Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Advice for a Future Department Head

By on July 22, 2009

So generally I write a post giving advice to all you new educators out there, but this time I need the advice.   

I’m the new English Department Chair for my middle school, and I’ve been set to lead a group of teachers who are very gifted, very diverse in their teaching styles, and very outspoken. In our department are the characters that I am sure reside in every staff: the grammarian, the veteran, the cynic, the optimist, the progressive, the technician, and the politician.  We have the teacher who doesn’t understand why we have to teach differently then how we ourselves were taught.  We have the teacher who wants to shake up everything and install new, new, new strategies all the time.  We have worksheet teachers and create-their-own-curriculum teachers.  We have the ones who teach with their shades pulled and the ones who teach with their doors open. 

But we all have somethings in common too.  We all have good intentions.  We all love our content.  And we all love the act of learning. 

But this year, my department needs to take on Reading Differentiation.  This is a biggie for us.  We actually tackled Writing Differentiation a few years back, and it’s been very successful for us.  Some went a little reluctantly, some embraced our changes wholeheartedly, but in the end, it’s been a great boon for our curriculum and our students.  In fact, since adopting some of the writing differentiation strategies, our district writing scores have seen an increase of 40%.  Nothing to sniff at, right?  But Reading’s different.

I’m not sure why. There just seems to be an overall reluctance to even attempt a curriculum reform.  And I don’t think it actually takes overall reform.  After all, many of our strategies we used in our writing revamp are philosophical and can be used in our reading, can it not? 

To differentiate our Writing Curriculum, we took on the following philosophies:

     – Student Choice in Prompts

     – Student Choice in Essay Revision

     – Student-created/translated rubrics

     – Writers Workshop Strategies including Peer Revision Techniques, Peer Scoring, Student-Led Discussions

     – Multiple-Intelligences awareness influencing some of our lesson planning: kinesthetic note taking (Douglas Fisher), Color Coding (Carol Booth Olson), Image Grammar (Harry Noden), etc…

     -Data-Driven Student Reflections to help individuals set future Goals

     -Using Assessments Formatively

But I think the department is tired.  After all, every year we revise and improve our existing assessments, sometimes starting from scratch.  (See my recent post, “The Myth of Summers Off).  Every year we take on new technology, like the slow rollout of the Interactive Whiteboards, that requires more curriculum development time and collaboration.  Dead Tired

I don’t know how some teachers do the same curriculum day in and day out year after year, but I am blessed to work with a department that, for the most part, does not subscribe to that redundant teaching.  But I must admit, when one gets tired, that kind of uninvolved, undifferentiated teaching does have its attractions.

And much of what we do, we do on our free time.  And, as we all know, the budget is tighter then ever, so any monetary nod that we were able to get before has evaporated into a trickle that can’t possible compensate for what we throw into our work.

So I can’t blame them for wanting a break.  I can’t blame my teachers for wanting to have a year that’s just spent doing what we did before.  I can’t blame them for wanting to do what teachers are constantly accused of doing: phoning it in.  But in the end, we won’t do that.  I know these ladies and gentlemen. 

They are driven by smiles and motivated by student success.  In the end, they know that each class that walks through their doors, even if the characters are recognizable, are made up of individuals with varied needs.  (That’s not to say they we need to teach 36 different lessons, however.   That means we have to know what kinds of lessons reach the kids who sit before us.) 

But it does require creating lessons that taps into different intelligences.  It does require creating lessons that call on different skill sets.  Not for each lesson, mind you, but over the course a unit or concept, a teacher need to mix up their own presentation and activity expectation so that you can catch as many students as possible in the net of content.  It requires creating assessments that allow for students to choose what will show off their knowledge the best.  And it requires a little more from teachers who are already beat.

In the end, I see that my role as department head must be varied.  I must be an advocate to somehow get my teachers paid when they go above-and-beyond, even in an economic climate where budgets are being slashed.  I must try to find funds and encourage professional development that we can all participate in so that our knowledge of the craft of teaching increases and our weaknesses as a department are lessened.  I must be a source of onsite professional development, able to answer questions and be a resource for anyone who wants my advice or aid in their own lesson planning.  I must be the bearer of bad news, of budgets not passed, of new textbooks put off for another year, of supplies that cannot be provided. 

But I also get to be the cheerleader.  And this is something I can do well, because I believe in these people.  I believe in their ability to teach, even if their styles differ from my own.  I believe in their dedication to our community, to our diverse demographic, and to their students.  I believe in their intentions.  And I believe that I must do whatever I can to support them at a time when teaching is more difficult and has less outside support.

But here’s my question to you, dear readers: what do you want to see from your department heads?  Whether you teach ELA, Math, an Elective, or PE, what do you expect from your department head?  What would you like to see them give to their department to help them during this time in education?

