Changing Peer Support for Superintendents

In Massachusetts, retelling ‘war stories’ gives way to a consultation process and group problem solving by Lee Teitel

You are a school superintendent and are about to perform what most of your colleagues would consider an unnatural act. It is 8 o’clock on a Wednesday morning in October and instead of being in your office running things in your school district, you and four other superintendents enter a paneled conference room and close the door.

After a few minutes of social chitchat, the four turn to you expectantly. It is your turn this month to bare your soul and share a leadership problem from your district that has you stumped. It is not one you have solved, and telling it won’t make you look like a conquering hero. On the contrary, the problem is ongoing and messy, and it makes you look vulnerable.

LTeitel.jpgLee Teitel, a lecturer at Harvard, worked with the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents on ramping up their protocol for peer support.

You plunge in and as you lay out the dilemma, you notice the rhythm, an expected flow, to the discussion that follows. In fact, as you begin, one of your colleagues unobtrusively passes out copies of the consultation protocol you and the group have been using for almost three years. Another quietly puts his watch in front of him, and you and the group are off and running.

Dissecting Reality
After five minutes of your laying out the challenges, your colleagues ask clarifying questions for a few minutes. Then, at the appropriate signal from the timekeeper, you push your chair back and listen as your colleagues dissect your case with a provocative set of diagnostic questions, drawn from the Adaptive Leadership framework of Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky, professors at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

This part of the protocol is special, and over time it has gotten easier for your group, although it represents more unnatural acts. The first is that you are silent for 25 minutes — listening, not defending, not clarifying — as your colleagues talk about your case.

My Superintendent Cohort Asks: ‘What Is Going on Here?’ by ANTHONY J. BENT

There we were, at 7 a.m., six superintendents gathered in a windowless conference room to help one of our colleagues. He was wrestling with a matter of inappropriate behavior by a teacher in his district that had spilled over to critical public questioning about the timeliness of the superintendent’s response in dealing with the accusations.

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The second is that, for the first 20 minutes of that time, the group is not allowed to solve your problem but devotes the time to deep diagnosis. Only after the timekeeper (who doubles as the protocol enforcer) gives the signal for the next stage is the group permitted to make five minutes of suggestions, based on the diagnosis, while you continue to listen.

Finally, you are invited back into the conversation to share your learning, responses and insights. You thank your colleagues, set the date for the next meeting and head back to work with a new framing of your challenge, deeper understanding and a set of options for action that you wouldn’t otherwise have had.

After four years, this process does not seem so unnatural to you anymore. In fact, you value the sessions and believe you learn a great deal — whether the case is yours or one of your colleagues’. You have come to find this a safe haven, a rare place in your very public life where you can admit what you don’t know and can get some help. You have come to like and trust your consultation group and know you can count on them. You have agreed that any of you can request a next-day meeting in response to an emergency, and in fact two such meetings have been called.

One Initiative
The consultation process depicted above was described recently to me by a superintendent whose peer consultation group got launched in a workshop I led in Massachusetts in 2005. Meeting continuously since, it is the longest-running group in the state, but far from the only one. Dozens of other superintendents in small groups throughout the state also are sharing real problems, improving their practice and learning to learn from each other in new ways.

It is not that Massachusetts superintendents are significantly more sensitive, caring or connected to each other than their colleagues in other states. Rather, these groups have formed as the result of a conscious and concerted effort to change the culture of peer support for superintendents.

Connecting to the Messy Reality by Lee Teitel

The Massachusetts story is about persistence. Instead of jumping from one fad to the next, the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents developed a comprehensive and focused plan and stuck to it for several years. And it is clearly a story about people — the trust and connections that developed among networks of superintendents that have held it all together.

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Tired of seeing so many superintendents struggle and fail in their challenging jobs, Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, wanted to try a different kind of peer support. “If left to their own devices, superintendents will get together and tell war stories,” Scott says. “Other than feeling better about it, by getting it off your chest, there is no real impact. We’ve got to get beyond the veneer and get deeper into helping people look at their problems.”

Scott and the board of his statewide association engaged me and colleagues at Cambridge Leadership Associates to introduce Heifetz and Linsky’s Adaptive Leadership framework and its embedded consultation protocol to Massachusetts superintendents. Over several years, we provided keynote speakers at membership meetings and repeated workshops to train groups of superintendents, using the structures of existing regional roundtables to help scale and spread the Adaptive Leadership ideas and the consultation approach. (See related story, page 28.)

