Dr. Carol Kilver: In the Loop

How Dr. Carol Kilver of Illinois’ Pikeland CUSD 10 uses Cognitive Coaching as a basis for internal communication

By Melissa Hite Last Updated: October 09, 2023

Dr. Carol Kilver probably spends more time thinking about the human brain than your average superintendent. With about 20 years of experience in Cognitive Coaching, she has founded her educational leadership on understanding how people think. It’s clear that her approach is paying off. Now in her fourth year as superintendent at Pikeland CUSD 10 in Illinois, she was recently named a Superintendent of Distinction by the Illinois Association of School Administrators. The superintendents who nominated her applauded her skills in navigating conflict, setting strong goals, and instituting systems that effectively measure critical data points.

Key to Kilver’s success as a leader is the way she communicates with her staff members. By understanding how the mind works, she’s able to implement systems that fulfill her employees’ psychological needs for certainty and belonging. In the following conversation, she shares just a few of her thoughts and strategies for effective internal communication—the kind that will grow your employees as individuals and your district as a whole.

What is Cognitive Coaching? How does it influence the way you communicate with your staff?

Cognitive Coaching is a cognitive science founded on the belief that all individuals are self-directed, and they just need the opportunity to plan, reflect, and resolve issues through the use of language. As a coach, you believe that people have answers within themselves. They may not have a definite, clear-cut answer, but after a coaching conversation, they know what step to take, they know why they’re taking it, and they can anticipate their impact by developing indicators of success.

As a Cognitive Coach, when someone comes through my door with a problem, I don’t just hand them the answer they’re looking for. I often find time for us to have conversations where we plan,  reflect, and calibrate together. Then we might think about resolving the issue. And so through the use of invitational language, you provide the opportunity for someone to find the answer within themselves.

This is a great tool for helping individuals grow in multiple ways. Oftentimes I use it with staff when there are signs of conflict or when people are stuck on an issue and can’t move forward. I use it in professional development and in the evaluation process. And I also use it with individuals who possibly have limited experiences beyond their own cognitive schema. It provides an opportunity for people to ask themselves, What’s keeping me from thinking differently?

I think that it also helps with climate and culture. In our society, it seems like there’s always this hierarchy—the person at the top knows all the answers and pushes them down to everyone else. But when you invite others to think along with you, it creates a very safe space. Your culture becomes one that’s not about automaticity with answers. It’s not about speeding through the conversation and getting it off your checklist. It really is about thinking, learning, and growing as a professional team.

How does that Cognitive Coaching mindset play into your internal communication? 

When I think about this, I think about the work of neuroscientist David Rock, who developed the SCARF Model. SCARF stands for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness. Those five domains influence our behavior in social situations. When we feel threatened in one of these areas, it actually triggers a survival response—your fight or flight. But when we feel rewarded in one of those areas, we feel more psychological safety. 

So if we apply that to communication, predictable cycles of information raise our status as individuals because they make us feel more empowered. Because they’re predictable, they provide that certainty—and the brain loves certainty. We want to know what’s coming next. Predictable cycles even move us beyond certainty to give us some autonomy; because we’re empowered thinkers and have information we can act on, we have choices. So we feel a sense of fairness and relation to others in our organization. We are all in the same loop. 

Something we often fell into at Pikeland in the past is what I call “random acts of excellence.” People were doing excellent work, but they were moving in all different directions. Those gaps in communication were slowing us down, causing conflict, keeping people from feeling a sense of belonging. But if you look at our mission and vision, it’s about making sure people feel like they belong here—and the way we communicate internally plays a big part in that. 

Part of internal communication is providing feedback and setting clear expectations. How do you do that with your building-level leaders?

In my mind, when I moved over to the superintendency, I gained a new classroom of learners—my principals. Just like with teaching, I have to ask, How do I break this information down so that people can readily comprehend it and do the work? One issue that I run into with principals is we get into a habit of only communicating about an issue once, when we should be having ongoing conversations. So lately I’ve been working on asking: Why don’t we schedule some emails to follow up on this topic later and keep it fresh? When does this information need to resurface again? 

