Dr. Paul Coakley: Lessons for School Leaders

Dr. Paul Coakley, the Superintendent of Multnomah ESD, shares his insights on building a personal brand, the importance of leaving a legacy, and much more

By SchoolCEO Last Updated: January 10, 2024


In this episode of SchoolCEO Conversations, we speak with Dr. Paul Coakley, the Superintendent of Multnomah ESD in Oregon. Dr. Coakley has spent a lifetime as an educator and as a school administrator. In this conversation he shares how he united his community to pass the first successful bond in nearly two decades. He also shares his insights on the importance of leaving a legacy, building a personal brand, and knowing when to transition in your career.


Dr. Coakley discusses topics such as: how to brand yourself effectively to gain community trust, when the right time to pass on the leadership baton is, the importance of knowing your “WHY” as a leader, and so much more.

Dr. Paul Coakley has over 20 years of experience in education as a teacher, principal, human resources director, and superintendent and is currently the Superintendent of the Multnomah Education Service District (ESD) in Oregon. Dr. Coakley holds a doctorate in Educational Leadership and recently published his memoir, "A Reason for Every Season: Memoirs of a Black Superintendent” which we discuss in this episode.

You can pick up your copy of “A Reason for Every Season: Memoirs of a Black Superintendent” from Amazon or Barnes & Noble

Main Discussion Points:

Shifting your why over time (04:43)

Building Relationships to Lead an Organization (21:11)

Making Difficult Decisions as a Leader (29:46)

When to Transition in Your Career (40:40)

Advice for Superintendents Feeling Isolated (53:53)

Key Quotes: 

“I think that one of the most important things for all school leaders and educators in general is to know your why and to understand what it is.” (02:44)

“And I think if we are constantly working and we don’t make time for ourselves, we actually are less effective than when we’re rested.” (26:06)

“One of the things that I always say is the way you measure a healthy culture is: it’s how long does it take for a group of people to stop talking about a problem and start addressing it?” (48:05)


Tyler Vawser (Host): All right. Dr. Paul Coakley, welcome back to School CEO.

Paul Coakley (Guest): Thanks for having me.

Tyler Vawser (Host): This is your first time on the podcast, but we featured you in the magazine before. So glad to have you back. And you just came out with a new book. We're going to talk about that in a little bit, but I want to just jump in and start talking about the lessons that you've learned being a superintendent. And some of these, of course, are in the book.

But why don't you start by telling us what the most important lessons have been for you as you've learned to become a superintendent, grow into a superintendent, and even move from one school of superintendent to another?

Paul Coakley (Guest): Sure. Yeah. I think that one of the most important things for all school leaders and educators in general is to know your why and to understand what it is. What's the thing that drives you to give 100% for each and every student every day. And hopefully your why is connected to students. I think everyone's why in education needs to somehow be connected to students. But then also it should be used as a motivator to show up and really give your best. And so if it gets to the point where your why is no longer motivating you, I think people have a tendency to continue to try to use that same why to drive their everyday decisions. But I tell people that you need to shift it and make it something that you are passionate about in the moment and really use that. 

So your why can change, your why can shift depending on the context that you're dealing with. And then other things that I tell a lot of new superintendents is, I think that the most successful ones are the ones that really spend the first year listening and learning and building relationships in their organizations. And then they kind of figure out the strengths and the challenges in every organization. But then once you know what the strengths are, spend time giving people appreciation for those strengths and really letting them know what's going well before you start addressing the challenges and making a lot of changes. And I think that the superintendents that have really sort of crashed and burned a bit, it's, that piece is they've come in immediate and then they've made some really huge shifts without having relationships and without having any context in the organization. And then it goes badly because you don't have trust, you don't have the foundation that you really need to lead an organization. So those are my two things I would think that I would tell people about in the superintendency that really stand out to me.

Tyler Vawser: You started by talking about knowing your why? How has that shifted for you over time?

Paul Coakley: Yeah, good question. So my why as a superintendent is to build a system of support for students across the region. Because I'm working at an ESD, which is our regional level, a system that supports all students to succeed regardless of their race, their gender, their educational background, their financial background, neighborhood, economic circumstance, those type of things. And usually that is enough to really drive me to give my best. But also I've had some situations where things just got really rough, depending on the year, and Covid was tough for everyone. And I think some of those high level wise, sometimes they get away from what you're going through in the moment and it doesn't really motivate you. 

So I've shifted mine in certain times to really just make it more about the students I serve and really getting into buildings and asking questions of students and really making it more about making sure they're having a great experience. And then I've also shifted it to a personal why, which was about my own kids and family. And really, why am I doing a job, a specific job, to get up every day and really just go through the day to day grind. And so depending on what you're going through, I think it's good for people to change their why a bit and really shift it and then also go back to your original one when you're in those spaces.

