May 2016 | Classroom Commentary
On Being a Head of Department
By David L. Byrum
Imagine these two scenarios:
- At the last department meeting of the year, the long-time department chair announces that due to family concerns he will be soon be moving out of state. This means that the department will need a new department chair. He asks, “Is anyone interested in the job?” All of the other science teachers look at you.
- With the school year ending in a month, you’re working with your chemistry class when your principal walks into the room. She looks around, sees the students engaged in their work, and asks you to come over to a lab bench. There she pulls out a district form, already filled in with your name, and asks you to sign it. Looking over the form, you see that it is a request for you to be appointed the science department chair for the upcoming year.
These two scenarios actually happened to me at two separate schools when I was teaching in Arizona. Unfortunately, none of my college classes, either in chemistry or education, prepared me for the role of department chair or, as it is called in S.E. Asia, head of department (HOD). Assuming such opportunities appeal to an educator, how does one prepare for them?
What does being an HOD entail?
I recently retired after 41 years of teaching chemistry and physics. I worked at three different high schools in Arizona for a total of 32 years, and in an International School in Bangkok, Thailand for nine years. I was science department chair at two of the three Arizona schools for some of my years there, and HOD Science in Bangkok for the entire nine years. (By the way, I know that the term “head of department” may sound foreign to my colleagues in U.S. school systems — but it still seems better than being referred to as a piece of department furniture!)
Based on my experience, here are a few thoughts and supporting graphics to shed light on what an HOD does, in no particular order. An HOD:
- is the representative of the science teachers and presents their views, as well as his or her own — honestly with only the editing necessary to get any points across without acrimony in meetings with school and higher level administrators, colleagues, and parents.
- is supportive of each teacher publicly and talks individually to any teachers, as necessary, to get clarification of their views or the circumstances of any incident that has been brought to the HOD’s attention.
- tries to visit each science teacher’s room every week, if only to say “hi” to get a feel for the atmosphere in their classes. An HOD may be called on by the principal, assistant principal, counselors, and/or parents to explain what a particular teacher is doing. Being in the teachers’ rooms on a regular basis makes it possible to be supportive of a teacher if needed. This is not for the purpose of evaluation, but to have sufficient time in the classroom to know each teacher’s instructional style, mannerisms, and relationship with students.
- has an agenda for each department meeting (Figure 1) and sends it out several days before the meeting to ask for additions and feedback.
- doesn’t fall into the trap of thinking that he or she is “in charge” of the department! The HOD encourages everyone to contribute to the life of the department, its courses, and its department meetings — and is the liaison between the science teachers and everyone else in the school.
- shares the load of running the department to make use of everyone’s strengths.
- includes time at each meeting for all teachers to give brief descriptions of what they’re teaching in their classes, currently and in the near future. This way, teachers are aware of what concepts their students are learning, or have already learned, in other classes. For example, if a teacher’s 11th grade students say that they’ve never before seen a certain concept, the teacher could reply, “Well, that’s interesting — because your 9th grade science teacher told me last week that you learned that concept two years ago.” Such insights can have a positive effect on student behavior and expectations.
- keeps the department meetings moving by encouraging discussion, but also keeps an eye on the clock and doesn’t get bogged down. This can be a challenge!
- is an advocate for the department in HOD and district meetings. The HOD can report about the exciting things that are going in the department — briefly but informatively.
- contacts newly-hired faculty members to welcome them to the department and pass along any reading materials in a follow-up email. The HOD may wish to send a short video clip (<90 secs) showing the new faculty what their future classroom looks like, which is always appreciated (Figure 2).
- creates a spreadsheet to keep track of purchases, both for lab expenditures (supplies and chemicals) and longer-lasting equipment. This document is used to manage the department’s budget and spending, as a basis to justify future expenditures, and to implement a long-term plan (2-3 years) for improving the department’s resources.
- creates a science department handbook which includes the policies and expectations that the department has agreed upon. It should be sent to all new teachers. At an department meeting early in the school year, he or she should solicit suggestions for improvements to the handbook. And during the year, he or she should keep track of any changes and update the handbook as needed (Figure 3).
- looks for resources to share with the department on a regular basis via emails, department meetings, and by providing a yearly compilation disk at the start of the school year’s initial department meeting. This resource includes web site links, articles in PDF format, lab ideas, etc. (Figure 4).
- invites anyone in the department to make a short presentation at a department meeting on a topic of ongoing interest, e.g., an interesting use of technology, successful ELL strategies, etc.
