Greetings, Administrators. Over the course of the next 10 weeks, we’ll be highlighting some of the best traits of effective principals. Each time we’ll expand on each trait and then offer an action step for you. Let’s begin our journey by discussing school culture.

We’ll do this by counting down 10 Big Ideas as outlined by Michael McCarthy. McCarthy is the former principal of King Middle School in Portland, Maine. During his tenure, he brought sweeping changes to the climate of the school. He combatted teacher apathy, frustration, and division. In doing so he turned to expeditionary learning (Outward Bound), project-based learning, and took risks which paid off in the improvement of  the school culture.

He eliminated the tracking system, in effect reducing division among the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ and created a culture where every kid mattered. In 2010, he was named Maine’s Middle School Principal of the Year. He retired in 2015. We’ve chosen Michael as the role model for our series.

In a post in Edutopia, he shared 10 of his Big Ideas for School Leadership. Here’s number 10. We’ll work our way up over the weeks to number 1.

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.

Let’s start by addressing the most obvious controversy in this statement. Aren’t there times when gradual change is more appropriate and successful?

As this article by folks at MIT have addressed, there are times when gradual change is appropriate and successful. Let’s try to understand what McCarthy is saying here in the context of what he did for King Middle School.


McCarthy made huge changes when he got to King Middle, a school riddled with discouraged teachers and student violence. For him, time was of the essence. He did not want to wait for something better to happen. Faculty and students were suffering. Something needed to be done quickly. He started with school culture.

This article supports culture being the number one thing that affects change in your organization: If the culture of your school is divisive and poisonous, then something needs to change. You may not even notice it on the surface. You may not even see it, but you know it’s there because of what it leaves behind. It results in unhappy and unsuccessful students and staff.

In Mike McCarthy’s case, he knew that culture was everything. We know this even in our basic family relationships.

I can personally attest to being a parent and having to make sweeping changes. Maybe my kids aren’t helping out around the house as much as I need. Maybe they aren’t being so kind to each other. If I want things to change, I’ll need a plan. Winging it is not going to help. The culture got this way because I allowed it.

If I wanted change, I would envision what an ideal climate looks like. I would identify the steps needed, come up with a plan, and implement it. A new system needs to be established that would bring about immediate and lasting success.


As a parent, I know I have time to implement these changes. Those kids are with me for a long time. As a school administrator, you lack that luxury. Your school year lasts only so long. You know you are dealing with so many more kids than a simple single family. For you, volatile situations can be a school’s undoing.

You are the captain of your ship. So you’ve got to take your vision and entrust it to your staff, who in turn implement it across the board. For inspiration, witness one of the most successful turnarounds in business, Lou Gerstner from IBM.

Changing School Culture: The Action Step

Take some time out for yourself today. Walk to a quiet part of the campus, or shut the door to your office. Don’t just try to ‘squeeze’ this time in when you get a chance. The following questions will need some real focus.

Instead, deliberately put it in your schedule as an important part of your day. You can also try to find some quiet time at home to consider these points. Write your ideas and post them on your wall so you don’t forget about them.

During your time, ask yourself:

  • What in your school culture needs to be changed?
  • Do you like the culture?
  • What are your school’s strengths and weaknesses?
  • What does your ideal school culture look like to you?
  • What are teachers doing differently in this vision than what they are doing now, visibly and observable?
  • What skills are teachers lacking now to prevent this change? What resources are they lacking?
  • How can you meet those needs?
  • Who in your organization can help you bring about change quickly?
  • Can change occur in you first?
  • What can you do personally, on your own level, to be the change you wish to see?

Well, that’s number 10, and our first blog of the Art of Administration series. We encourage you to take this week to focus on the change that you wish to see in the culture of your school. Not only that, come up with a plan and steps to implement it.

Your staff is your family. The students are also part of that family. The responsibility of culture building, however, can be done by all of you. When families work together, big changes happen.

Let us know how you’re doing.


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