Tyler Vawser: Yeah, that's really good. It's interesting, right as we were talking about this recording before, you had talked about just how challenging the can be. And I think you mentioned it just a second ago about in addition to being a superintendent, you're also a father and a partner. And then even as a superintendent, you're not just doing one thing, you have a lot of different stakeholders. It's something SchoolCEO talks about a lot. Yeah. What's your advice to someone that's maybe new to the role and they're trying to figure out how they balance or juggle or work or succeed in all of these different roles with different stakeholders, everyone from their own kids to a school board and in between.

Paul Coakley: Yeah, that's a great question. And I think that one of the main things is that relationships are essential to having a successful organization and also for leading an organization. So I would spend time with that, first of all, just getting to know your staff, getting to know who you're serving with and really building relationships with them. 

But then also superintendency can be an isolating role. And I think that everyone needs at least one person. That's their go to person that they can talk to. And it's almost the same thing that we tell educators about students. Every student needs a trusting adult and a caring adult that they can connect with in their school setting. And staff and leaders need someone also for the same reasons. And so even if it's not someone in your organization, just someone that you trust that sort of knows the job, maybe it's a retired superintendent, maybe it's a current superintendent, maybe it's just a school leader having that person that you can bounce ideas off of and really just stay grounded with and make sure that you are moving in the right direction, because it's hard when you are leading the whole organization to get real feedback from people. A lot of times they don't want to say what the problems are because they're talking to their superintendent. So, yeah, I think having a coach or somebody behind the scenes that you can really trust and really have a real conversation with is important for you.

Tyler Vawser: Was that somebody that you just already had a connection with, or was it more deliberate you sought out a coach or somebody to partner with you and mentor you?

Paul Coakley: Yeah. So that's something that I've sort of reflected on a lot and over even not as a superintendent, but just from when I started as a teacher, then I was a principal, as an HR director and assistant superintendent and a superintendent. In every single step in my career pathway, there was always someone, and it was usually a different person every time. And it kind of just naturally happened. And I pretty much stay in contact with all of those people today.

So now I have a larger network of people that I can talk to, but also I come from a long line of educators, and my dad was a retired principal, and he was kind of my go to person. We would talk every day. He really just loved to talk education. And then he thought it was cool when I got a superintendent job, and so he was always asking me questions. But also we started kind of having this ongoing dialogue about the different things that were happening in the organization and what my responses were, what my thoughts were, and he would always weigh in. But then also I've got superintendents that I worked with previous when I was assistant soup and a principal who I stay in contact with and ask a lot of questions of. And then I do the same for a lot of people, too, because for people who I've hired who were principals when I was a superintendent and whatever else, then I'm their go to person. 

So I try to make myself as available as possible to really do the same for other leaders that people have done for me.

Tyler Vawser: Yeah, well, you just mentioned self reflection, and I think just the fact that you wrote a book probably required an enormous amount of self reflection. And so the book, which is called a reason for every season, memoirs of a black superintendent in America, it came out just a month or two before we're recording this. And so one thing that I found fascinating about the book, and you referenced it a moment ago, was just how deep education runs in your family and the journey, the literal journey that your parents took across the country in their own careers in and for K12. So do you mind kind of walking me and our listeners through your family's journey and your own journey in education and leadership?

Paul Coakley: Yeah, that'd be great. So, yeah, I started sort of just doing some journaling, not even really thinking to write a book, but just in conversations with my parents, sort of figuring out what their experiences were in K12. And my parents are from Nashville, Tennessee, or right outside of Nashville, Tennessee, a small town called Gallatin, which is about 30 minutes away from Nashville. And what I remember of Gallatin is that it was a small little town, mostly african american, and I had tons of relatives there, and I lived there until I was five. But when I was five, my parents went to a job fair in Nashville, and they actually got recruited by Portland public schools. My dad was a history teacher at the time, but he had his admin license and he was offered a vice principalship. And so he was like, oh, this is the next step, or whatever. And I guess they just took the risk and went. 

So I moved at five from, know, being around relatives and whatever to Troutdale, which is, like, outside of Portland. It's a suburb, and it totally shifted everything because of just the difference in diversity. So I remember in kindergarten being like, the only black student in the classroom, and I didn't really ever think about it before that because four or five years old, you're not really thinking anything about any of those things. But when I went to Troutdale, all the students were asking me all these questions, just differences in appearance and whatnot. That really stood out to me. So I asked my parents a lot of questions about it. So my K12 journey was growing up in a suburb of Gresham, which is right outside of Portland, where there was probably not much diversity and being, like, the only black student in spaces. And then for my parents, their journey was probably similar because of the diversity in Gallatin and then moving to Oregon. But also then they were leaders in Portland public, and my dad became a principal in PPS for a long time. So all the people that I was around, I saw a lot of principals and superintendents and district leaders in my house, just in general. And then also a lot of the black and leaders of color were friends with my parents, so they would always be at my house. 

