To All New English Department Chairs

To All New English Department Chairs,

First of all, thank you for taking on such an important, demanding job. You will make decisions that impact the literacy of every student in your school. You are the buffer between the teachers in your department and your administration. You set the tone for how your department members will relate to one another. Your work is valuable. Again, thank you.

I was a department chair for six years and supervised 28 energetic professionals with strong personalities. When we had positions to fill, I worked with our principal to bring in the best new teachers we could find, and I’m proud of how those hires have turned out. Having a place on the leadership team of the school I care about was gratifying as I had a voice and vote on some meaningful decisions. I made some mistakes along the way, no doubt about it, but I tried to not repeat them. When the ground shifted in my professional environment and personal life and I was no longer able to make the same kinds of contributions, I left the department chair position and began focusing my energies in other productive ways with no regrets.

I learned a few lessons during my time as an English department chair, and I’d like to offer them here for those entering this position.

1. Keep family first. Keep your home and family life at the center of your life. You will need time away from a demanding position. Do things that have nothing to do with school. Keep pictures of your loved ones on your desk. This is important.

2. Know your goals. You applied for this position for a reason (or reasons). Clarify those reasons for yourself and then articulate them to yourself in the form of goals. You can share them or not, but those goals will be a lighthouse to you when the fog sets in. Others may set some goals for you too. Those are less important than your personal goals.

3. Turn philosophy into action. Again, articulate to yourself what you believe about education, schools, and learning. Then look for ways to put that philosophy into action through the decisions you make. If you believe certain things, you can build the schedule to reflect them to a certain extent. You can also put people in positions that will be most likely to bring about the positive results of your philosophy. If you don’t know what you believe, your decision-making can be haphazard. You won’t be able to do this 100%, but the more solidly you know what you believe, the more you can shape things. Look beyond the walls of your school for the big picture. Your PLN should include a lot of people who don’t work in the same school and district as you.

4. “What’s best for students?” When this simple question is at the heart of your decisions, you’ll be right almost always. Your new position puts you around grown-ups more and more, and around students less and less. That makes it easier to forget why we show up every day. We may love our colleagues, but we’re here for the students.

5. Hire the best people. Don’t compromise. Hire as early as possible. Throw hissy fits until you get what you want. Your hires may be around for decades and affect thousands of students. This is the most important thing you do. Don’t trade an excellent English candidate in order to satisfy some other extra-curricular need. People will try to influence you on hiring by recommending their friends, former students, cousins, friends of friends, and people they meet at parties. Many times these people are simply fulfilling social obligations and not wholeheartedly advocating for the people they’re recommending. Listen to those recommendations, but the final decision needs to be yours, and it needs to be based on #4 above. When a new hire is not working out, don’t get too far ahead of or too far behind your principal in making the decision about whether to re-hire. Releasing a teacher is difficult for you, the released teacher, and the entire department, but remember #4 above.

6. Invest in productivity more than entropy. You know who the productive, innovative people are. You also know who the people are who are resistant to innovation for no reason other than being vested in entropy. Trying to change that isn’t worth your finite energy. Look for ways to help the productive innovators be even more productive and innovative. (Sometimes this means getting out of their way.)

7. See what you can do about providing relevant professional development. Teachers need to continue to learn and grow, but adults need autonomy. Too much professional development is based on a top-down model. That is doomed to failure and can create morale problems. Empower your department members to clarify their own intellectual interests and encourage them to pursue those interests creatively.

8. When parents call you, insist that they talk to the teacher first. If they don’t get satisfaction, then they can call you back. You need to be the next line of involvement, not the first line of involvement. Listen to them, but don’t take any action unless and until the parents and teachers have directly communicated. Most problems are resolved at that level. If they’re not resolved, then you are needed.

9. Conduct independent verification of facts. Just because someone says something doesn’t mean it’s true, even if the person saying it believes it to be true. Find out for yourself with your own two eyes.

10. Call ‘em like you see ‘em. Inauthenticy will bite you in the butt. You have to be the same person in the department office as you are in meetings with muckety-mucks.

For everyone stepping into a department leadership role, including our own department’s new chair–a colleague I respect, admire, and trust—I wish you satisfaction and luck, and I hope these suggestions are helpful to you.

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3 Responses to To All New English Department Chairs

  1. Joy Kirr says:

    I know you knew one of my English teachers at HEHS, Gary Anderson, but did you know Donna Blackall from District 25 in Arlington Heights? She was my department chair at Thomas before I stepped up after she retired, but she exemplified all of these traits. When I came across a teacher who needed some mentoring, I would ask myself, “What would Donna do?” And the answer was there, in your last point. Do the right thing. Be yourself. It makes decisions so much easier!

    Thanks for the post! I gave up my department chair duties after 4 years so I could focus more on my students,; I was doing a half-$&! job at both, and I didn’t want the kids to suffer. Some day, when I get a handle on my classroom situation and know what I’m teaching, I may go back. This post would be very helpful!



  2. Chuck says:

    Amen! Wish I could have read this before assuming the chairmanship and not had to figure it out myself. Perhaps one addition to the list: Seek answers/advice from fellow chairs you respect. (I had many talks with Len and Stan and got much valuable direction from them.)


  3. jaclynderose says:

    Congrats on post 100, and thank you for all the learning opportunities you’ve given your readers in each post. I continually look forward to receiving emails about new posts.


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