Supportive Culture
The combination of the consulting protocol and the Adaptive Leadership framework, offered in a supported and sustained way by the superintendent association, proved to be a powerful tool to change the culture of superintendent peer support. According to Scott, five of the nine regional roundtables (including the state’s urban network) have used, or are currently using, the consultation protocol, the Adaptive Leadership framework or both.

In the other four, the more traditional culture of the roundtable was difficult to change, but superintendents who attended the workshop series have persevered in trying to move the work forward, bypassing the roundtables and engaging colleagues in the work in other ways.

Bobbie D’Alessandro, a former superintendent, points to the recent formation of a women’s leadership group whose members’ guiding hands have been trained in the Adaptive Leadership approach. “There are 120 women there and they just went right ahead and included consults as part of their programming,” she says.

For the superintendents involved, a profound shift has taken hold in the culture of how they work and the way they learn together.
Joan Connolly, superintendent in Malden, Mass., when she was involved in planning the workshop series as a member of the state association’s board, describes the process as improving both “how we work as superintendents and how as superintendents we work together.” Veteran Gary Burton of Wayland, Mass., says of Adaptive Leadership, “With 31 years as a superintendent, I have developed ‘training antibodies.’ There is so much reform with so little improvement. But this has been personally useful.”

Practice Networks
As school systems in the United States do something they have never tried to do before — educate all students to high standards — the pressures on superintendents and the need for their continuous, job-embedded learning have never been higher. School districts are struggling to bring high-quality teaching and learning to all students, to go beyond the isolated pockets of excellence most currently have and to develop coherent systems that bring instructional improvement to scale.

Old models of peer support — guest speakers, war stories, and a culture of protected and isolated practice — cannot provide what superintendents need. Networks like the ones we have been launching in Massachusetts, characterized by sustained trusting relationships, focused on genuine problems of practice and guided by a common intellectual framework, are critical and timely. They help professionalize the role, and, as one participant has said, they “make it normal” to get help from peers.

The common intellectual framework and prolonged diagnostic work in the consultation protocol slow down the pace of a superintendent’s life and push participants into looking at root causes of problems that seem to keep recurring. Having a superintendent sit back and listen while her peers discuss her challenges, including her own contribution to the problem, helps her to separate herself from her practice and to learn and understand new ways of leading. The collective work of sharing and supporting each other contributes to the learning for all, not just the superintendent whose case is being discussed.

My involvement in Massachusetts and in setting up a similar Adaptive Leadership network in Ohio, as well as co-facilitating a long-running superintendent network in Connecticut with Harvard colleague Richard Elmore (who wrote about his work in the April 2007 issue of The School Administrator) has helped identify common characteristics of what I have come to call school leadership practice networks.

These networks seem to maximize the learning and impact on superintendents’ practice. They share the follow characteristics:

• A safe space: an environment where superintendents can come and talk honestly about real issues that they face, to discuss their challenges and their learning, without feeling constrained in talking openly or doing anything they might see as compromising their authority.

• Peers: fellow participants whom they respect and can build relationships with — individuals with whom and from whom they can learn to improve their practice.

• Personal learning about their own leadership: a recognition that their practice can be separated from who they are as people and can be improved and that vulnerability is a key prerequisite to an openness to learn.

• Strong focus on practice: leader-written cases in the Massachusetts networks and classroom observations in Connecticut anchor the work in reality and ensure discussions will be practical and generate ideas that superintendents can bring back to the work in their districts.

• Overarching theoretical framing: Adaptive Leadership (see sidebar below) and a connection of leadership practice to instructional improvement.

• Use of protocols: the keys to change or replace the usual culture of isolation, idiosyncratic practice and self-protection.
When these characteristics are met, school leadership practice networks have enormous power to unlock peer learning, connect theory to on-the-ground action and support the development of superintendent practice. Developing a shared and discussable practice is a key ingredient in professionalizing school leadership in supporting superintendents in improving instruction for all students.

Massachusetts Context
When I talked to a half dozen Massachusetts network participants last November, the six characteristics above figured prominently in their descriptions of their networks:

On a safe space: “We meet in a windowless, paneled back room, cut off from the world. It almost feels like a tomb. It feels safe, a place we can come to bare our souls.”

On the importance of clicking with one another: “We laugh together, we are at ease. We are all experienced superintendents. The six of us come from six kinds of districts so there are great perspectives on issues.”