So I kind of grew up under this education expectation of everyone. And me and my younger brother, who's five, we would always have teachers and principals in our home, and they would be asking us questions about school and saying, what do you want to do in college? And really just sort of setting us up for that pathway. So, yeah, that's a really interesting thing when I reflect on it. And then my parents journey from before they were teachers in Gallatin, they went through the desegregation of schools.

So I wrote a little bit about that, too, which was what made me start journaling, was just asking questions because my dad's best friend, his dad was the school principal that my parents went to, and it was an all black high school called union. And then my dad's junior year, they notified everyone that the school was going to desegregate and it was going to be merged into the larger Gallatin high school, which was an all white school at the time. My dad was the first class of the desegregation of schools, and my mom was two years younger. But so same thing. They went in at the same time, and they kind of saw how everything shifted and changed. And then also they had positive relationships with students that they would have never had relationships with. And so it seemed like the students merged pretty well, in a way, from what conversations I've had. And most of the racial tension was, like, between the staff and the adults, and then really trying to work it out through a couple of years of having this new desegregated school. So that's also sort of at the beginning of the book.

Tyler Vawser: Yeah, that's interesting, your comment there. The students are like, let's go. Let's learn. Let's get to know each other. And meanwhile, the parents or staff, the adults in the room, are maybe not acting like the adults in the room.

Paul Coakley: Right.

Tyler Vawser: Well, part of the title. Right. Is a reason for every season. Just personally, I'm curious, as you journaled and as you talked to your parents and others about those different seasons in life, did it feel like you were kind of connecting the dots? Talk more about why you titled the book that way.

Paul Coakley: Yeah. And that's one of the things that I really changed a bunch of different times with the book is when I first started writing it, I had a totally different title, and I was kind of just writing about barriers that I faced trying to get teacher and then principal experience. And then as I started to write and really reflect on those experiences, it ended up being more about the people who supported me through those situations. 

Like when there was a tough barrier, some person, a leader or a mentor or a neighbor really just helped me or they saw something in me where they coached me through situations and really supported me. And every moment there was someone there that did that. And so then I started thinking, you know, what I would like to do is really just give people their appreciation and give people their flowers because I wouldn't be in the seat that I'm in today if it wasn't for those people. And so then the book started becoming more about that, like highlighting the people who helped me on my K12 journey. And recently I've been doing a lot of presentations and talks at conferences. And one thing that I always say to the people that have attended is that every step of my pathway, there was someone there who helped me get to the next level of success. And so I've been really intentional in the past two years about reaching out to those people and just telling them how much I appreciate them. And then I challenge everyone in the room to think about the people who did that for them and then be intentional about reaching out to them in the coming weeks and really giving them their flowers if they are still around or alive to receive it.

Because I think educators, they do so many good things, and then a lot of times they don't hear about those stories because people go off on their lives and whatever else, and then educators retire. And I think everyone, if we're really intentional about reaching back out and letting people know, there's probably some retired educators that will really appreciate it.

Tyler Vawser: Yeah, I appreciate you sharing that. What a story, especially hearing your parents start from desegregating to now their son being a superintendent of other superintendents. Right. You're in charge of a number of districts and the leaders that serve there. I am curious, what do you think those mentors or those friends or you even mentioned neighbors, what did they see in you as you've reflected on that and as you had conversations with them to write the book, what was it that stood out to them and what was the potential that they were seeing? Have you been able to identify that?

Paul Coakley: Yeah, I'm not really sure. I think it may just have been my ability to just have positive relationships with people. I think that that's been something that I've always tried to focus on. And so, yeah, I don't really know exactly what it was, but when I think about my first principal who hired me, he knew me previous as a kid, and then he sort of, after two, three years of me teaching, and I taught first and second grade, he sort of took me under his wing and started giving me these leadership opportunities, like running site council meetings and staff meetings, and just sort of being able to facilitate different conversations and experiences that most teachers wouldn't get. And then when I was a principal, I had a different superintendent. 

It was a different district, and he did the same thing. It was a small district, and it was interesting because some of the other leaders said, hey, no one ever lasts in this district longer than three years. The superintendent, after three years, he'll have you move on and he'll bring someone else in. And I go, okay, that's kind of weird or whatever, but I was there for seven years, and after year three, I actually asked him about that. I go, hey, so it's year three. The rumor is I'm going to be gone. You don't work with people more than three years. And he said, yeah, I've never heard that before. It's just a rumor. And I'm really interested in giving you more leadership opportunities. And he started sort of showing me different things that I wouldn't have got as a principal, which I think part of it was being in a small district, and so you wear multiple hats. And so I was doing things with the budget, I was in bargaining with negotiations. He was showing me our facilities and the needs for facilities. And in five years, this is going to need to be replaced, or this building needs a roof, we need a new gym floor, working on grants and figuring out how to do some of those things. And I think just the learning that was able to take place within those seven years in a small district really set me up for success as a superintendent.

