Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Department Leadership

My current department head has been an indispensable mentor during the last four years, and with his full-time assumption as a Dean next year, we are currently in the midst of the search for next year's department head. This has allowed for many fascinating discussions in my department about the vision and execution of department leadership.

Having never taught at another school, I am only familiar with what I've experienced here, but in this time there have been two methods of leadership that I really admire in our department.

  1. Our department meetings prioritize pedagogy. I know that some of my colleagues have felt that administrative details should play more of a role in our department meetings, such as handling textbook orders or assessment policies, and while I agree those are necessary discussions, I am grateful that our meetings do not revolve around them. The majority of our meetings involve sharing lesson plan ideas, or reading essays related to historiography (like this and even this). In fact, at the start of this school year we spent part of our orientation teaching each other a primary source, and I found that to be a wonderful method of not only beginning the year with the idea of cooperation and sharing, but it put me in the mindset for thinking about how to frame my history classes in such a way that they emphasize inquiry and evidence. This brings me to the second attribute of department leadership I have loved...
  2. Setting the right tone. Our department has a great rhythm to it - we don't have our own classrooms so during our free blocks we generally come to the department office. And we don't have our own desks, so we normally gather around the large table, which more often than not facilitates discussion. And boy can we discuss! We have not only intellectually stimulating conversations about history or current events, but pedagogy as well as more low-brow humor. It's simply wonderful. There's a level of camaraderie whose tone, I think, has been created not only by the choice of hiring (which our head has a significant hand in) so that our passion for the subject, teaching, and personalities mesh well, but because teamwork is prioritized so much.

So with the prospect of a new head of department on the horizon, what else could the vision be, along with the wonderful attributes of leadership above? Some colleagues and I have discussed creating a digital primary source bank. In a server dedicated to our department, we would all share, organize, and tag primary/secondary sources for future use. While this would require a day's worth of work, I would look forward to this task as a way to consider in what regions/themes/time periods we are all proficient or lack depth of knowledge. It would also reinforce the pooling of resources.

There's also been discussion about creating standards. I've been experimenting with this during the year, and have been very pleased with my clear rubric that delineates content and skill standards. Whether such an overhaul could be applied in one year is questionable, but the attempt could, I think, make the entire grade teams more aware of unit objectives and whether we are meeting our goals for improving the reading and writing skills of our students. In particular, I've had absolutely fascinating conversations with my colleagues about unit objectives, and to what extent content standards should be applied across the board. Whatever the case, I would press for units to be structured around debate questions so that students can consider controversies of the past as well as controversies surrounding how we remember the past. This would be meant to ensure that they would practice as often as possible the skills of drawing on evidence and rhetoric.

Down the road more interdisciplinary work with other departments (particularly the English department) would be ideal. We read an historical novel with the freshmen, for example. How great would it be if they were reading it for both classes and examining it through two lenses? And we could coordinate themes - while we might discuss arete and the historical development of Classical Greece, the English department could read selections from Homer and consider the heroic cycle.

Hence one of the blessings of having started my teaching career at a  young, visionary school has been observing and participating in the creation of curriculum with a group of people who can balance the values of teamwork with their own independent style of teaching.