affliction) with accountability is perpetuating an unhealthy mindset.  It creates competition when collaboration would better serve our purpose.  In Indiana alone, we gained much perspective on accountability’s impact when last year’s standardized testing results were made public.  These results, as well as many other aspects of school the way we currently deliver it, do a good job of perpetuating the perception that the educational process must involve winners and losers.  Last year’s test results were a great reminder of the unhealthiness that exists as more teachers and students (and of course, families) were on the losing team. 
The truth is we shouldn’t have a losing team, and this goes beyond standardized testing scores. 
Grades, grade levels, report cards, and many other anthropological artifacts, emblematic of our traditional school system, can serve as reminders to students of their status – their place in a pecking order.  The tragedy here is that many of our students have difficulty believing in themselves, beyond how schools are defining them. 
Am I smart, or not? 
Am I college material, or not? 
Am I a good kid, or not?
            As our current system allows some students to win, pass, and succeed, while others lose, fail, and sit the bench, our students are perceptive enough to know where they fall.  No one wants to be at the tail end, where large numbers of students get caught in a degenerating, depressive cycle.  When children receive F’s, repeat courses, stall-out at certain grade levels, and sometimes even walk away from school altogether, their academic futures don’t have much of an upside and they look for a “win” elsewhere.
Some of our practices make about as much sense to students and families as doctors who diagnose patients without discussing treatment (such as report cards that tell what happened without offering a prescription for what can be done next), or rather doctors who sit around a room with other health care professionals, talking about the patients with each other, rather than to the patients themselves or their caregivers (such as many Individualized Planning Meetings/Case Conferences).
Perhaps we will never create a system that ensures 100% success.  Yet, can we start doing something that is a good percentage better?  This might begin with our rethinking the constructs that currently define education as a competitive sport. 
Admittedly, class rank, honor roll, and a focus on achievement (especially achievement based on some arbitrary level, determined by a student’s date of manufacture) work to motivate some; however, these criteria serve as barriers to many more.  Our odds of helping all students win would dramatically increase if we could rethink some of the traditional structures of our schools.   Consider the following:
·      What if instead of focusing on age-based achievement, we would focus on and celebrated the amount of academic growth a student makes during a given time period, despite age and a given grade’s cut-off date?
·      What if instead of allowing students to fail, we would simply give them more time to demonstrate success?  Note that if we were on a road trip across the country and fell a bit behind schedule, we wouldn’t arbitrarily go back to our starting point again.  We would simply continue on, getting to our destination a bit late, yet successfully.
·      What if instead of holding schools accountable for the percentage of students who graduate in a given number of years, we would affirm them for the students they graduate, regardless of how long it takes?  The pressure to get students through high school in a standardized amount of time is simply silly, from the perspective of those who can think logically. 
·      What if instead of viewing the school experience through a paradigm of adulthood, we would consider the perspectives of students. We don’t have any chance at reaching the students who are not finding success until we can see school as they are seeing it. 
·      What if instead of requiring students to wait passively for us to tell them how they are performing, we would help them take ownership of their learning.  Might we ask them to fill-out their own progress reports?

And last but not least, as we bring parents along, we might better remember that they grew up in a system where not everyone could win either, and many of our parents were not labeled “winners.” Perhaps this has a lot to do with why they often enter our conversations on the defensive. 
Some parents want to protect their children from feeling like they had – as failures – and their #1 goal is to ensure their babies-of-all-ages don’t feel their pain.   Others live vicariously in the unhealthy competition, and their #1 goal is to receive credit for their babies’ victories.  The ensuing drama drains everyone’s energy.  Until we can change the system, we need to be hyper-aware of these mindsets, in which our current system runs the risk of perpetuating as more “fixed-” than “growth-.”
In an academic arena that provides a more collaborative, mutually uplifting playing field, where school is done with students and their families instead of to them, everyone could better enjoy the school experience, and our opportunities to help all students experience success each day would increase dramatically.
Can we better ensure that everyone enjoys being part of a place that allows for success each day, one that expands “THE WIN”?


George Philhower and Ryan Donlan want the same thing for our nation’s schools – a facelift in perspective, as well as a facelift in performance expectation.  If you would like to join their conversation, please feel free to contact them anytime at or at 

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

We Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

We Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

By Erica Buchanan-Rivera
Director of Curriculum and Instruction &
Elementary Principal
Traders Point Christian Academy
Ph.D. 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

Excerpt from I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

Do children, at times, assume roles as caged birds within our educational settings?
In so far that schools operate as political systems under principles of conformity and assimilation, this can certainly be argued.  Consider how social contexts and living experiences of children can collide with the norms of school – compounded as well by the diversification of norms and folkways within any given facility, including those pertaining to classroom, cafeteria, recess, and hallway procedures.
Cultural values, language, and opportunities for connectivity (a.k.a. foundational aspects of learning) can be, without consideration of the whole child, disregarded for test preparation, rote memorization, and expectations of compliance. Our caged birds are forced to play a game called school, despite the perplexity of its rules and the untended cracks within its foundation.
Educators possess the abilities to repair the foundation, and certainly, the keys to unlock our caged birds.
Do we use them?
We hold the power to transfer children from a realm of despair, or even a malaise of ambivalence, to a world of possibilities. This transference involves first listening carefully for the unheard tunes of children and then amplifying them under sound leadership and management at the district, building, and classroom levels.  It could be said that the pensive trills of the endangered Piping Plover can transcend into a voice heard in a world of better listeners.  Imagine if it were able, through an insatiable passion, to unravel its future. Although educators hold the power to dismantle the cage, we must understand the conditions of our birds while encouraging them to freedom.