Tyler Vawser: Yeah, that's really helpful, especially just to think about that skill to build relationships. Right. That's so much of leadership. How do you build relationships? Like, you've talked about it a little bit here, but what are the skills? Some of it's come natural to you, right. But what are some of those skills that you think you've developed or sharpened with time that allows you to lead an organization? Listen. Right. Really be present. That's something I've been thinking about a lot is great. Leaders are present. They're visible, they're seen every day, but they're also engaging in those conversations. I'm curious, from your experience, what's been the most effective way to build relationships across the entire district?

Paul Coakley: Yeah. And you hit on some of it. I think visibility is a big part of it. In year one for each organization, I've really just tried to let everybody be really transparent, too. That's one thing, is transparency. And I've just told everyone, hey, it's year one for me. My goal is to listen and learn. And one year, my theme was listen more, talk less. And so I would just go in with a notepad and just go into classroom spaces or hang out with a group of teachers and really just take notes and try to learn as much as possible. And I think after you know, what the strengths are, then really giving people appreciation for those and being really transparent about it. Hey, we're doing a great job in this, and this is a reflection of our staff and the hard work that you guys are doing. And then once I think people know that you understand what their jobs are, you're there to support them, and you're also interested in what they're interested in or interested in helping them reach their goals, then you have more trust and you also have more leverage to sort of push on. 

Okay, now let's take a look at the data. This is an area that we really need to improve on. Let's focus on that and then having some conversations collaboratively around. What are the strategies for moving that goal? I think if we did everything by just looking at data and kind of giving top down demands of, hey, this is what we need to fix, it won't work. But I've actually tried to really lean on processes where we're elevating the voices of our staff, the voices of our classified staff, our teachers, our administrators, our students, our parents, when we have opportunity to. And then sort of going slow, to go fast, like, if you spend more time really working on the problem and collaboratively coming up with ideas and solutions, then once you have it in place, then people are, okay, let's do it. This is our plan. It's not just Paul's plan. So those have been some of my strategies for really building relationships that help me lead an organization.

Tyler Vawser: Yeah, that's really good. Dr. Coakley, one of the things that we had talked about before we started recording was just the challenge of this role. Right. The challenge of being a superintendent. And I think it can be tricky for superintendents to be open and public about that. Right. Privately with their mentors or with their friends. They might be sharing some of those hardships, but wanted to kind of dig into that over these next few minutes. And so our team actually came across a post recently from Maria Libby, the superintendent of schools in Camden and Rockport, Maine. And she said something that I'll try to quote it exactly, was, the superintendency is not a resting place, nor should it be a place that requires leaders to sacrifice their ability to have a life outside of work. Something has to give. So my question for you is, what do you think has to give? On the one hand, you have the work. It's not a place that you have the option to coast in. And on the other, you have a personal life, you have a family. So what is that take and give there? I'm curious to get your thoughts on that.

Paul Coakley: Yeah, that's a great quote. And also, I agree, and I've had to really be intentional about setting boundaries for even just daily ones. And I've been also really transparent with all of my staff about the importance of work life balance, which I think is a different message that a lot of leaders don't share with their staff because then they think, okay, now everyone's just going to take off or start taking time and no one's going to be at work. But really, I'm looking at it more as the superintendency. And then almost every educator's job, it could be a 24 hours thing, especially with phones and email, and people are constantly responding to messages. And even at night when you're with your family and it can be a distraction, then you don't really end up getting the quality time you need. You are sacrificing your ability to have a personal life. 

And so I started setting goals for myself and then sharing it with my goals, with my cabinet and principals and then having them set one. And it was just, what time of the day will you stop working and when will you start working? And so I set a start time and a stop time each and every day based on what my calendar is. Of course, if I have evening meetings, then it's after that. But on the days when I don't have evening meetings, I have a cut off time for email and everything else. So I can really just spend time with my family. I set a morning start time so I can exercise before that and kind of get my day going in a routine and really just take care of myself because I think that if we are constantly working and we don't make time for ourselves, we actually are less effective than when we're rested. We've exercised, we've taken care of ourselves we have family time, then we're more balanced, and you're actually more effective on your job during the time that you're working. 

So I've said that work life balance is like an ongoing circle. We've never met it, but if you set a weekly goal for yourself and then you don't meet it, then look back on the week, why didn't you meet it, set another goal for yourself or that one, and then try to meet it the next week. But I think if we have that and we're intentional about really making sure that we do have a work life balance, we will be more effective on our jobs in general.

Tyler Vawser: You must have figured out how to balance it if you had the time, you made the time to write a book. Right? So when did you find time to journal, reflect, and then put a book together?