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  1. Renee / TeachMoore
    July 22, 2009

    Congratulations on this mixed blessing. Having been there, I can testify that there are benefits and dangers in being placed in a position of “authority” among one’s peers. One of the benefits you should cultivate is your prior working experience with these people; those relationships will be important as you all move forward. During my time as chair, my colleagues expressed gratitude that I respected their individual strengths and areas of interest. In fact, we built our professional development plan around our assessment of student needs matched with what in-house expertise was available.

    I understand the tiredness part, too. Being in a constant state of reflection, analysis, and change is great pedagogy and hard work. You’re right that tackling the reading will be different. For one thing: Will this initiative involve only the English teachers in your middle school? If so, it could have limited long-term effectiveness for the students. One suggestion for increased efficiency and effectiveness might be to see how you can tie the Reading initiative to the work you are already doing with writing; the more closely woven they are, the better the retention and impact over time. I believe there are some resources available through National Writing Project or International Reading Association that might be helpful here.

  2. Pat
    July 22, 2009

    Congratulations on your new adventure! I was department chair at two different schools for a total of 15 years. I felt like I was in limbo land many time because my teachers saw me as part of the admin and the admin didn’t see me as anything except a teacher. As a liaison to both groups, I had to be extremely tactful, yet assertive in order to deal with all types of egos. I think the most important thing that both groups realized was that I would not talk behind anyone’s back and I was totally honest and transparent about any situation that arose. This really helped both groups respect me and what I had to say. Good luck!

  3. heather
    July 22, 2009

    As always, thanks for the great advice! I think I will definitely be using some of your terms and thoughts in my next meeting. I also like the thought of using our strengths (and verbally sharing those strengths) in our own planning to meet the needs of our students.

    We’ve also just begun an articulation process (details for a later post, I’m sure) that I know would embed the benefits of differentiation more deeply, but frankly, for now, I can only gently shove our own department at my own site. Oh, would that we could move the district that way!

    I think your suggestion of the Writing Project influence is a good one, I’ll be sure to look more deeply into my own experience in WP as well as involving other experiences as well.

    Thanks for your advice and for checking in!

  4. heather
    July 22, 2009

    Thanks for sharing and mentioning the issue of “transparency.” It’s an important one to bring up. Last year, I was asked to gather data from the ELA teachers about their scores. Of course, many of them were a little hesitant about sending me the info because they worried about how it reflected on their practice. For the presentation I did for the department, I shared the data based on grade level to show how much students grew from 1st quarter to 4th quarter. Then, my final slide, was a detailed display of my own test scores for each of my classes, both those that were very successful and those that proved a disappointment. I noticed appreciative nods in the audience from the most hesitant of teachers, knowing that I shared my scores to be transparent and to encourage more transparency.

    We can’t learn from each other without learning about each other.

    Thanks for your comments.
    aka Tweenteacher

  5. teachin'
    July 23, 2009

    Everything you already suggested you’d do sounds great – I wish my department chair fulfilled all those roles. Sigh. In addition, though, I’d suggest a couple of things that might seem so basic that they go without saying…but they don’t happen at my school.

    First, make sure department meetings have a set agenda and then actually follow that agenda. Our meetings often seem to deteriorate into people telling random stories of teachers or district people they know five plus years ago. Um, okay. I’m sure that’s interesting and all, but I ALWAYS have grading or planning I could be doing, and it drives me crazy to listen to these anecdotes that are only peripherally related to what we’re supposed to be working on.

    Second, do what you say you’re going to do. If you say you’re going to order some supplies? Do it. You’d think that’d be a given, but apparently not so much.

    And finally, and I’m sure this won’t matter at least for a few years, if you get tired of being the department chair and the additional work that goes along with it? Step down. Everyone can tell when someone doesn’t want to do their job anymore, and it’s horribly awkward to be part of that situation.

    I’m sure you’re going to be a fabulous department head!

  6. heather
    July 23, 2009

    Thanks so much for the advice, and so noted! I’m really lucky to be learning from our past department head who happens to be a fellow member of the California Writing Project. We’ve spent a lot of time on our way to our summer institute talking, and I’ve learned a lot from her in regards to content. I hope I can do her justice!
    Thanks for commenting and check back to Tweenteacher again!
    -Heather Wolpert-Gawron
    aka Tweenteacher

  7. Paula
    August 4, 2009

    All of the suggestions have been great and I can tell from your comments that you will be super. I do want to add something that might also sound like common sense, but when I was a department chair I tried to instill a family atmosphere within the department. We celebrated b’days with a cake, sent cards, food, flowers when a member was ill, things like that. Sure, it took time but everyone felt more relaxed and friendly to each other. We built solid relationships. When a new person joined us, they felt lucky to have gained a school family. We spend so much time together at school; isn’t it nice to work where you feel cared for?

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