- asks faculty to take turns bringing snacks to the department meetings! The HOD may handle the first one and then have a sign-up sheet for following months.
- encourages department members to grow and improve their skills and fosters an environment that helps everyone become better: as teachers, developers of curriculum, communicators, and colleagues.
- makes a running list of the HOD’s major responsibilities for each month of the year (Figure 5) in order to help keep track of responsibilities and to help whomever the replacement will be when stepping down as HOD.
What is the rationale for doing the above?
At each of the first three high schools where I worked, the HOD (or department chair) was a good role model for what an effective leader can do and be — even though I wasn’t aware of this until much later in my career. In retrospect, each of the HODs I worked with kept our department functioning well by treating each of us as competent, professional individuals who would do anything that was reasonable for the benefit of the students and the department.
Since treating those around me (students and teachers) with respect and expecting good things from everyone is how I normally tried to conduct myself, it turned out that these HODs were both reinforcing my natural disposition and also teaching me how to be a teacher-leader. Lucky me!
Over the past decade or so, I began to read more articles and books about being a teacher-leader and these seemed to reinforce what I had subliminally been learning. For example, when analyzing how Netflix has done so well, Travis Bradberry, president of TalentSmart, stated in a post on LinkedIn:
“They’ve found that giving people greater autonomy creates a more responsible culture. Without the distraction of stifling rules, employees are more focused and productive. Freedom gives people such a strong sense of ownership and accountability...”
In an interview in the New York Times, Gary Smith observed:
"Eventually the penny dropped, and I realized that my role was to facilitate and create an environment that people could be successful in. And I learned to listen more than I talked."
And one of the most influential books that I have read is Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us, by Daniel Pink. In this book, Pink describes a wide variety of research results that show how humans, in any walk of life, job, or profession, are driven by the desire to achieve the three goals: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.
Keeping these three goals in mind for classroom management helps to create a more relaxed and humane learning environment; keeping them in mind for the department helps to have a department where people feel valued and supported in what they do.
In his book, How to Thrive as a Teacher Leader, John G. Gabriel observes:
"To be successful in these areas, a teacher leader must be a skillful communicator who can neutralize resistance, which will invariably and unfortunately arise from fellow teachers and even from administrators. At the same time, teacher leaders must find ways to create a positive climate and sense of community. A negative environment — one that lacks direction, unity, cohesiveness, motivation, shared ownership, and professionalism — can permeate teams and infect entire schools, which has a trickle-down effect on student achievement, standardized test scores, and morale."
This is a nice summary of what it takes to be a teacher-leader and an HOD.
Being HOD is an honor, a responsibility, and fun! Treating your colleagues with respect and mutual trust leads to a community of teachers who create a community of learners where everyone has the opportunity to achieve their best.
Finally, enjoy the ride!
Additional reading about being a Department Chair and Teacher Leader
Finding references that deal mainly with being a high school HOD is difficult. The reference books in the following list may provide some additional insight, with the first three having more relevance for being a High School Department Chair and the following four more focused on being a University Department Chair. All, however, offer useful insights that are applicable to the high school HOD position.
- Nathan Bond and Andy Hargreaves, The Power of Teacher Leaders: Their Roles, Influence, and Impact
- Francis A. Crowther, Margaret Ferguson and Leonne Hann, Developing Teacher Leaders: How Teacher Leadership Enhances School Success
- John G. Gabriel, How to Thrive as a Teacher Leader
- Jeffrey L. Buller, The Essential Department Chair: A Comprehensive Desk Reference
- Walter H. Gmelch and Val D. Miskin, Department Chair Leadership Skills
- Mary Lou Higgerson and Teddi A. Joyce, Effective Leadership Communication: A Guide for Department Chairs and Deans for Managing Difficult Situations 1st Edition
- Walter Gmelch and Val D. Miskin, Leadership Skills for Department Chairs
- M. Carlson, G. Humphrey, and K. Reinhardt. Weaving Science Inquiry and Continuous Assessment; p. 4; Corwin Press: Thousand Oaks, CA; 2003.
- Edutopia, Robert E. Stake, July 30, 2014, http://www.edutopia.org/blog/dipsticks-to-check-for-understanding-todd-finley.
- Science Formative Assessment: 75 Practical Strategies for Linking Assessment, Instruction and Learning, Page Keeley; NSTA Press, 2008.
Figures 1-5 are from documents created and used by the author.
Thanks to Dr. John Stiles for revisions and feedback during the writing of this article. Thanks too to the reviewers for their excellent comments and suggestions.