Unlocking the Department Chair to Drive Instructional Improvement

The following blog was contributed by Michael Volonnino, Ph.D., Principal, and Gina Matthews, Ph.D., Assistant Principal at Archbishop Williams High School in Braintree, MA. Dr. Volonnino and Dr. Matthews will be presenting “Unlocking the Department Chair to Drive Instructional Improvement” at the 2019 NCEA Institute for Catholic School Leaders (ICSL 2019), July 14-17 in Indianapolis. SAVE the DATE!

ICSL 2019 is an engaging professional development opportunity for principals, aspiring principals, presidents, pastors and board members. The preliminary program can be reviewed at www.NCEA.org/icsl. Registration is now open! Early Bird registration rates expire on Monday, June 3.

At some point, every principal and assistant principal (including us) have addressed their faculty to express gratitude for the essential work of their department chairs. We will “thank them for performing a job” and perhaps offer a small token of appreciation—maybe a Dunkin Donuts gift card.  Considering all of the often tedious and mundane duties handed them – distribute/order textbooks, assist in course placement, order supplies, check grade submissions – the public show of support is warranted. However, department chairs have so much more to offer a school. As a school leadership team, we have begun to question the premise that the department chair is a “thankless” middle manager. Instead, we have begun to tap into the potential of the most underutilized resource in a Catholic high school.

Most chairs earn the role from a combination of their content expertise and their accumulated social capital and credibility within their department. They interact with virtually every stakeholder in the school—student, parent, faculty, administration—with a front line authenticity that is hard to replicate from behind the principal’s desk. On occasion, a leader may try to leverage this relational trust and ask the chair to help mentor a new teacher or support a struggling one. We have sought to empower our chairs to capitalize on their position and be change agents within our school.

This requires providing them with support and a non-threatening environment to take calculated risks to improve the academic program of the school. Some of the leadership skills to direct new initiatives may not come easily to a chair. Administrators must train them up, offer support, and give them the confidence that they can succeed.  This creates more relational trust and social capital that will ultimately benefit the success of our students.

In just a couple of years with this model, our department chairs have spearheaded the implementation of a new teacher evaluation system, curriculum mapping, a new mid-term examination schedule, a minimum grading policy, and begun to study ways that our school can better recruit and retain quality teachers. These initiatives would not have had the success we experienced or even begun without fully engaging our chairs. The most rewarding part of this approach is to see our teacher-leaders gain a greater sense of self-efficacy in their position and grow in status within our schools as they have noticed the improvements they helped bring to our school.

Department chairs’ growing sense of self-efficacy not only increases their willingness to take calculated risks, but it also enhances their commitment to our school. As Catholic school leaders, our commitment to empowering the chairs falls in line with the considerable amount of research on people in intrinsically motivated fields find that they thrive in an environment that offers autonomy, working with like-minded individuals, and a feeling that their efforts make a difference. By strengthening our department chairs, we as school administrators help satisfy all three needs and in turn fulfill our mission as a Catholic school.