Paul Coakley: Well, it was actually really early in the mornings, and it took me a while to get into that routine, but I've shared this with a lot of superintendents. Let's see, right before COVID So maybe 2018. That year, I started really trying to wake up at, like, five and then having an elliptical at home and doing the elliptical at 530, and it was tough. But then finally I got into the routine of doing that for, like, a full year. And then during COVID I was like, okay, instead of doing the morning elliptical, I'm going to write, I'm going to try to do 1000 words a morning, and if I don't do 1000 words, then I'll track how many words I got and then I'll finish it later on the afternoon.

But I started trying to do 1000 words a day, and it was by waking up, like, early before my kids were up writing. And then I started kind of bumping my routine up. So then I was up at five. I'd write for 30 minutes, do cardio for 30 minutes, get ready, wake up my kids. It started just being this constant routine, and then I liked it so much that I felt like if there was a day that I missed, I was like, oh, I was totally off my routine today now, and I have to get it on it the next day. But now I don't know if I could actually do that again. Now that the book is done, I am doing the morning exercise. But, yeah, today it was at like, six. So, yeah, I'm not on the 05:00 anymore, but it worked for the time.

Tyler Vawser: Yeah, that's great. Again, a reason for every season. Right?

Paul Coakley: Right.

Tyler Vawser: Well, leaders are expected to make hard decisions, occasionally unpopular decisions.

Paul Coakley: Right.

Tyler Vawser: And so as you look back over your career so far, what are those decisions that were the most important and difficult for you to make?

Paul Coakley: Yeah, that's a great question. So when I really reflect over my career, one of the biggest decisions, and it's a big part of the book, is when I was at centennial, and it was going through a process to rename our schools, and I was an interim superintendent at the time, and we were getting a lot of complaints about the names of the schools, which had the word lynch in them. It was like, lynch Meadows, Lynchwood, lynch view were the names of the schools, and those were there throughout history. And basically, in the 1950s, there was a family. Their last name was lynch. They donated the land that those schools were built on. But then when I became superintendent in Centennial, which is, like, just right outside of, it's partly in Portland, partly in Gresham, it's kind of right in between. And it's diversified huge over the past ten years, maybe by over 50%. And so we started getting all these families of color coming out there and complaining immediately about the names of the schools and saying, I want to transfer. I want to go back to my neighborhood school. And gentrification of Portland was pretty much moving them out there. And then when you get out there and you don't know the context or the history of the names, it was an issue. And so, as an interim, a name change could get a lot of political pushback, and it's not really something that a new leader would want to take on. 

But what led me to do it was, for one, I just thought, whether I'm in this role or not, if we have so many parents and students upset about this, then I think it's causing a barrier to success for students. So I started having these conversations with board members and just sharing the actual complaints. So they knew, hey, this isn't coming from me as something that I'm trying to push. These are students complaints. These are parents complaints. We're getting multiple. And then as we started having the conversation, we all got to the place where we were like, we think this is what's best for kids. And I think that's the biggest thing. I think any decision that we're making, we have to really look at the equity lens of, like, what is the unintended consequences for students? And what is it, the unintended consequences for students success and our policies or our practices or our traditions, like, creating barriers to student graduation, to students feeling welcome. And so just sort of really rooting your decisions around what's best for kids and we felt like we were doing the right thing. 

So we ended up going through this name change process and changing the names of the schools. And one of the schools, actually, we wanted to make it a win win. It did get a lot of community resistance from not really our students or parents, but, like, our older community that grew up and went to those schools. And they were like, I went here. It was never an issue. It's not about anything racial. So we wanted to make it a win win for the community. So what we did was we repurposed one of the schools to be Patrick Lynch elementary school, which was the name of the person who donated the land. And it actually changed the context from Lynch Wood, which that was an assumption of what it was to, okay, this is the name of a person to really honor the lynch family that actually did donate the land. So that's kind of where it all landed. And it was interesting because after that, the community was completely divided for a while. We had some community members that said, hey, you guys, change this. We'll never support the district again. With a bond. We won't support anything. We totally don't believe in it. And then we had some people that were like, wow, this district is really listening to students. They're really listening to their community. They're responsive to it. 

And so it took us a couple of years to really repair some of those relationships, and we had a lot of strategies around how to do that. One was inviting our retirement community into our athletic events by giving them free passes and free swag and free, like, hey, we really want you to come to the games if you have time, and just promoting it and sending newsletters to really highlight all the things students were doing, positive graduations and college scholarships and musicals and those type of things, and inviting them to really see, like, okay, the district is doing some really good things. And it took about two years before we passed a bond, and it was during the pandemic, and I was like, okay, I think the community support is back, but it took a lot after that.

Tyler Vawser: Yeah, let's talk more about that. So more of the marketing sides of things. So bringing the community back together even before the name change. Right. I'm sure the community wasn't as tight as you would like it to be. And so with that name change, bringing people back together, but then even trying to grow past that, can you talk a little bit about what were some of the ideas, strategies, and tactics that you used to bring people together, which ultimately led to passing a bond for the first time in nearly two decades.

