TLP: James MacDonald, Yokohama International School

TLP: James MacDonald, Yokohama International School
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We all say we want to become a better leader, but what steps have you taken to see whether you’ve improved.  Sure, you’ve read books, gone to conferences, and maybe even have a leadership degree, but have you ever asked others?  Hopefully we are all open to some feedback, but how much?  If you’re James MacDonald, Head of School at Yokohama International School, you want as much feedback as you can get.  So much so, that he created an anonymous committee whose job it was to meet and discuss his strengths and weaknesses as a leader.  I’d like to think that we’re all that open to the opinion of others, but to my knowledge I’ve never met another head of school to do the same.

However, it’s not just a desire to develop as a leader that led Mr. MacDonald to create such a committee.  More important than increasing his effectiveness as a leader, it’s an example of the style of learning and growth that he believes YIS should be known for.  Simply put “you can’t have a culture of leadership different then the culture you’re trying to create in the classroom.”  Perhaps it’s this openness that has allowed YIS achieve great results while also creating a spirit of openness and risk taking.

(If not specifically quoted, Mr. MacDonald’s responses to these questions have been paraphrased)

You moved from the deputy head to head of school in 2010, what were the advantages of moving into the headship internally?

“Being internal [has been] fantastic in many respects because I [already] knew the people…[which is crucial because] a lot of the way I work is through [building] relationships and talking with people.  So being able to hit the ground already having [built] trust [makes progress easier].”  

At the same time things change when you’re the boss.  While it didn’t feel like my relationships changed too much with people, there was definitely a little bit of a shift.  And I guess that is only natural.

Do you think there are more advantages to being an internally hired head?

“I’ve heard that the success rate of internal candidates is much higher than the success rate of external ones…which makes intuitive sense, because schools are such complex environments that somebody who is coming up through the ranks and knows the culture of the place stands to be more successful and less likely to trip up on something that may not be obvious to an outsider.  So as a first headship I was very lucky to be internal.” Specifically at YIS a lot of the initiatives we have implemented were getting their start at that time I first became head so to be able to continue working on them with no information gap was a huge advantage.

You originally started at YIS in ’97 as an IT teacher, what made you decide to pursue leadership?

“[Like many heads] so much of it comes down to your ability to affect change and have an influence in a positive way…and of course [I like] the challenge…The other cool thing [was the opportunity to lead] and work with [such great] colleagues.   It’s incredibly rewarding and [at the same time] pretty humbling to work in an environment like this.”

So what specific skill set do you bring to YIS as the head of school?

“To be honest one thing [the board] found attractive at the time [I was hired] was I finished my MBA.   [I think this has been so helpful] because [at my core] I’m and educator but I can [also] understand financial statements and can speak to that side of the organization”

“When I was looking into leadership positions and seeing the kinds of things that head of schools had to deal with…[it became obvious] how much [of the job] had to do with the business side of education, for better or for worse.  [Some leaders want to avoid the business part of the job, but] I often thought if you can’t speak that language fluently then you’re going to have to defer to other people…[and I’ve also found that] if you’re an educator who has visions that they want to accomplish, at some point you’re going to have to make a lot of decisions through a business lens.”

Besides business savvy, what other skills have you developed?

What’s funny about being a head is that even though we read all these books about how to be a better leader and how to lead a school, the important things we learn about ourselves can simply come from listening to others.  So in the spirit of personal development “last year I approached the school counselor and asked if he’d chair a committee of faculty and staff, to give me feedback on my performance.  Basically the only thing I told him was ‘tell me what I need to hear to make me better at my job’.  I also told him jokingly, don’t invite the first 3 people to sign up…they might be too eager.

“The [complimentary] things that people [mentioned]…were about my personality, approach, openness, and communication.  It was such a good reminder to me that it’s all about people; everything we do at schools is all about people and relationships.  While we look at different skills, or maybe the fact that I have and MBA and I can read a cash flow statement, the reality is that teachers tend to rate these skills behind the interpersonal ones.. Obviously it’s important to have a variety of skills sets to get things done, but at the end of the day we want to work with really good people, we want to enjoy our job, we want to be challenged, we want to know that we’re cared for, and this is true for everyone.  So as a head of school I think the skills that matter the most are the people ones.”

So now that you’re in your third year as head what do you think is your most important role, and has it changed at all?

This is a conversation I’ve been having with a number of people lately.  “There is so much conversation out there about how schools need to change…21st Century learning, and all the rest…but I’ve yet to see anyone [show how a head’s position has changed as well]…it’s such a big consideration when [you] think about where schools are going and what is the [head’s] role and how has that shifted.”  

I wrote a blog with this question earlier this year and got a lot of great feedback from people. What struck me the most was “this need for vision and direction,” which I think as head you must be able to help produce. 

However, I don’t really like the word vision, because “I think it’s a self-limiting word.  [Instead] I think story is much better than vision…[I think] one problem with vision is we’re just looking forward…[with vision you] can see where you are right now [and where you want to be, but] you really can’t see behind you.”  I think sometimes when we say vision it’s almost like we’re separating ourselves from everything we currently are and why we are that way.  “[Instead] I much prefer the idea that a school is writing a story.”

If YIS is writing a story, then the creation of the Global Citizens Diploma will become an important chapter, why did you decide to do this?

“The first thought of it came from Neil Richards, a former YIS headmaster, who was said ‘you should get your own diploma as a school’…[so eventually] we put together a team who really looked at this and thought what it might look like…then we got feedback from the community.  We surveyed parents, the alumni, students and of course teachers fed into it on a number of different occasions and we just looked at ways we could recognize the great things [our students] are already doing.”

“Clearly there’s very important academic learning that happens in the classroom, but the classroom is no longer the sole domain of education, yet our credentials haven’t changed.  Schools have changed, education has changed, but our credentials remain focused on academic learning.  When you think about what a powerful message that’s sending to everybody in the community about what we value…well it’s no wonder kids chase grades…it’s because that’s what we value and give a qualification for. So were conscious about avoiding a system driven by checked-boxes or making kids jump through hoops, but we realize our kids are doing this stuff anyway but it’s not acknowledged.”

When you think about how 55% of IB graduates come from public schools in the USA and they receive the same diploma as our students, no matter what school program they come from, I feel an obligation to help our students standout when it comes to college applications.  At YIS we wanted to differentiate ourselves, rightfully I might add, because we have a very strong program.  I think one of the great things of about the Global Citizen Diploma is that it is both very idealistic and pragmatic at the time.

Do you have any advice for aspiring administrators?

“[You must always] keep a strong focus on learning [because that’s our business].

“You’ve got to be really really good with people, because leaders have followers…and [you can’t be one] in a school setting if they don’t think you care about them.”


Author: Andy Aldrich

Andy is a founder of Learn[ed]Leadership as well as a school administrator at Punahou School in Honolulu, HI. In addition to pontificating on ideas in education, Andy stays busy chasing after his daughter and impressing his wife with his big muscles.

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  1. As a non-profit leader (and future International Schools) teacher, your Global Citizen Diploma really piqued my interest, as I am looking forward for ways to scale up the social action component of International Schools. I would love to throw a question or two your way to see if there is any synergy there and possible ideas for future collaboration. Thanks and great job, James!

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  2. You’re a good man Charlie Brown.
    Not many school administrators have the courage to ask for anonymous feedback from the people they serve. well done

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