On learning about leadership: “When problems get put on the table, we see different styles of leadership. We look for each other’s blind spots and approach a member’s problem from different angles, then the individuals sort through and decide. It is always wonderful advice; it helps me develop a plan.”

On allowing problems to be discussable: “Many administrators don’t know how to ask for help in tackling their tough challenges, so it is hard to keep them from crashing and burning. The [consultation process] is great because the association is putting it out there for everyone.”

On practical connections and safety: “If I find myself really in trouble, it is great to know that I could call and suggest that we get together. We have all agreed to come to an emergency meeting (and we have) if any member needs it. I know they will not betray my confidence.”

On depth: “This is the first time I have been engaged in this level of depth on leadership discussions.”

On an overarching framework: “Adaptive Leadership is key to what superintendent life is all about. Superintendents don’t get into trouble over content — it’s from the political issues or fallout. It is not the details of budgets, but it’s about all the adaptive questions raised.”

On the power of the protocol in changing culture: “At the appointed time, we pull out our laminated copies of the protocol, and the discipline of following the procedure has made us successful.”

Another on the protocol: “It doesn’t allow [our meetings] to turn into general discussion BS — what happens when administrators usually get together. The protocol keeps us focused.”

Resistant Behavior
On the other hand, several superintendents were unsuccessful in changing the traditional culture of their regional roundtables. In some cases, even after the Adaptive Leadership consultation process was tried for awhile, roundtable member push back was strong enough to revert to older patterns. They describe their challenges in ways that highlight how some key networking conditions were not being met.

On lack of trust: “In [my] roundtable there is not enough trust. It is too public and makes you too vulnerable. There is so much you have to do to keep the walls up to survive.”

On the power of the default culture: “It [Adaptive Leadership] was slow to occur at our roundtable. It didn’t come efficiently there. We couldn’t change the culture so I kind of dropped out and developed something on my own.”

On fear of vulnerability and lack of cohesion: “Several of us tried to make it work at [our] roundtable. We tried to set it up as an add-on — have people come early to talk about cases — but when it is voluntary like that, who wants to admit they have problems? It is not a real cohesive group anyway and most seem to prefer to have lunch, exchange regional information with a questionable program as a diversion, and that is it.”

The culture change that has been successful in many of the roundtables has not yet taken root in all of them. Patterns of existing culture run deep. Yet overall, results have been positive with numerous roundtables and other groups of superintendents practicing a different way to learn with one another — in a sustained way that does not rely on the continued presence of or input from a workshop presenter.

Paradox Remains
The Massachusetts School Leadership Practice Network experience shows what a forward-looking state superintendent association can do. Instead of the customary association practice of parading in the latest conference keynote speakers, the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents picked the Adaptive Leadership framework and stuck with it for years. The association systematically supported a rollout strategy that exposed the framework to all the superintendents at their membership meetings and brought more than half into direct contact with the consultation protocol.

The Massachusetts story is a powerful one, but it is only one story. It leads me to close with a paradox and a challenge.
Leadership is widely seen as a missing critical ingredient in school improvement. Kenneth Leithwood and his colleagues proclaim in their 2004 research report “How Leadership Influences Student Learning” that “leadership is second only to classroom instruction among all school-related factors that contribute to what students learn at school.” Outside groups such as the Wallace Foundation are investing millions of dollars, betting that cohesive leadership systems can be keys to improving challenging school, district and state educational situations.

At the same time, though, in his devastating 2005 report “Educating School Leaders,” Art Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, excoriates the preparation of principals and superintendents as a “race to the bottom.” Principals and superintendents routinely disparage their own formal preparation. Even though promising preparation practices operate within some universities and in alternative settings, these represent the exception rather than the rule for the mainstream of individuals who are getting recruited, prepared and inducted into school leadership roles.

Combining these conditions — confidence in the impact of school leaders and lack of confidence in their preparation — sets up a critical challenge for any of us interested in large-scale school improvement. How, when and where will school leaders learn the skills and develop the practices that make a difference for student learning?

School leadership practice networks represent an important and underutilized answer.

Lee Teitel is a lecturer on education and senior associate of the Executive Leadership Program for Educators at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Mass. He is a co-author of Instructional Rounds in Education: A Network Approach to Improving Teaching and Learning (Harvard Education Press, 2009). E-mail: lee_teitel@harvard.edu

Go to "My Superintendent Cohort Asks: 'What Is Going on Here?'" and "Connecting to the Messy Reality"