With my principals, I create a running list of communications targets we’re wanting to hit for each campus. That stays on a shared drive, so when they’ve accomplished a task, they can just mark it off and let me know. One of those targets is something called Pikeland Proud. This is a monthly assignment principals put together for the board packet, so the board members can see what’s going on in their schools. Principals can throw their pictures and text into a simple template, which is always stored in the same place in our drive. Again, it’s about making things easy for people so they can get more done.

For me, it’s not only providing the template for the work to happen, but it’s also providing that accountability piece, making sure we follow through. I’m a firm believer that if we don’t measure, we will never move. So a principal might see in their evaluation that they only got seven out of nine Pikeland Prouds turned in. I try to connect it in a way that shows them, This is what we’re measuring. This is what we’re moving forward. That’s our personal and professional accountability to each other; we really do need to be honest about when we have fallen short of a target. 

Honestly, this also saves us a lot of energy. Sometimes I see a lot of time and effort being wasted because we’ve inadvertently disappointed someone or made them feel less than valued. Educators are great people. We work really hard, give our hearts and souls. But we’re not always the best at accepting critical feedback. Being really clear about expectations helps us avoid that. When the targets are clear, people know whether they’ve hit them or not, so they’re not surprised when they receive that feedback. That gives us a common language and allows us to move forward in a way that’s safe and secure, with no surprises.

Internal communication goes beyond your principals—you have to keep all your staff members in the loop. What systems do you have in place to do that?

In my district, I’m working on predictable cycles of communication. Let me give an example of what that might look like. I’ve really tried to get into a cycle where each day of the week brings some tidbit of information. So on Monday, it might just be a rise-and-shine motivation. On Tuesday, it might be a tip of the day. On Wednesday, we might think about wellness. By Thursday, I might be thinking about an instructional strategy, and by Friday, I might be thinking about how to move this all together into a cohesive package and connect the dots. I have done this with some success by providing information in small doses so that people are not overwhelmed. I don’t want the situation or issue to seem so large that they can’t chunk it down. 

The other thing we’ve been working on is having one place to find everything. A huge personal goal of mine has been establishing places where people can always come to find accurate information. Then, we can trickle that information out over and over, but always redirect people back to those spaces they can trust. For example, we’ve been working on an employee intranet—a private side of our webpage to keep that information all in one spot. So if you’re an employee, you would be able to find info about HR, curriculum, IT, all in that one place. I think that would be a huge win.  

This isn’t just helpful for my staff; as the communicator, this structure keeps me grounded. I can provide doses of information, then have this written history to point people back to. 

Successful internal communication has to go both ways. What opportunities do you give staff to communicate with you?

I really do try to get as many voices to the table as possible. Just last week, we had what I call a “listening post,” where staff members come in to brainstorm ideas for what needs to change next school year. People advocate for what they believe we should move forward on and what they think will make the most impact on our other goals. Then, they basically get to come to some consensus and vote on priorities. I can share that data with my principals, and as we make decisions, we’ll be aware of what the rest of the staff thinks will move the needle most. Those ideas will surface in the principals’ plans for their schools the following year.

In our most recent conversations, the issues that came up were belonging, connectedness, and workflow—and I felt really good about that because those are things we’re already working on. We’ve been using tools and resources like Apptegy’s Rooms to help people stay connected, and we’ve also been working on that private side of our webpage so people can easily retrieve information and improve their workflows. 

How does having strong internal communication improve your relationships with staff members?

It shows people that we respect them and their time. People—including our teachers and staff—aren’t just looking for information. Their time is minimal, so they’re trying to consume that information quickly and find out, Is this what I need or not? Am I in the right ballpark? So when our communications are in a place of strategic alignment, it makes people feel like we respect their time, which impacts morale and the overall attitudes of our teachers.

When you think about it, time is really the only currency in our school systems. Good use of time promotes so much efficiency because then we’re not having to backtrack or repeat anything. Strong communication is just about expediting our ability to provide services. Internal communication really is the best use of our time—because it saves us time. 

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