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Beyond Peer Coaching

A superintendent’s use of a critical friend leads first to pain but then progress by DONNA PETERSON
I was selected to be the superintendent of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District on the south-central coast of Alaska in March 1999. I knew from the beginning I would need to address several challenges. The previous four superintendents had served three years or less, and the central-office staff had not grown in spite of the district doubling in size and enrollment over that time.

The Kenai district is large and geographically diverse. It serves almost 10,000 students over 26,500 square miles with 43 school sites (four not accessible by road) in 21 communities. The district operating budget is $89 million; buses average 7,311 miles per day on dark, wintry Alaska roads; and 77 percent of the graduates enroll in post-secondary training or education.

Twenty months into the job, after sensing that something wasn't quite right in the ranks of the central office, I knew I needed help in evaluating the situation. It felt like the weight of the district was on my shoulders alone and in order to be effective in the manner I'd imagined, I needed things to change but I didn't know where to begin.

Team members seemed resistant to change and protective of their program areas. Individuals with historically bigger budgets had more power in decisions because they controlled funds. Communication between department heads was reactive rather than pro-active. Site administrators sensed who had power and who didn't and worked central-office staff against one other. Contradictory messages went out from different departments. The team appeared to be in constant-crisis and problem-solving mode rather than planning for improvement.

New Territory
Recalling the power of peer coaching from my teaching days and the notion of a "critical friend" from my site administrator days, I asked Jerry Covey to help me. Jerry, a former superintendent colleague and Alaska commissioner of education, was available. This would be new ground for him as a consultant, but he seemed intrigued and willing to try.

Jerry and I chose to record our thinking and learning in journal format throughout the process as an indicator of any progress. What follows are excerpts from those journals, reflecting what happened to us along the way.

Jerry's reflection: “When Donna called me, we talked at some length about her leadership issues and the idea of using outside help to resolve them. We met, discussed options, and proceeded with a strategy that had the team identifying critical issues and steps to deal with them, as I doubted that having an outside expert identify issues and tell her how to solve them would make much difference in the long run. The method I posed held significant risk for Donna and her leadership team. They had to decide up front if they were willing to deal with the realities of the information I would collect and report back to them.”

Jerry met with the 11-person central-office leadership team on Nov. 27, 2000. His information-gathering process included a written survey and one-on-one interviews with each team member. He made it clear that this was a powerful invitation and a unique chance to express where change needed to take place. He ended by saying, "No one will ever know or benefit from what you are unwilling to share."

My journal: “Jerry is doing this as a friend and that feels great. Maybe we're finally bringing this to a flash point. I know that I can't keep doing this job if something doesn't change and change quickly. Maybe now we'll find out if the team is capable and willing to work together under my leadership. Then I'll have to make decisions about the next steps for me and for the organization.”

Jerry's reflection: ”The responses to the survey and interviews were powerful and moving. The team members impressed me with their courage and honesty. As I read their responses, I was reminded of every person's need to be heard and understood on important issues. They poured out disillusionment, distrust, disgust, anger and fear. As a group, they got mixed messages at almost every turn, anxiety was high, some of the most talented contemplated bailing out. Others wanted to ride out the storm and outlast Donna, yet all expressed some hope the team would succeed. I compiled the data and sent the 18 single-spaced pages of information to the team.”

My journal: “I didn't want to hear this. I can't believe this is how people really feel. I asked for it. Well, I got it and I just want to jump off the roof. Is this organization even salvageable? It seems like we are in worse shape than I even thought. It is very, very quiet around the office. Everyone keeps asking me if I'm okay. My insides scream, ‘How can I be okay when you just ripped me and everything about this organization apart.’ My brain says, ‘Grow up—they took a huge risk in being honest and now it is your opportunity to show your stuff.’ I had my husband read through everything. His reaction was not nearly so negative. He said, ‘I wish someone would have asked me at my last job what was going on; I might still be working there instead of walking away after 14 years.’

“The team is looking for something, but I'm just not ready. And, since I always have an answer, it's making them really nervous. When team members ask me what's going to happen, I stay away from specifics and simply say, ‘Have you read the document? What do you think?’ I have worked up a complete plan of what needs to happen next based on the data, but Jerry pointed out, ‘That's your style, Donna, always doing the work. Why don't you let the team come to its own conclusions?’”

Jerry's reflection: “As the saying goes, the truth can hurt but it can also set you free. My final report laid out the truth, and it was heavy. What would they do with it? Would it be the final blow to a badly fractured team, or would they grow from it? Everything depended on how Donna handled it. She kept a positive demeanor, calmed down and waited until the situation was ripe with possibility.”

On Dec. 13, 2000, I brought the team together and sincerely thanked them for their honesty. We began working together on the issues. The goal of the meeting was to provide an environment that promoted bringing together the talents, insights and experiences of each member. The pent-up anxiety seemed to go by the wayside, and everyone began building a team they wanted to be part of.

Several themes had emerged from the data as needing immediate attention—addressing the hierarchical layers of the central office, making the long-range plan more than a paper document, speaking with one voice, eliminating duplication of workload and requests and prioritizing projects. Every single area was addressed, and in six hours we had completed our agenda. The solutions arrived at were far advanced from what I'd predicted the answers would be or what I could have dictated for the team to accomplish.

My note to Jerry was, "You can tell I'm on a high. You have jump-started our team like I didn't even dream possible. I'm deeply indebted to you, and the students of this district are the big winners. Thanks."

Fast forward to August 2002 and observe a flourishing leadership team. Efficient weekly meetings are the culture and the norm. Communication is strong. Everyone's contribution has increased.

My journal: ”Jerry came in to do a followup evaluation. It wasn't until I reread the file from 2000 and listened as Jerry reminded us of where we once were that it really sank in as to how different we now were. Even though the district has no money, has turned over 60 administrators in three years, has been involved in litigation and prolonged teacher negotiations, etc., it is still FUN to come to work! We know we're making a difference. We know we're a strong team. We seem to have the right people in the right places, and we're catapulting the district and the students into a world that would never have been possible before.

Jerry's reflection: ”Looking back, it is clear that what Donna did was not really a risk at all but a statement of belief in herself and her team. The dividends of their work together have been huge. When I met with the team in fall 2002, they were a resilient, high-caliber leadership team that any superintendent would love to work with just once in his or her career.”

Building an outstanding leadership team is a front-burner issue for every superintendent. An irrevocable commitment to open communication, shared goals, trust, interdependence, standing together, and a belief that shared decisions produce better results comprise the first step. A friend to help along the way in monitoring and evaluating is a great way to make the journey more effective.

Donna Peterson is superintendent of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, 148 N. Binkley, Soldotna, AK 99669. E-mail: dpeterson@kpbsd.k12.ak.us