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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