Paul Coakley: Yeah. We first surveyed our community just to see what the level of support would be. It's kind of one of those places that doesn't have a large business base. And so if you raise taxes, it actually impacts the residents immediately. They feel the tax increase because it's not shouldered by businesses. And so we had a space in our bond that we currently were paying on where the cost was going to drop a bit. And so we tried to figure out what that gap was and how much we could get. If we just asked people, would you continue to pay what you're currently paying? There's going to be a drop, but if you pay this, we'll be able to upgrade every one of our facilities. And so we kept our bond almost flat, and it was able to bring 60 million to the community and then also a $10 million match from the state. So almost like $70 million just by getting people to continue to pay. And then we really put together a presentation package where we were actually going to our community.

We were going into homeowners associations and rotary and chamber meetings and just sharing what the plan was, what the tax increase was. Also what our goals are as an organization, what we're doing for students, really highlighting many of the positives, but then also just making sure that people were clear on, hey, this isn't going to raise taxes. And also, this is really transparent about our facilities, too. These buildings are this old. We get cold classrooms in the winter. Our heaters take forever to heat up. And we got kids and teachers wearing coats until midday, and then it's warmer, and then it's just from. We've taken care of everything as much as we can, but these things are 20 years old, or whatever it was. And really just trying to go to the community as much as possible and be as transparent as possible, really ask a lot of questions. And that was going great. And then the pandemic hit, and we had all these scheduled meetings. And so I had done 21 bond presentations before COVID hit, and then when it hit, we had, like, probably another 20 scheduled, and we did most of them all virtual.

Tyler Vawser: Did you see that the attendance increased when it was virtual because it was more convenient to attend, rather than getting in your car, driving, parking, walking into the schoolceo.

Paul Coakley: Yeah, we did have a lot of virtual participation, which was interesting because it was like before everyone was used to Zoom and Google meets and all the formats. So it's kind of new, but I think that did help. And then my worry was whether or not because with COVID and a lot of businesses closing and people being put out of work, would our survey still, that we gave the previous year still be relevant? Because when we did that survey, we had about a 78% support. And then a lot of my staff was going, well, it's Covid now people are out of jobs, and should we survey again or not? And I was like, this is the only year that we have the tax dip. And if we survey again and it's lower, we're probably going to take the wind out of our sales. So let's just go with it. And we've got a plan. 

So we didn't survey again, and we ended up passing by 53%. And I think some of it, I don't think it was that we lost support. I think it was the other, like, people being out of jobs and really just saying, okay, taxes are going to go down, we need less taxes. We can't keep paying what we've paid. But another thing about COVID that probably helped with relationships across the board, with K12, is especially, and I know every state was probably doing this, but in Multnomah county and in Oregon, we continued to provide meals, even during the school closure when kids were out of school. And then when we went to virtual learning, we had meal deliveries, we provided Chromebooks, we provided hotspots and wifi to families that needed it. And I think nurses services and getting people vaccines and really just trying to support the community as much as possible, especially in small districts where the district is kind of like the hub of the support. And I think that went a long way with especially our parents and students. And I think everyone just saw like, hey, it's a tough time for everybody, and everyone's really pulling together to do what they can for kids. And that probably also helped a bit with passing the bond during the pandemic.

Tyler Vawser: Yeah, absolutely. One thing that was really interesting to me when you and I were talking about your move from Centennial to Multnomah was some of the advice that your dad gave, which was go out on top, don't wait for kind of the peak, and to be on the downhill side of that in your career at centennial. Do you want to talk about that a little bit? Because I think that's an interesting moment, but also a change of seasons in your more recent.

Paul Coakley: It was. I've been thinking about that a lot, too, which it's interesting, but I have seen some really successful superintendents that do tons of great things in their time at a district, and then they maybe stay a little too long and something goes bad, and it could be something that is out of their control. It's like an unfunded state budget year. 

So you do budget cuts, then you get moved out, or a relationship with the union goes bad because of your bargaining and whatever. It could be anything. But they stay longer than that successful peak, and then when they leave, everyone just says, oh, that guy was terrible. And I can't wait for the new superintendent to come in, and they don't get their appreciation for all the positive things that they've done. And so I had seen that a bit. And when we passed the bond, and it was during the pandemic, it was one of the roughest times for me in leadership. And it felt like we're virtual. We're doing all these things. We're not really assessing kids. We're more about just trying to make sure people feel supported and connected and comfortable, and we're trying to support learning from home. And then you're also trying to keep your leaders positive and yourself as a superintendent, you don't know what people are going through behind the scenes, whether they got sick relatives, people are passing away, are they sick? Like, all this different stuff. 

