Monday, December 22, 2008

A new era for department heads--Part II

If lack of training and lack of engagement with or understanding of the mission are at the center of administrative frustration with department heads, it must also be acknowledged that classroom teachers report a range of their own frustrations with their middle management “leaders.” Departments may or not be collegial environments, meetings may or may not be productive and enjoyable times, and the sense of direction and expectations may be unclear.

In the some unfortunate cases, unhappy or simply confused department leaders may look at the menu of tasks that have been laid upon their departments, measure the list against what they perceive as their own capacities or the “real” agenda of the school, and quietly pass along to department members permission to disregard any grand administrative directives—just do what you have been doing, is the message; all this talk about curriculum or diversity or strategic direction is just window-dressing that we can safely ignore. In the worst case, the department becomes a kind of bastion against change, engaged in a passive-aggressive campaign against administrative initiatives it regards as fluff or even antithetical to the “real” standards and work of the department.

Solutions to these issues, whether they be just poor performance or active resistance, must address all of the problems that underlie them: the making of thoughtful appointments in the first place, lack of leadership skills, lack of understanding of the school’s strategic directions, and a lack of meaningful authority (often exacerbated by the administration’s actual withdrawal of support as the chair’s performance lags).

This is, unfortunately, a comprehensively deficit-based model of department head development, with culpability shared by the school and the chairs. But it is important to set forth a caveat here that the underperforming department chair may actually have tremendous skill and administrative potential. It may even be that she or he is correct in questioning the school’s commitment to the initiatives that have been passed down to his or her department. In this case the academic administration has its own soul-searching to do, a process that may need to move upstream to the level of head and board if the school is indeed guilty—as most schools are at some point—of enunciating grand principles and grand plans but then continuing business more or less as usual. (I believe the node of contact between principle and practice is currently to be found around a body of ideas and practice I call The New Progressivism; I blog about this here.) This is another matter, for another set of entries.

It is important also to note the difference between leadership and management. Leadership, in the context we are addressing, involves the ability to articulate a purpose and to engage others in working toward that purpose. As such, it usually but not always involves certain skills at management, which is the ability to organize and direct people toward a purpose; leadership requires a certain vision that management does not. It would be well for a department chair to be a leader—indeed, that is what schools claim to expect—but it is imperative that a department chair be at least competent as a manager.

In determining fitness for a department chair position, neither older seniority-based systems nor an enthusiasm to anoint a “young Turk” with creativity and energy guarantee ideal results. The qualities of an effective department leader are deep understanding of and passion for educational issues and the success of children, an ability to offer guidance to members on matters of both content and pedagogy, and some basic management skills (that can be learned). Along with these, however, must come a sophisticated comprehension of and positive engagement with the mission and core values of the school, and schools sometimes neglect to dig deeply into and then reflect on internal (and external) candidates’ fitness in this critical area. Senior teachers may have retreated into their own sometimes skeptical or limited view of the school and its work, and less experienced enthusiasts, no matter how brilliant or energetic, may not fully comprehend the full significance or perhaps just the practical limitations of mission and values.

Leadership may or may not be a teachable quality, but there are certainly things that the school can do to invest in helping department chairs become viable and effective managers. There are innumerable professional development opportunities—workshops, multi-day programs, and even whole courses, face-to-face and on-line—with an excellent track record of helping participants learn how to set agendas, conduct meetings, deepen understanding of curriculum and instructional issues, perform meaningful observations, offer useful and professional-quality feedback to teachers, and provide mentorship to other teachers on issues of pedagogy, curriculum, and assessment. A partial list of great resources would have to include the publications and courses offered by Research for Better Teaching, Steve Clem’s "Eloquent Mirrors" workshops on teacher observation and feedback, the Growing Teachers Institute at Colorado Academy, the many workshops offered by ISM, and David Mallery’s sessions, which are less explicitly focused on skill-development than on helping participants learn to reflect on their work and set their own personal agendas for growth and efficacy. Regional independent schools associations, a few individual schools, and of course the Klingenstein Center at Teachers College are also great sources of leadership-development programs suitable for department chairs.

To engage department chairs in the higher-order work of the school, the first and most obvious step is to find ways to involve these people meaningfully in strategic planning and goal-setting. If school-wide initiatives have the aura of secret plans devised by what a old colleague of mine called “the high muckety-mucks,” the psychic distance between the planners and those who must carry out the work will usually be sufficient to guarantee poor implementation. If the planners equally fail to understand the importance of communicating the value of the work to be done—whether in improved programming, increased efficiency, or even more effective branding and marketing—yet another failure factor is built in.

Thus, strategic planning must first and foremost be an inclusive process and one whose products must be fully and clearly promulgated to the entire school community in a manner that demonstrates the potential value of the work to be undertaken in strategic directions. (Good advice on making strategic plans, or strategic directions, into living documents can be found in NAIS’s The Strategic Process.) Ask department heads into the process from the beginning, and not just into the actual development of the plan but into understanding the rationale for the planning itself and the long-term goals of both the planning and implementation processes; in other words, make a space to treat these “middle managers” as leaders in order to help them internalize and take a stake in the school’s loftiest purposes and aspirations. As with any effective planning process, the frame and touchstone for this work must be the mission and values of the school.

Proactive efforts to engage department chairs in serious work should not end with the publication of a strategic plan. They must be both consulted and included regularly and authentically in both the work of advancing the strategic directions and assessing and reflecting on all aspects of their work as leaders in curriculum and instruction. Rather than simply being given regular marching orders or asked into certain discussions as token presences, effective department chairs are able to speak to their work and the work of the school from positions of knowledge of and belief in the aims of this work. This becomes work that they relish doing, because it represents high-level collaboration; because it draws upon their best skills, ideas, and experience; and because they are acknowledged and appreciated for their professional and personal qualities. These qualities can also be enhanced by encouraging department chairs to participate in professional communities, whether as members of organizations like the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) or by participating in discipline-related groups.

Chosen wisely, trained in essential skills, and included and invested in the high-level work of the school, department chairs at their best have no issues around their own authority because they possess both the competence and the confidence to move forward with their work as leaders and managers without the feelings of uncertainty or disengagement that are the root causes of the ineffective work referred to in the beginning of Part I of this essay. They will be better guides and mentors for their teachers, cannier thinkers about curriculum and program, and more circumspect participants in discussions, formal and informal, of the school, its role, its challenges, and its future.

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