The Role of the Department Chair: A Middle Manager

Considering the Department Chair as a middle manager can be a difficult proposition. In many schools, the Department Chair still teaches the same number of classes as everyone else and has little real power. Or the Department Chair is, so to speak, the “union leader” of a power group that advocates for its own position within a power structure. The prerequisite for a change in the role to one of middle manager requires the entire faculty culture to be growth-focused. In such a culture and with strong Division Head leadership, the Department Chair can exercise proactive leadership that supports the school’s strategic vision largely by grounding it in a realistic application within the classroom.

While the role of the Department Chair (upper school and/or the other divisions)—and, by implication, the team leader in lower and middle schools—is going to be attuned to the needs of each individual school, some general outlines of the 21st century role have emerged. (See the accompanying chart.) As School Head or Division Head, coming to grips with this middle manager is a skillful leadership task.

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Use the following recommendations to guide your implementation of this emergent role.

  • Many Department Chairs have little authority and are part of a faculty group with inconsistent and unpredictable practice. Going forward, this position must have managerial significance that intends the department to have a focused and intentional stance.
  • Department Chairs should be integral to creating and implementing the strategic academic plan. Collegiality implies the needs of the students come first, and the departments’ responsibility is to ascertain how to best meet those needs.
  • Department meetings require clear focus far beyond the typical discussion of kids and the administrative “shopping list.” The best departments today seize the opportunity to do long-term planning, create actionable plans for students, and align practices and procedures.
  • The 20th century Division Head told Department Chairs what was coming down the pike and expected them to implement whatever that was. Now, Department Chairs are partners in academic decision-making and included early in the process to influence both strategic direction and tactical implementation.
  • While most Department Chairs are currently part of the hiring process, they have limited or no input into evaluation and selective retention. They now will be partners in the evaluation process of every teacher every year, instrumental in the culture of observation that underlies the support mechanisms for faculty growth and renewal. They will be responsible for ensuring each department member’s ongoing professional development, and an influential voice in recommending (non)renewal of contracts.
  • Finances are now considered on a rolling five-year basis. The Department Chair’s leadership means engaging with the department around short-term and long-term objectives. Resources imply facilities as well, and the Department Chair is an automatic part of the conversation around facility renovation and construction.
  • The Division Head is no longer directly responsible for curriculum development. Instead, the Department Chair, as part of a professional learning community, leads continuous curriculum reflection, refinement, and creation. The latter is supported through faculty stipends for summer work. The assumption here is that curriculum is not static as in the 20th century model, but a moving target requiring constant attention to stay relevant and meet the needs of a fast-changing student population.
  • The Department Chair is no longer a competitor for scarce resources with the other departments. Rather, the Department Chair collaborates and seeks collaboration, resulting in—and integrating into—targeted curriculum planning and professional growth and renewal.

With this in mind, we also recommend that Department Chairs:

  • teach a regular load minus one and potentially move to a 50% teaching role;
  • be appointed with specific goals in mind related to the strategic academic plan, and that such appointments be reviewed every three years; and
  • be considered advocates for mission delivery, and only then advocates for their departments.

The position of the Department Chair as a middle manager is difficult, and does not work outside a growth-focused faculty culture. Such a culture is neither intimidated nor upset by a colleague who is a leader. Indeed, it relishes the opportunities such a colleague brings and the professionalism that this implies. However, outside such a culture, evaluation, strategic academic planning, professional growth, and accountability are all threatening to teachers who believe they are in a “zero-sum game” and who want to be left alone. A middle manager is then in a no-win situation—told to achieve objectives but with no realistic chance of success.

The School Head and Division Heads must commit to such a culture. Then, their assigning of these responsibilities makes sense and can be implemented. The outcome will be a proactive leadership that empowers faculty and departments, ensuring excellence in mission delivery.

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