Effective Practices : Pedagogy
Department Heads (Role, Responsibility and Authority)
Pedagogy Section 4
1. Does your school have department heads or chairs for each of the various academic departments? If yes, describe the role of the department head. If not, has your school ever considered creating such a position and what lead you to decide against it?
2. How are the department heads selected?
3. With what frequency does each academic department meet? Describe the types of issues that might be covered in a department meeting.
4. Does an academic department head have any responsibility beyond that of other teachers in the department? For example, is the department head charged with approving purchases of books and supplies for the department, setting the budget and monitoring expense during the year?
5. What is your school’s philosophy with regard to the position of department head?
6. Is there some aspect of the department head position that is working particularly well at your school?
7. If there is something that you could change with respect to your school’s use of department heads, what would it be and why?
Does your school have department heads or chairs for each of the various academic departments? If yes, describe the role of the department head. If not, has your school ever considered creating such a position and what lead you to decide against it?
It is common practice for Waldorf schools to have a chair for each section of the school - early childhood, the lower school and the high school. Some schools break the lower school into two sections, and have an early grades chair and a middle school chair. Schools with a College of Teachers have a College chair, and many are beginning to use a new position called pedagogical chair or pedagogical dean. The pedagogical chair position is emerging in schools and typically has half of its time or more dedicated to administrative tasks rather than teaching. This position has developed as schools have found that the ability of a teacher to manage an entire section of the school in addition to a full time teaching load is unworkable. Most schools also report having an administrative chair.
In schools with high schools it is common for additional academic department heads to be named. This occurs most commonly when there are multiple teachers involved with a particular subject. Departments which frequently have a chair include music, foreign language, mathematics, science, English and athletics.
Each of these academic department heads is responsible for maintaining the consciousness for a particular area of the school, and ensuring that it works well and in proper coordination with other areas of the school. Department heads call meetings of the department, set the agenda and often facilitate the meetings as well. They coordinate the budget for the department with the business office, make needed purchases of books and supplies, recommend changes to the curriculum, and recommend which teachers should teach which subjects when the schedule for the coming year is being developed. The athletic director coordinates the work of the many part time coaches and teachers employed by the school. He represents the school at all athletic league meetings and coordinates the games schedules for the various after-school sports.
How are the department heads selected?
In the early childhood area licensing requirements often dictate that someone be named as the director, and dictate the qualifications that the person must have and many expectations for that position. In some cases these expectations are highly administrative in nature, and involve tasks such as coordinating issues with the health department and working with parents to ensure that all paperwork is complete. Some schools solve this issue by naming a member of the school office staff to serve as the administrative assistant to the early childhood chair, and delegate day to day responsibilities for these tasks to her. In other cases schools name both an early childhood pedagogical chair and an early childhood administrative director.
Most section chairs and department heads are well established, respected teachers who also have a knack for organization and team building. Often they are chosen by their peers, and many schools require that the selections be affirmed by the College of Teachers or carrying leadership body for the school. The administrative chair is named by the Board of Trustees. (Editor’s Note: Many schools have now split this position and named both an administrative chair and a development chair. This is done in recognition of the very different skills and impulses that are required for leadership in these two areas. The pedagogical chair, administrative chair and development chair often form the nucleus of the leadership team that directs the ongoing, daily operations of the school.)
Schools report that the pedagogical chair is typically hired by the Board of Trustees following a search or selection process led by a group of faculty members.
With what frequency does each academic department meet? Describe the types of issues that might be covered in a department meeting.
The chairs for the major sections of the school (early childhood, lower school and high school) typically call meetings on a weekly basis. The faculty chair or pedagogical chair will call meetings with the department heads on a weekly basis as well. Study and artistic activity are a regular feature of these meetings, followed by discussions of policy, procedure and curriculum issues specific to the area of the school.
Academic departments do not meet as regularly. They may meet several times just prior to and at the beginning of the school year, and then on a monthly basis after that. These departmental meetings are often based on the situation in a school, with more frequent meetings being held when there are several new faculty members in this section of the school or when major reviews of the curriculum or learning benchmarks are underway.
The school’s leadership group also meets weekly, handling a variety of management issues and referring some matters out to the various organs of the school for follow-up.
Does an academic department head have any responsibility beyond that of other teachers in the department? For example, is the department head charged with approving purchases of books and supplies for the department, setting the budget and monitoring expense during the year?
Academic department heads (math, science, foreign language, etc.) do have responsibilities beyond those of other teachers in the department. They frequently coordinate the budget for that section of the school and approve the purchases of books and supplies for the department. They often work with the human resources committee to participate in the search and hiring efforts of specialized teachers for their departments. Academic department heads also call meetings of the department and ensure that ongoing curriculum issues are addressed. They will also make recommendations about which teachers should teach which classes or blocks when the schedule for the coming year is being prepared.
The section chairs (LS, HS and ECE) may also have responsibility for working with parents to resolve grievances, although this is often handled by the pedagogical chair in schools with such a position. They call the weekly section meetings, set the agenda, and lead the pedagogical study and facilitate the meeting. They meet weekly with the pedagogical chair, and may be included in the weekly management meetings between the pedagogical chair, administrative director and development director.
