Slice of Life #3: Leading and Learning

Slice of LifeToday marks the end of my first year leading the English department at my school. I have been department chair previously, but the circumstances were quite different. In that situation, I led a department with four other teachers, grades 9-12, at a relatively small Jewish school.

My department this year included 14 people teaching grades 6-12 (plus post-graduate students). It was a different challenge to work with so many moving parts and personalities. Sometimes, it was a fun challenge, like a puzzle. Sometimes it was not such a fun challenge. I am still really glad I’m doing it. I like working with teachers, and I really think I have a good idea or two on occasion. Otherwise, I wouldn’t want to do it.

Some of the things I think I do well:

  • Listen. This is hard for some people, but I try to hear what the teachers in my department are saying, good and bad. I think often teachers don’t feel heard. I have not always felt heard in my history as a teacher. And in some places, I felt I was actually not valued. I want teachers to feel their value. Listening to teachers is an important part of valuing them.
  • Share good feedback. When things are working, I let teachers know. If parents pass on compliments, I tell the teachers. I think we are under-appreciated in our profession, so I have always made it a habit, even when I wasn’t chair, to pass on the good things that others say. I had a great opportunity to do that today after a parent told me at graduation what a fine department I led, and how much her daughter had learned from our teachers. She didn’t have to tell me that. I never taught her daughter. But it means a lot to hear, and it should be shared with those who need to hear it, too.
  • Make suggestions and share ideas. I love to plan units and lessons, and I always love to share ideas for approaches I have taken with teaching material. If you have read this blog for a while, you know that I am invested in backward design or UbD, and I am a passionate advocate for using UbD with teachers.

Things I am getting better at:

  • Having difficult conversations. I sometimes have to explain why something isn’t working and that it has to change. I sometimes have to share tough feedback. I sometimes have to help colleagues who might not be working well together. These conversations are hard, and I am a bit of an introvert, and I don’t necessarily feel like I have all the answers all the time. But I am learning how to have these conversations, and honestly, they have gone much better than I anticipated they would (in most cases).
  • Juggling the work. At the end of the year, it was a lot of work planning schedules, navigating the tiredness of my department (teaching is a marathon, not a sprint, and like a marathon, sometimes you have to pull out that burst of speed right at the end when you are exhausted), and engaging in the hiring process for the first time in my role as chair (we didn’t make any hires when I was last chair). I am definitely tired, but I am going to do some things differently next year after learning this year.

Things I need to work on:

  • Directives. To be fair, this was a year of figuring out the state of the department and learning the various intricacies of leading an eclectic group of teachers. I didn’t want to roll out top-down initiatives. That is changing. I have some ideas about writing and reading. The best thing is when the teachers present the very ideas I had themselves. They already have buy-in, and the initiative will be more successful as a result. However, at some point, certain things need to happen, and the students come first. They need to have a high-quality education. The teachers need to be on board with the school’s mission and initiatives.
  • Inviting conversation. I do listen, and I do encourage teachers to talk with me. I do think that not all of them felt they could, to varying degrees (some felt I was completely open, while others might have perceived that I was closed). It is a bit strange that I consider listening a strength even if not everyone felt I was inviting conversation. I can get better at this. I can go to teachers and actively seek them out. I tended not to do that with some teachers.

So having said all that, I think it was a pretty good year. Teaching—it was my best teaching year yet. I felt the design of my classes really hung together well, and my students saw the relevance of what they were learning and connected it to work in other classes and to events in the world. That’s a success.

This summer will be a bit busy. I am going to the Multicultural Teaching Institute next week. At the end of this month, I go to the Kenyon Writer’s Workshop for Teachers. I am presenting a day-long digital storytelling workshop in July. I am going to AP English Literature training in July. In August, I am participating in critical friends training at school. Because I’m teaching AP, I have some light reading to do:

BooksMost of these books are texts for AP. You might be able to see the Newkirk and Kittle on the bottom. Those are professional reading. I also plan to bring in A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley and How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster. I have read some of these books, and even taught them before, but not in a while. Others I have read only but not taught. Others I have not read. I have some work to do this summer. One thing I love about my job: It’s never boring!

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14 thoughts on “Slice of Life #3: Leading and Learning”

  1. I loved reading your slice. I am a department chair for K-6. You’ve given me some things to think about. Thank you. I also love your summer book stack!

  2. Dana,
    Department chairs at my school seem to serve more as liaisons and communication stations (and we order supplies)–mentors, I imagine as well, but it’s been difficult to build relationships in our ever shifting landscape. What you said about students coming first hits home. I appreciate you acknowledging the hard parts of your leadership role.

    Lee Ann

  3. I’m sure you are a fantastic department head, Dana, but I shudder to think about department heads in my building having evaluation powers; the appointments are so political, and there is never any sharing of ideas (or much else).

    Is the reading list one you chose or one already established? If “Song of Solomon” has been taught in your school, how has the C-word and other censorship magnet language and issues been handled.

    1. The reading list comes from a syllabus my Dean of Faculty shared from when she taught AP. I know that many (most?) of these books make frequent appearances on the exam. One thing to remember is I’m at an independent school in a liberal part of the country. The language won’t be a problem. I try to be a fantastic department chair! I had to interview for the position, and sharing ideas is the most important part. If my teachers don’t feel supported, then I haven’t done my job.

      1. We can get by w/ quite a lot in AP classes, but one of our other schools is having issues w/ “The Kite Runner,” which I think is much tamer than “Song of Solomon.” Do you have the list of most often referenced books on the AP exam? If you need it, let me know. I know that as recently as two years ago kids in AP read “Catcher in the Rye.”

  4. I think it’s splendid that you share positive feedback with others. Too often I that people with the power don’t share positive things with others. It’s disheartening to me. (I’m a big fan of praise.) So glad to see you’re doing it.

    1. Thanks, Stacey! It’s so much easier than always being negative. I had a boss who only criticized, and she was awful at that! Never hearing the good things wore down my self-esteem and made me fear I was a failure.

  5. Ah Dana, you mention all the things that ought to be valued but which are too often pushed to the margins: careful listening, sharing of successes, brave reflection about personal challenges, excitement about professional reading and learning. Loved this post.

  6. Dana:
    I was Department Chair at a major high school in Utah for 3 years. I felt so exhausted trying to deal with the politics in the department that I finally told my principal that 3 years was enough! I had 7 classes with 30-35 students and was also the coordinator for students applying for state scholarships (which required hours of after school portfolio writing). I did not clean my house for the whole year until the summer. We had to fire a teacher and let another go for not doing their job (can’t give you the details). I was so overloaded teaching College classes and AP Literature on top of the extracurricular assignment and my Honors classes that I just said “that’s enough!” After having a respite these past 4 years I feel much wiser and would actually feel that I would be a better Department Chair. I felt like a failure and to top it off the Principal made me feel that I was giving up which made me feel worse. I felt much better as I read about your experiences as Chair and that we take these experiences and move forward. I think C.S. Lewis was correct in his assessment of life that “There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.” Hope springs eternal…

    1. Thanks! I think we all make mistakes, and we respond to challenges in different ways. I have had to do some things that really were outside of my comfort zone (as much as I hate that saying, it applies here). It sounds like you were way overloaded, though.

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