Do you know why the caged bird sings?

The caged bird, our student, sings for identity. Students desire to see their strengths mirrored within the classroom.  They desire to be noticed by a teacher-as-talent-scout.  Children want to be recognized for their contributions, thoughts, feelings, and the aspects that make them unique. They want educators to see and affirm their beautiful intersections of cultural autobiography that incorporate race, ethnicity, language, and familial traditions – their stories, as each story shapes the way they respond and interact socially. If we understand student identity, we can dismantle the bars that sustain the cage. 
We can encourage ascension.

Do you know why the caged bird sings?

The student sings for authenticity. As educational leaders, we must create a space within learning environments where students can construct personally meaningful knowledge that generates representations of their learning. Building upon our last point, the environment should be characterized as identity safe.  Our children are capable of devising questions that drive instruction rather than submitting to mundane prescription.  Have the dittos and worksheets of the past been replaced only with a pacing guide?  Or are we allowing that which makes students unique to chart a course? Students yearn to learn through meaningful experiences and discussions that elicit multiple perspectives. Environments supporting inquiry-based learning can honor children’s rights to imagine and investigate. And it is important to note that students are capable learning from their mistakes. Authenticity requires productive struggle, and a child’s failing forward should be celebrated.  The caged bird wants its individualized flight plan honored, with our acceptance of the wind, leaves, gravel, and dirt stirred up along the way.

Do you know why the caged bird sings?

Students sing, hopeful that in school, they can develop images of self-worth. They want unconditional positive regard, for who they are.  Children intuitively know when educators demonstrate care, or conversely, dismissiveness.  They intrinsically protect their well being, either by allowing others in, or shutting others out.  It sounds odd, but in the worst of circumstances, their cages – as stifling as they are – protect them from harm.  Harm comes in all shapes and sizes, as does a child’s self-worth.  Educators are in an instrumental position to affirm a child’s positive self-worth, and through such, foster student potential. Self-worth is a foundational component of self-efficacy, and with this efficacy, children are capable of embracing new challenges.  As classrooms serve a window through which our beliefs become overt, the educators within who harmonize their beliefs with the songs of children transcend barriers that hinder learning.

What is your song of advocacy for the caged bird?

We believe that children are spiritual, worthwhile, reflective, exploratory, intellectual, creative, needy-yet-powerful beings who consistently try to make sense of their worlds.  They portray and have an inherent aura of innocence, which unconsciously enables them to embrace the values of acceptance, trust, and diversity. They are in a place where if allowed to interact authentically, they will develop the desired sense of identity.  Children investigate their curiosities and dare to take risks before pondering the consequences. Some might call this learning.  Through interactions, children simultaneously learn about their values and boundaries, which enable them to see themselves as unique individuals, and others as well. 
Although our children often sing cries for identity, authenticity, and an affirmation of their own belief systems (or those shaped by their caregivers at home, healthy or not), as educators, we must admit that our abilities to fly in formation with them are, under current professional circumstance, hindered by the reality that often we get our own wings clipped.  
We want to engage our children in authentic work, yet spend more time analyzing the semantics of assessments. We allow data to drive us, rather than to inform.  Curricular programs lock us into teaching styles that may not reflect our philosophies. It used to be that one of our professional shortcomings was that we teach the way we were taught.  Nowadays, it seems that we don’t even have this luxury.
With staunch accountability, we teach the way we are told will produce the best test results.  In such, we tend to lose patience with the birds that are free, expressive, and audacious … eventually finding ways to inadvertently cage them through regimentation if they are good, and disciplinary procedures if they are different.  It is difficult to see beyond the bars of our own cages, that without the best leadership and management at the local level, are constructed upon the blueprints of today’s educational politics.

What is your song? To whom is your song dedicated?

We know why children sing.  As well, we know the songs of educators.  Our songs cannot be sung in isolation. Their synchronization must take place to blend a harmonic movement – a movement that perpetuates educational autonomy that embraces student voice, and student flight.

It is our time to be heard.

It is our time to be free.

Works Consulted

Greenman, J. (1998). Caring places, learning spaces. Redmond, WA: Exchange Press.

Rothstein-Fisch, C., & Trumbull, E. (2008). Managing diverse classrooms: How to build on students’ cultural strengths. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Erica Buchanan Rivera and Ryan Donlan wish to champion a system of schools that allows for educators to lead and manage in a way that embraces individuality, connectedness, creativity, and diversity.  If you wish to join their conversation, please be encouraged to contact them at or at