What is your school’s philosophy with regard to the position of department head?
The need to appoint section heads came as the school grew and matured. It is not recommended for a very young school as it may lead to an inappropriate fracturing of the faculty before the strength of that collegial body is realized. There is an appropriate place for this separation to be made, but it can fracture the whole if undertaken too early in the school’s biography.
There is real benefit to breaking into small groups. The whole faculty meets regularly, but it is a large group with more formal processes. The smaller meetings are more helpful when addressing the needs of individual students or class issues.
As a school we are concerned with good governance and ensuring that we have the structural components in place so we enjoy good processes and leadership that is accountable. In that spirit we have tried to create a collaboration of leaders and designated groups that are capable of working with each other and moving the school forward. These people work collaboratively and also have well articulated individual decision making authority.
We emphasize the importance of clear and timely communication between all the bodies of the school.
Our section chairs (ECE, LS, HS) are accountable to the College and the Trustees.
One of the ideals underlying our organizational structure is the recognition that our pedagogical work is of the utmost importance, and that our faculty members must be free to focus on that work. Our leaders are expected to work with parents, spearhead issues and make decisions so that teachers are freed of these administrative concerns.
A clearly articulated leadership structure also raises the level of perceived professionalism in our dealings with parents at the school.
The role of the chairs in the various bodies (EC, LS and HS) is clearly defined, as are the positions of the music chair and the athletic director. In each of these cases a significant portion of the position’s focus is on interactions with people and institutions outside of the school. The school has a less formal approach to naming department heads of academic departments as the work here is largely internal.
The early childhood administrative director handles all of the interfaces with the city on health and licensing issues. This has freed the teachers to focus their energies on their teaching.
A significant part of the lower school and high school section chair positions is the interaction with parents in difficult situations.
Is there some aspect of the department head position that is working particularly well at your school?
Schools in our study made the following observations on things that were working particularly well for them:
The clear lines of communication serve us well.
Our work with parents is well supported by our leadership structure.
The chairs circle creates an appropriate place for our leaders to come together and problem-solve a variety of administrative issues.
Our clear definitions of authority and responsibility lead to less second guessing of our leadership.
The decision to split the early childhood administrative director position from that of the early childhood pedagogical chair is working very well. All of our licensing and health department issues are well coordinated, while teachers are also able to receive very strong mentoring and pedagogical support from the chair.
We have a chair for the Faculty Council and the four section chairs (ECE, LS, MS and HS) at our school. There is shared leadership and accountability.
The creation of small sections allows teachers to meet together in small groups and to feel collegial support.
The section meetings are scheduled during the school day. This approach leaves teachers feeling more relaxed and rested, even though the same number of hours is still needed for teaching, preparation and meeting time.
Having multiple chairs gives more people an opportunity to gain leadership experience. Not everyone has the natural skills or ability to do this, so it’s good to have an opportunity to develop these skills in a small group that is collegial in nature.
There is a tendency at the school for one or another individual to make pronouncements about what “we” should do. The school has agreed that any such idea needs to be advanced through the teacher’s sectional meeting. If it finds support at the sectional meeting then there is a good chance that the whole school will be able to embrace it when the section chair brings the issue to the whole faculty meeting.
If there is something that you could change with respect to your school’s use of department heads, what would it be and why?
In the high school the collegial work is excellent and the departments are working well. We have a lot of stability in our staff right now so people are able to work together collegially. However, it should be noted that we do not have a formal underlying structure that would support the faculty in its work if we were to experience a high degree of turnover in a short period. We are not sure that our approach to academic department heads is the most effective in the long term, but it seems to be serving us well at this time.
We’ve used the sectional chair approach for a few years now, and it seems to be working well. It would be ideal for us to find ways to make the whole job more manageable and allow us to balance our teaching and administrative work in a healthy way. We all do our best and have good intentions, but the teaching load can’t be reduced. There are an endless number of things that could be done if we had more time, but we don’t have the time to really form new things. We must concentrate on our teaching first. Perhaps we need to find a way to fund a pedagogical chair, at least on a half time basis.
Currently our department heads are selected by the individual departments. This has the advantage of ensuring that the department chair has the support of other colleagues in the department, but does not always lead to an effective team at the chair circle level. We believe that our selection process needs to be amended so that the faculty chair also has a voice in the selection process so that she ends up with an administrative team that can work well and effectively together.
Today our section chairs enjoy a lightened teaching load during the two to three year period they serve in the chair capacity. We are moving in the direction of hiring people for these three positions on a permanent basis rather than rotating the responsibility every few years. This will allow us to choose candidates with both pedagogical and administrative expertise and eliminate the scheduling difficulties that arise when a teacher stops teaching some classes to take up administrative work. This will also alleviate the problems that occur when we get a department chair by default (that is, when someone is selected because he is willing to serve and not on the basis of having the necessary skill set for the position.)
A further lightening of the teaching load for the academic department heads would also be advisable.
Leadership training for members of the chairs circle would be helpful.
It would also be helpful to increase our involvement in the independent school movement and associations in our area. At times we become too Waldorf centric in our thinking and approach, and it can be helpful to hear new ideas, or old ideas framed differently.