Thursday, December 11, 2008

A new era for department heads--Part I

Wherever academic deans, division heads, assistant heads, and other academic administrators gather, one theme of private discussion is likely to be frustration with department heads. Department chairs, it seems, are everywhere bodies of resistant, petty, disinterested so-called leaders who are in fact unwilling to lead and seemingly immune to anything like new ideas and lofty concepts of professionalism, even if they themselves are fine teachers and the ideas they are being asked to embrace self-evidently good for the school and its students. Why the resistance? Why the seemingly willful rejection of notions of professionalism?

What is troubling is that the answers to these questions are clear and comprehensible, and everyone knows them. Department heads in most schools are in fact being asked to do new work, under new conditions of accountability, with little or no formal training and even less recognition of all the dynamics at work in making their lives challenging. Work that was once securely in the hands of heads of school—who had taken on these challenges willingly and for appropriate rewards—has now devolved onto “academic administrators,” who have in turn passed ever-larger chunks of this work off to department heads whose training and expertise as “managers” has come from—where?

For the most part risen teachers themselves, most academic administrators are depending on on-the-job training for their own growth as managers and supervisors; although there are increasing numbers of workshops and seminars where these people can gain expertise, the numbers suggest the primacy of OJT as the way in which most of such people scramble up the learning curve. While it is entirely logical and organizationally sound that they in turn should enlist department chairs to participate in carrying out the strategic work of the school—including teacher evaluation and curriculum initiatives—the situation becomes one of the fairly competent (even if brilliant and wise) asking the utterly unprepared to share their burdens. Often enough the administrators actually see this as a way of giving a vote of confidence to the department chairs, to enlist them in “big picture” work in a way that is sincerely intended to honor and even reward their expertise and experience.

The department head in our time is perhaps not unjustified in feeling as though the rug has been pulled out from under her or him, just when administrators are sure that asking the chair to “step up” is the most sincere form of compliment. Instead, the chair, once occupying a sinecure that even tenured college professors might have envied, feels threatened and devalued just when her or his superiors believe they are offering changes in responsibility that will lead to an increased sense of competence, authority, and professionalism.

That this quandary seems to be nearly universal in independent schools ought to be a cause for alarm. The issue, I believe, demands serious attention as well as an honest analysis of the issues that underlie the problem. For some reason we have not done a very good job of investigating the sources of the challenge, which seem simple and clear enough when one stops to think about them, and because of this we have not always set about addressing them as intelligently and as effectively as we might.

The “solution” is complex, probably time consuming, and potentially expensive. In the end it involves serious training and in fact some serious examination of schools’ fundamental personnel practices and the ways in which teachers are vetted and primed for leadership roles. It also involves an acknowledgment of the ways in which schools are and are not “businesses” and of the ways in which values must drive the work of educators.

But department heads can be redeemed as “middle managers” and more significantly as real academic leaders. There are ways to bring chairs into common cause with administrators and to infuse their work with possibilities of satisfaction and professionalism of which they had not conceived. All of this work can make schools better and the experiences of their students more rich, more meaningful, and more inspiring.

In a future post we will talk about the solution. In the meantime, readers are invited to share their own thoughts on this issue in our "Comments" section.


Sarah Hanawald said...

Peter, I'm looking forward to the next installment with baited breath! At our school, the department chair is really the department servant/secretary/mom. Lots of what I call "administrivia" responsibilities, including managing a budget without any training, coordinating meetings folks don't want to attend, reminding faculty of responsibilities they don't enjoy, etc.. It is a job that very few people want.

And yet, the position could be so much more!

Anonymous said...

Nice post Peter - I too am looking forward to the next issue...I think "middle managers" is exactly it. It's a title that holds little water but comes with extra paperwork and babysitting. We need to do more to train, empower, and enlighten!

Leslie said...

As a current administrator and former department chair, your post really struck me. I currently directly oversee four teacher leaders. Recently one of them asked me to share some of my "secrets" for leading and managing. This really struck me...what did he mean by "secrets"? To me, what I do is a natural response to the responsibilities of the position. So I asked my department chair to clarify what he was looking for me to share with him, he mentioned many of the same things shared in this post - how to get department members to attend meetings, how to facilitate workshops, and how to manage those staff members that just don't want to be managed.

I had to reflect on his question because I wanted to be sure to share my "secrets" so that he would leave the conversation with new insights and ideas to try. This reflection also opened my eyes (and your post validated this) that most department chairs don't have backgrounds in leadership. For the first time, I realized that my path to the department chair position was not typical.

I entered the department chair position after completing my administrative certification program. The educational leadership program that I attended is is there that I learned to recognize my leadership strengths and weaknesses, then how to weave these strengths and weaknesses together in order to create my own leadership style. By knowing myself as a leader, I find that I am prepared to address situations...I know which management strategies complement my style (and which don't). I feel this is something many department chairs are missing...they don't know what their leadership style is and how that style interacts with other leadership styles and certain personalities.

So one of my goals for the new year is to work with my teacher leaders to help them recognize their own leadership styles, as well as those of others. I think it is vital that as their leader, and because my expectation for them is to lead their respective departments, that I provide them with leadership training. Three of the four have not had any formal training in leadership and I think they could truly benefit from some of the "secrets" I gained in my leadership training.