And so once the bond passed, I kind of was like, this is probably like, I've done everything I can do in centennial with good relationships. And I felt like if I did anymore at that point, it might be that it would go downhill. And so, yeah, my dad, when we saw the posting for my current job at the ESD, I told him I was thinking about it, and he did say, like, hey, you should go out on topennial. You guys just pass the bond. And then if you go to this job, you're leaving them in a better place than when you came in. And I'd also gone through the name change, like two years prior. And when he said that, I started thinking, that should be the goal for every leader is wherever you serve or whatever capacity you serve in, leave it better than where you found it. And then once you've done that, you've pretty much done your job, and then you could make room for the next person to come in. And I also felt good about it because my assistant, Superintendent James Owens, he's now the superintendent at Centennial. But I knew he was ready to be a superintendent, and I think he had great relationships. 

All the work that I put in on the bond and the name change, he was right there with me at every step, and I was like, I should try to get something else and give him the opportunity to take it. From where I'm leaving off and maybe I'll try something new. And so it just worked out great. So I think it is a reason for every season. It's like my season was over there. I think it was seven years. And that's the other funny thing is my dad goes, so what are you going to do in the next seven? Because when I was a principal, I was a principal for seven years and then I was at centennial for seven. So maybe that's my lucky number.

Tyler Vawser: Well, there you go. Yeah. We'll have to talk every seven years.

Paul Coakley: And make sure we keep up with you.

Tyler Vawser: That's awesome. I think the comedian Jerry Seinfeld said something similar. Right. When he walked away from the Seinfeld show, it was still on the rise. And everyone's like, how could you do this? You haven't peaked yet. And he's like, if you peak, you're already on the other side. You know that the top is behind you.

Paul Coakley: Right.

Tyler Vawser: So I think as contrarian as it is, it's a smart idea not to overstay your welcome and create an opportunity for somebody else to come into a good position.

Paul Coakley: Right? Yeah, I love that show. Yeah, I remember that, too. They kind of were on the height of it and then everyone's like, this is the last season. Yeah.

Tyler Vawser: He was offered 100 million to do one more season and said no. So it's quite impressive. So I don't know that I could do that. But a couple of other questions for you as we get close to ending the episode.

Paul Coakley: Sure.

Tyler Vawser: I think my question for you is actually about your current role at Multnomah. So how do you think about the brand and the culture there? Because you mentioned how important it is to listen, to discover those strengths and then to really give recognition to the people that know and are carrying out and living those strengths day to day. So what are Multnomah’s? And you have a number of districts within Multnomah, right. So maybe you can explain how that works, but at a larger scale, what is the brand? What is the culture that you've seen and you've heard and then what, are you trying to double down?

Paul Coakley: Yeah, that's a great question. So when I came in, I just spent the first year just kind of visiting sites and really meeting with people and learning what they do. And Malnoma has so many different programs and different things that ways that we are serving students, we have hospital programs, we have incarcerated youth, we have alternative school programs. We have nurses and school health assistants that push into our component districts to support students. And also we provide professional development for teachers across the region and a grow your own program, trying to give educators scholarships for college so they can get teacher licensure and sort of a pathway to jobs. And so there's so many different things. And the way that I sort of look at our culture is that we are sort of the backbone of like a K12 system in the county. So K12 districts are educating students every day in traditional ways, but also virtual now as well. And then for students that the K12 traditional system doesn't work for, then they are served through the ESD, and it could be for whatever reason. 

So if you have a physical health impairment, that stops you from really engaging in like, a regular traditional classroom. We're serving those students, many of them in Dornbeckers and Randall Hospital. And our teachers are actually working with students at the hospital, providing them with educational experience and a little bit of normality to their day and stuff. And then for kids to go to alternative pathways, we're trying to make sure that they have what they need to succeed for graduation. So one of the things that I always say is the way you measure a healthy culture is it's how long does it take for a group of people to stop talking about a problem and start addressing it? And so our branding, when I first came in, there was a strategic plan in place that was ending as I was coming in. And I asked the board would they extend it for a year so I could kind of just learn about the organization. So they did.

But then in year two, we looked at all of our strengths and kind of said, how do we keep these things going? And then here's our challenges. And then we brought educators from all over the region and classified teachers, custodial staff, maintenance secretaries, just everyone. And really digging into those conversations and keeping racial equity at the center and our policies at the center and what are our barriers? And we came up with a new strategic plan, and our comms department came up with new branding that they gave multiple options for staff to vote on. And so we've got a new logo, new strategic plan, new goals, and I think everyone feels like they were a part of it. And so we've really been able to push our three goals forward. And also I think that we are kind of in a service and support mindset to our K12 districts. We have eight districts that we serve, and our job is to make sure that they're getting what they need. 

Districts don't have the funding to do everything, so the things that they don't do we try to do. And one example of that is all of our superintendents talked about after the pandemic how the use of drug and alcohol and suicide for students has really increased, and that it would be great if there was a program that was supporting students who need those drug and alcohol supports. And so what we did through those conversations is we recently just scaled up a full, accredited high school called Rivercrest, which is giving students drug and alcohol counseling and supports. And really, it's a small setting where the staff is really intentionally hired to work with students who are struggling with those things. And then also they're taking their high school classes there. And so it's open to students across the region. They need to be referred by their home district, and then any one of them can attend. So that just opened this fall. But those are some of the cool things that we're able to do at the ESD level.

