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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
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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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CB Couvillon's picture

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.

Lisa Marin's picture

Lots of good points here, much of it we know but it's very helpful to be reminded. I especially like the comments about that resistant 20% and the power of Yes. But, like CB, I'm not able to approach each day thinking it's going to be "bad". All my days are not great, but very few are "bad"!

D Naron's picture

I liked this part of the ideas. The time we spend in building consensus with the last 20% takes away time from where we can be putting in new techniques to help our students.

Susan's picture

My teachers don't have 3 bad days a week, but everyday at least one of them is having a bad day. (and on those rare occasions when the faculty is in good shape, a parent and/or a student will NOT be in good shape). I too have accepted that there will probably never be a day when everything is good--but striving for that helps me and my school to grow.

SS's picture

Thanks for the reflections of your role as administrator. I think schools are for the kids 100% of the time. However, in this day and age there are too many parties involved in our teaching profession which tends to bind administrators and hinder educators with sometimes maintaining their utmost effectiveness. School leaders are often not allowed, in larger districts, to claim ownership to their school. I feel that as a educational leader you must, first and foremost, be allowed and want to create relationships with each and every person in the building, no matter what their role is. Twenty percent may always disagree with certain decisions and initiatives perhaps, but focus on the 80% who are on board with you. You'll know who they are if you have a good idea of who they are if you put the effort in to establish the working relationship. It is important to note also, that the 20% against anything are not necessarily ineffective educators. I think leadership should mirror the classroom setting, in that you have older kids (faculty and staff) with more experiences to pull from while striving to make them reach their potential as well!

Sherry Reed's picture

Wonderful insights-- I intend to share this with my staff. I would be curious to know Principal McCarthy's impressions of the role of central office staff. Often we work at counter purposes, without really meaning to cause harm. The concept about students first (not necessarily adults) is really important.

Janice Lombardi's picture

I loved this top ten list. I might have chosen another example for number 1 besides the issue of birth control because it is controversial in my community, but my sentiments are that as a principal we must always be student-focused and decisions should always focus on students in actions as well as rhetoric. Harder done than said......

bvm2jc's picture
School nurse/Health teacher

I love this top ten list. I want to work with you Mr. McCarthy! I am a school nurse. Our principal is always trying to reach consensus and avoid conflict or controversy or even discussion at all costs. I do understand that he also has to keep "enrollment numbers" in mind. However, I believe that if he could keep our primary purpose in mind, and make decisions based on this, that the "enrollment numbers" would follow. Consistency in leadership helps establish trust, among staff, as well as students, families, and potential families. Trust is foundational to all relationships.
The office staff is circulating this article amongst themselves, rolling their collective eyes, and saying "yeah, right." wishing they worked for you as well! The office staff in our school have to field all the questions, complaints and dissatisfaction of staff and parents. Office staff and faculty look forward to the end of each day and the end of the year, probably as much as the students do!

Huckerblue's picture
Physics, K-8 Math Specialist

I thought this made sense- if I expect all of my students to be on board with my lesson, I'm setting myself up for failure. I will always have students who are not with the lesson that day...the idea that there will be a golden day when everything goes well and everyone is happy is like waiting for a blue moon.

Alexander McDonald's picture

I've not been a principal for as long, but I too have seen the power of some of Mr. McCarthy's big ideas!

In particular, the top 3 big ideas sustained me during those times when I felt unsure and/or had my confidence shaken. There truly is no substitute for building a team of good people, sharing and working towards a clear and common vision, for the good of the kids. Period.

WIth respect to the rest of the list, I feel like I've just been shown 'the rest of the story'. This is a very comprehensive list and I can't think of anything missing other than perhaps some direction re: dealing with difficult financial situations!

Thanks very much for sharing Mr. McCarthy!



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