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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

10 Big Ideas of School Leadership

Middle school principal Mike McCarthy shares 30 years of wisdom on how to run a school well.
By Mike McCarthy, Kathy Baron

Principal Mike McCarthy.

Credit: Michael Warren

During my senior year of college, I taught math to 26 inmates, none of whom had finished high school. What I faced was 26 examples of the failure of American education. What I did not realize is the profound effect this would have on my career as a school leader. After teaching for five years, I became a principal because I felt that I could help underserved kids better in that role. Here are ten ideas I have learned in the 30 years since I became a principal.

1) Your School Must Be For All Kids 100 Percent of the Time

If you start making decisions based on avoiding conflict, the students lose. This is what sustained me through one of my most difficult decisions. I asked the school district to let our school health center offer birth control after four girls became pregnant in one semester. For this group of kids, the health center at King was their primary health care provider. Although we offer birth control to our students, we are not the birth control school; we are the school that cares about all of its kids. This decision was the right one, and it cemented for all time the central values of King.

2) Create a Vision, Write It Down, and Start Implementing It

Don't put your vision in your drawer and hope for the best. Every decision must be aligned with that vision. The whole organization is watching when you make a decision, so consistency is crucial.

3) It's the People, Stupid

The secret of managing is to keep the guys who hate you away from those who are still undecided. (That's adapted from Casey Stengel.) Hire people who support your vision, who are bright, and who like kids.

4) Paddles in the Water

In Outward Bound, you learn that when you are navigating dangerous rapids in a raft, the only way to succeed is for everyone in the boat to sit out on the edge and paddle really hard, even though everyone would rather be sitting in the center, where it's safer. At King, in times of crisis, everyone responds with paddles in the water.

5) Find Time to Think During the Day

They pay me to worry. It's OK to stare at the wall and think about how to manage change. I have 70 people who work at King. Even the most centered has three bad days each school year. Multiply that by 70 people and that's 210 bad days, which is more than the 180 school days in a year. So, me, I am never going to have a good day -- just get over it.

6) Take Responsibility for the Good and the Bad

If the problems in your school or organization lie below you and the solutions lie above you, then you have rendered yourself irrelevant. The genius of school lies within the school. The solutions to problems are almost always right in front of you.

VIDEO: How Principal Mike McCarthy Sustains a Culture of Collaboration

Running Time: 07:31 min.

7) You Have the Ultimate Responsibility

Have very clear expectations. Make sure people have the knowledge, resources, and time to accomplish what you expect. This shows respect. As much as possible, give people the autonomy to manage their own work, budget, time, and curriculum. Autonomy is the goal, though you still have to inspect.

8) Have a Bias for Yes

When my son was little, I was going through a lot of turmoil at King, and I did not feel like doing much of anything when I got home. One day, I just decided that whatever he wanted to do, I would do -- play ball, eat ice cream, and so on. I realized the power of yes. It changed our relationship. The only progress you will ever make involves risk: Ideas that teachers have may seem a little unsafe and crazy. Try to think, "How can I make this request into a yes?"

9) Consensus is Overrated

Twenty percent of people will be against anything. When you realize this, you avoid compromising what really should be done because you stop watering things down. If you always try to reach consensus, you are being led by the 20 percent.

10) Large Change Needs to be Done Quickly

If you wait too long to make changes to a school culture, you have already sanctioned mediocre behavior because you're allowing it. That's when change is hard, and you begin making bad deals.

Mike McCarthy is the principal of Helen King Middle School in Portland, Maine. The Maine Principals’ Association (MPA) named him as Maine's 2010 Middle School Principal of the Year.


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Allan Petersdorf's picture
Allan Petersdorf
Principal, Discovery Bay School

As another principal of 30 years I have to agree with you on all of the topics you wrote about. I would also agree that giving your people the right to make decisions and take chances does pay off. There is also room for "we are all going to be doing this". It is true that you end up fighting that 20% who never want to change or try anything new, but change must occur if educating children is your goal.

lucy csurka's picture
lucy csurka
teacher/administrator

thought i'd already posted but here goes it again
try your theories,experiences at places like
whiteriver, arizona
they are seeking a turnaround principal for the hs
they could use folks like you
sounds like you could use the challenge
just getting the word out

gayle's picture

I have a comment about the "80% with you and 20% against you" commentary. There are some folk who like to do an awful lot of complaining, but without any thought as to how to rectify the situations they are so fond of complaining about. THEY ARE NOT WORTH ANYONE'S TIME. For those 20%, who aren't just complaining for the sake of complaining, they deserve to be heard so long as they have thought out plans of action. It is always worth examining well thought out ideas in opposition to one's own - this is what our nation is founded on. And the price to be paid for listening, is that you just might find some grain of truth which you hadn't thought of and which builds bridges instead of opposition. Right now our education policy is in a "Race to the Top" mode and I fear that valid reflective oppositional ideas are not going to be heard as this giant "boulder" only gains unchecked momentum as is "rolls down the hill"!

gayle's picture

I have a comment about the "80% with you and 20% against you" commentary. There are some folk who like to do an awful lot of complaining, but without any thought as to how to rectify the situations they are so fond of complaining about. THEY ARE NOT WORTH ANYONE'S TIME. For those 20%, who aren't just complaining for the sake of complaining, they deserve to be heard so long as they have thought out plans of action. It is always worth examining well thought out ideas in opposition to one's own - this is what our nation is founded on. And the price to be paid for listening, is that you just might find some grain of truth which you hadn't thought of and which builds bridges instead of opposition. Right now our education policy is in a "Race to the Top" mode and I fear that valid reflective oppositional ideas are not going to be heard as this giant "boulder" only gains unchecked momentum as is "rolls down the hill"!

Jean-Pierre L.'s picture
Jean-Pierre L.
6th Grade Math & Science Teacher from Stockbridge, Georgia

Principal McCarthy, thank you for sharing the fruit of your hard work and expertise. Just recently, I had an assignment where I had to respond to my school post by reading two scholarly articles that offer information and insights on reflective practices. Today, I am working on a different assignment, which leads me to read your Ten Ways to Become a School Leader, and I watched the 7 1/2 minute video as well. The information provided in the article and on the video is invaluable. One of my all time favorites is # 2 on the list. You described one of the qualities of a reflective educator. I truly believe that our vision should be the blueprint for our decision making. Your article is informative and inspirational. Thanks!!!

Susan Kelly's picture

Thank you for sharing your very honest assessment of successful school leadership. As an administrator in a non-formal educational setting, I found your ideas inspiring and plan to share them with my peers. Things are tough in our professional right now and we need to keep the important things that you mention at the forefront; especially our students, vision and empowering educators.

AutismClassroom.com's picture

I particularly love tip number 1 and how you stated that you have to be for ALL of the students 100 percent of the time. Many people forget this and then things turn into adult issues, not focused on the students. Tip number 3 is right up there too!

Phyllis Muhovich's picture

[quote]I am not going to buy into the idea that I am never going to have a good day as principal. I do have good days. Most of the teachers in my school do not have 3 bad days a week. Did he mean 3 bad days a year? I do find joy in my work and look forward to coming to school everyday.Other than this one, I agree with the others for the most part.[/quote]

Flamora19's picture

Slow steady evolution is a cop-out. While you wait for those who aren't ready to move along to evolve, students are not served well. In any other service institution, all employees must change and adapt to changing conditions or the business goes under. Why are educators immune to the same test? This is one of the reasons why public education has its current problems. We wait...too long!

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