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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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Comments (41)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Kathy Baron's picture
Kathy Baron
Former Edutopia reporter and editor, mother of two.

What a difference a "Week" makes. A number of you have commented on the statement about teachers having 3 bad days a week. That should have read "3 bad days each school year." The sentence has been fixed online. My apologies to Principal McCarthy.

Danette Grossnickle's picture

Great ideas. How can other principals follow in your lead?? Have you written any literature containing these ideas? Really. This is what great books are made of.... great minds!!!

Congratulations for your achievements. Truly you are a great leader.

Danette Grossnickle's picture

Great idea. You are very priviledeged to have stayed in once place and to have made such a difference. Not many people have that opportunity. If a teacher outside your district wanted to collaborate with your teachers how would that be possible?

newteacherhelp.com's picture
newteacherhelp.com
Adjunct Instructor at Missouri State University

Learning to not be discouraged by the 20% who are "resisters" is an important skill for an administrator. Resisters are the reason that we are not much closer to implementing technology in American classrooms than we were 10 years ago. I write about this phenomenon on my website, www.newteacherhelp.com
Check out the website for free materials to use in your classroom!

SGP's picture

An excellent review of key priorities in leadership! A suggestion though ... Change can be made by revolutionary change or by a steady thoughtful evolution. Both are valid and how you select which process to use should be strategic and respect the dignity of all people involved.

Stacy's picture

In what I read, he did say 3 bad days a year. I think the main message was not to expect too many days in which there is not an issue to deal with that could be looked at as "bad". If you expect days to be totally conflict free, you will set yourself up for failure.

pculver's picture

Thanks for putting it in words succinctly. I have been a HS principal for 29 years and you are absolutely correct. Words to live by for new administrators. Your staff and kids are very lucky to have you.

Augustus George's picture

I have worked as a principal for about twenty years and there a number of items in the list that I fully agree with. However, building leadership is like most other events in our lives, it is to a great degree relative to where we are and where we need to achieve.
I wrote the following comment to the "Ten Big Ideas" before watching the video. However, after watching the video clip, he is very much engaged in collaboration, faculty empowerment, and engagement of faculty and students. It just did not come across in the "Ten Big Ideas". So again, the following is to the "Ten Big Ideas"
During these twenty-years, I have been a principal in three schools, one elementary and two high schools. What I have found is that if you effectively use a consensus process, the twenty percent (if it is that high) of resisters are negated by the eighty percent who have ownership in the mission because they have had input.
I would also question the desire to have staff who all think as I do. Diversity of thought is critical in being able to explore different options when solving problems. I believe that one of the reasons that the country is in the shape that it is today is due the previous administration being permeated with a single mindset and closed to divergent ideas. Therefore, to exclude some one simply because they have different views will limit your success. Should they be of good character, morality responsible, be able to related to and show respect for, all members of the school community, and they must have competency not only in content, but also in instruction that engages all student.

Augustus George's picture

I have worked as a principal for about twenty years and there a number of items in the list that I fully agree with. However, building leadership is like most other events in our lives, it is to a great degree relative to where we are and where we need to achieve.
I wrote the following comment to the "Ten Big Ideas" before watching the video. However, after watching the video clip, he is very much engaged in collaboration, faculty empowerment, and engagement of faculty and students. It just did not come across in the "Ten Big Ideas". So again, the following is to the "Ten Big Ideas"
During these twenty-years, I have been a principal in three schools, one elementary and two high schools. What I have found is that if you effectively use a consensus process, the twenty percent (if it is that high) of resisters are negated by the eighty percent who have ownership in the mission because they have had input.
I would also question the desire to have staff who all think as I do. Diversity of thought is critical in being able to explore different options when solving problems. I believe that one of the reasons that the country is in the shape that it is today is due the previous administration being permeated with a single mindset and closed to divergent ideas. Therefore, to exclude some one simply because they have different views will limit your success. Should they be of good character, morality responsible, be able to related to and show respect for, all members of the school community, and they must have competency not only in content, but also in instruction that engages all student.

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