Tyler Vawser: I like that kind of metric you gave about culture. How long does it take people to talk about a problem and then switch from talking to solving and fixing the problem? I hadn't heard that before. I really enjoy that.

Paul Coakley: Thank you.

Tyler Vawser: Interesting last question for you, Dr. Coakley. How do you think about personal brand? Right. Obviously, writing a book is putting a statement down requires think. How are you thinking about your own personal brand? How do you define that? Is it intentional? I'm just curious what your process is as you think about that and how important that is to you and to the district and the students that you're serving.

Paul Coakley: Yeah, that's a good question. So I think personal brand, it's just, I try to do it through storytelling. I don't know. Most education books that I read are great, but they're more focused around the research and the literature. And then they're like, sort of how to books. And I'm more of a storyteller and really transparent about my experiences and journey and sort of my reflections. And then I think within that, there's research that is in alignment or it's tied in there, but through presentations that I've done, have really focused more on telling stories, sharing appreciations for people, giving people their flowers, and then having the people who attend my sessions leave with a purpose. And leaving with a purpose is hopefully I'm giving them something to reflect on and then act to. 

I think I'm in alignment with the ESD, and our organization is like, I'm here to support and I am here to help and kind of be a resource for educators. And also I like to share my failures, too. And then I think those are ones that sometimes it's tough to do that, but it could help someone else to not make the same mistakes. And even with writing a book, I did everything independently and I just trusted the process and whatever. And then I found, like after the first run that the book needed to be cleaned up and it had more errors than I was comfortable with. So I'm still getting a lot of positive feedback on it and I feel like I have to give this disclaimer to people like, hey, and I'm updating the book and it's going to be updated, but it'll get there, it'll be updated and then I'll really kind of feel like it's in a good space, but it's just because it's a new process and it was out of my regular scope of what I'm used to doing. And probably a lot of writers that are doing independent books go through some of that, I guess. 

But I always want things to be perfect. If I give advice to authors, it would be, don't rush. I feel like I rushed at the end because I was under some timelines for speaking engagements, and the speaking engagements are like, we want you to have the physical book. But if I wasn't under that, I probably would have read back through everything and really double checked it before I sent it off. So I totally own it and now I'm updating it so it'll be in a good space. I'm hoping that'll all be there in January.

Tyler Vawser: Fantastic. Well, any other advice you would give to superintendents, especially those that feel isolated, they feel like they're looking back on their own careers and wondering, is there a reason for the season I'm in or what is all this leading up to? What advice would you give to someone that is in that moment and they're reflecting, but they don't see the purpose yet?

Paul Coakley: I think that some advice would be to connect with other superintendents that are in your state, in your area, and really just everybody's got different strengths and really find someone that you can talk about the challenges with and sort of talk through certain things with. I think everyone needs a coach. Having a coach is only going to make you better. But then also I participate in professional organizations like we have COSA, which is our state level administrator group, which is also tied to the National Superintendents association and going to those conferences and really doing some professional learning, but also networking is important because I think that each state, each superintendent has something that they can share with the next person that's going to benefit you in the long run. And also, just remember that relationships are important, and large scale changes take time, and you shouldn't try to force them. But you have to have board support, for one, and you also need staff support. 

One of the things that I've told some of my administrators that work with me is if no one's following you, then you're not really a leader. It's kind of direct, but also it's true. It's like you've got to build the buy in and the support and also give people the why around, why are we doing this? And let them elevate their voices and give you what their fears and their hopes are and then really come up with the plan. And then once you know you've got that collective group of support, then you can actually successfully implement something, but you can't really do it in isolation.

Tyler Vawser: Absolutely. Dr. Coakley, are you going to be in San Diego for the national conference on Education?

Paul Coakley: Yes, I will be there this time again, and I'm also doing a presentation to one of the roundtable sessions. I think it's called leaving a legacy. Perfect. Well, great.

Tyler Vawser: Well, yeah, I'll be there as well. I'll be presenting with Dr. Jeffrey Collier on collective authorship and telling the whole district story. So we'll have to connect and shake hands. It's always fun to talk for an hour, but it's even better to meet in person, even if it's for a few minutes.

Paul Coakley: Yeah, that'd be great.

Tyler Vawser: Well, Dr. Coakley, thank you so much for your time. Thank you so much for what you're doing. And we'll put a lot of this in the show notes. So for those of you that want to pick up a copy of the book, we'll add a link to the book and how to buy it. And, yeah, thank you again for telling your story and even telling your parents'story. And I think it's interesting to see generations pass on the legacy of being educators.

Paul Coakley: Thanks so much, Tyler. Appreciate it.

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