'I Suffered From Irrational Arrogance'

The Daily Coach caught up with PJ Caposey recently to discuss how an early cancer diagnosis influenced his career choice, lessons from teaching in the Chicago public school system, and how he was forced to evolve as a leader after early career adversity. 

During exit interviews in his Illinois school district, Superintendent PJ Caposey frequently asks the graduating seniors who impacted them the most in high school.

The vast majority will tell him a coach.

The responses got Caposey thinking about how little he was pouring into the professional development of some of the most important people in his students’ lives.

“I have all this opportunity to help them become better leaders, and I just do nothing,” he said.

Caposey, who was named the 2022 Illinois school superintendent of the year, was so intrigued by the students’ responses that he recently penned his ninth book, “Cracking the Coaching Code,” aimed at giving coaches strategies to better engage their student-athletes.

The Daily Coach caught up with him recently to discuss how an early cancer diagnosis influenced his career choice, lessons from teaching in the Chicago public school system, and how he was forced to evolve as a leader after early career adversity.

This interview has been condensed and edited for brevity.

PJ, thanks a lot for doing this. Tell us a little about your childhood and some key lessons from it.

I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. We lived an upper-middle-class life on a lower-middle-class income. My dad worked 70-80 hours per week at a factory on the far southside to provide for us. It was very blue-collar. My mom didn’t work. It was a traditional, very old-school, Roman Catholic household.

I was captain of this, president of that, recruited to prestigious academic schools for athletics. Then, at 17, I was diagnosed with cancer. I didn’t go to school my junior or senior year. I’ve now fought cancer three different times. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. But I wouldn’t take it back either.

How did you come to terms with the diagnosis at such a young age and how did it change your life and your mentality?

The first night was the only time I mentioned dying. I reacted like a 17-year-old: I went to a basketball game and then had a party. I Hodgkin’s lymphoma and announced it to my school because I wanted to be the one to share it. It was on a Friday. From that Monday forward, it was test, treatment, test, treatment.

When I got sick, I was taking calculus as a junior. No homebound tutor is going to be able to teach you calculus. There was no Zoom, and email wasn’t really a thing either, so I handwrote a letter and said, “Look, I’d just like to drop this. I’m sick and tired.” All of a sudden, the teacher just started showing up day after day at my house to carry me over the finish line. That’s when I really decided I wanted to become a teacher.

It became really clear to me through my struggles I’d had a pretty charmed life, and I didn’t value my teachers before because school had come easy to me. But then all of a sudden, life wasn’t easy. And when it wasn’t, a teacher stepped up. For me, that was everything. I wanted to be that person.

You ended up going to Eastern Illinois and then pursuing your teaching career in Chicago. What were your biggest takeaways from your early years in the classroom?

I started working in the inner city of Chicago at Percy Julian High School. I always wanted to coach and started coaching baseball, but it was to the point I had to get bats for the team. There was no field. It was at that level.

I was teaching sociology. This wasn’t about whether or not the students knew the theoretical lens of this sociological method. It didn’t matter. The kids had to understand where they were in society and the things that were collectively happening around them. It didn’t sour me at all. If anything, it invigorated me.

My last year there, we had eight students die of tragic death. I grew cynical of the adults, not the kids. At the time, I was also bringing two kids into the world as a single dad on a teacher’s salary. But even with that, there was this great juxtaposition my kids were going to have compared to my students. And that’s just not O.K. societally. I don’t know how we’re O.K. that zip code determines quality of education. Quality of education to me equals opportunity.

You became a principal at another school at just 28 years old. Did you feel qualified at that point or how did you overcome your inexperience?

I suffered from irrational arrogance more than impostor syndrome, if I’m being honest. I was terrible at it. I was not a good principal my first year. There was a student and staff walkout in protest of my leadership.

I fired 20 percent of the staff in my first year. I was in this little town called Oregon, Ill. There was zero reason that school couldn’t be a giant, but I went 1,000 miles per hour at every problem I saw. When I think about it, every decision I made that first year was correct by the textbook. It was research-based, thought out and vetted. But my entire leadership style was just I’ll outwork and out-read you.

I was literally sitting on a wooden picnic table watching them protest me. They were still my students and I had to supervise them. I was thinking, “I have 30 years left of this. There has to be a better way.”

I did a lot of soul searching. I realized I had this faulty definition of leadership in my head my entire life. My definition was, “I get s--t done.” It wasn’t that I influenced hearts and minds or changed people’s behaviors or got them to see themselves as greater than they were. I just accomplished stuff.

I realized in that moment if I’m going to have any success in my career, I’ve got to invert this. It’s not about me getting stuff done. It’s about me helping other people get stuff done. That summer, everything shifted mentally for me.

You take over as superintendent of an Illinois school district a few years later. How were you different than you were as a principal and what were your larger leadership takeaways from the experience?

I went into a district where I was the fifth superintendent in three years, so it was already in chaos. They didn’t need me to be another object of chaos. I needed to be a change-maker and bring some stability and some focus.

At that point, I was dramatically more self-aware. I don’t know if I knew more about education, but I knew way more about myself, and as my self-awareness grew, I didn’t just operate on default every time. Just because I had a reaction or impulse didn’t mean everyone needed to know about it.

For me, everything boils down to self-awareness. We (have to) adjust to what our context demands so we can get the best possible outcomes for whoever we’re trying to serve. It was gaining a level of self-mastery so I could be who my community deserved.

I think too many leaders walk by too many conversations. We need to figure how to engage in every conversation that needs to be engaged in, but do it in a meaningful way, not in a way that’s dictatorial. If you have a level of self-awareness and can stay composed and rational, there’s never a time where you should walk by a conversation. We’ve got to do the work.

Your ninth book, “Cracking the Coaching Code,” written with Bryan Wills, is set to come out this summer. What do you want readers to take from it?

I think we have a fundamental block in American public education when it comes to athletics. I do exit interviews with each of our seniors when they leave our district and always ask them, “Who’s impacted you the most?” There’s a disproportionate number who say a coach. I don’t think that’s unique to us.

Then, I think about what we do. We have 300 employees, a $23 million budget. I used to spend $0 on the professional development of my coaches. Here I have my kids telling me the people impacting them the most — not always in a positive way, but impacting them the most — are coaches, and I have all this opportunity to help them become better leaders, and I just do nothing. “Hey, you pass a background check. Great! We need a sophomore volleyball coach. Here are the keys.”

So many kids have their egos tied into how they do athletically, and we don’t do anything for them. The book is really trying to help coaches understand that there are different personality archetypes and that our kids are different. If we want to maximize what we’re getting out of our student-athletes, at some point, we have to consider this. It’s coaches’ jobs to adjust. The same way they situationally adjust to an opponent or the flow of the game is the same way they need to adjust to their athletes.

The same mechanism that is going to elicit maximum peak performance from somebody is going to cripple somebody else. You have to have the mindset and willingness to adjust based on the athlete.

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