Care for Your Chair: Improving Department Chair Support

by Elise London, Senior Consultant.

In a professional setting, CARE can take many forms, but ultimately, it is the support to do our jobs to the best of our capacity.

[At NAIS 2023, Elise London and Dave Hamilton (in collaboration with Greenhills School’s Director of Teaching and Learning Jenna Goldenberg) presented a one-hour workshop to share some recent thinking about how schools can better support their Department Chairs. Did you miss NAIS? Or did you attend a different workshop during this session? Fear not! Here is a recap. Look for a link to our resource document at the bottom of the page.]

Often in schools, there are many to-do tasks on the Department Chair’s list. Some aspire toward the very best of the role:

However, often, the mundane tasks associated with running a department can get in the way:

As a result, Department Chairs constantly navigate a tricky balance between the three primary pulls of their role:

  • Task and People Management
  • Teaching and Student Interface
  • Acting as an Instructional Leader

In our NAIS workshop, participants used laser pointers to respond to the question, “How does the department chair in your school spend most of their time?” Note the even distribution of dots between Teaching/Student Interface and Task/People Management compared to just two dots for Instructional Leadership.

Often, the work of task management and student interface prohibit Department Chairs from doing the important work of Instructional Leadership. Since CARE is the support needed to do all of the parts of a job to the best of our capacity, it is the work of the administrators in a school to create space and allow their Department Chairs to perform this important aspect of their job description. It is the job of administrators to help bring the department chair role into BALANCE.

In fact, when we elevate care in this way, we can find increased retention (both chairs and faculty), better alignment of a school’s mission and its lived practice, and a culture of intentional growth focused on teachers and teaching. It’s a win-win-win!

One way we can get here is to focus on the Department Chair meeting itself – to make this a time when a group of Department Chairs can come together to act in their capacity as the instructional leaders of the school.

To do this, we need to evaluate the WHY, WHO, WHEN, WHAT, and HOW of our Department Chair meetings.

Consider the WHY:

Why hold Department Chair meetings? The goal of this question is to define a purpose for the meeting. You might also ask, “What is the purpose of this Department Chair meeting?” Another starter question for designing in-person meetings is, “What works best because we are all together?” Having people together allows for connection, multiple voices, direct input, feedback, first reactions, reading body language, and storytelling. If you find your meetings are one person talking while the rest of the group listens, you could have shared that information asynchronously.

Consider the WHO:

Who attends Department Chair meetings, and why those people?

It is important that schools look carefully at attendance and remember the power imbalances that can affect a group from performing at its best. Who needs to be in the room for instructional leadership to happen? Who shouldn’t be there? Can some meetings be just chairs?

Consider the WHEN:

When are Department Chair meetings scheduled in order to allow everyone to participate fully? Think about who is included or excluded from the meeting based on when it falls in the school and daily calendar.

Consider the WHAT:

What happens during a Department Chair meeting that can make it generative and collaborative?

How does the Head of School set the tone for the work of this meeting? What does the Head see as the role of the Department Chairs? What kinds of topics should be covered to take advantage of the wisdom and expertise of a group of school administrators who spend the majority of their time in the classroom with students (the only school administrators who are on the ground, day in and out, living the practice of the school’s mission).

Consider the HOW:

How does a good Department Chair meeting engage with all of the voices:

It is important to use meeting norms and protocols to keep these meetings generative and focused (and to keep them from feeling fraught and/or yucky). This is a meeting where it is important to “say the thing” and to keep the focus on the work on the meeting (instead of on the side meetings).

Do you want to learn more about protocols to achieve these aims? CLICK HERE to request a comprehensive resource document sharing more information!


To get back to CARE:

If care is the support to do a job to the best of our capacity, then it is important to clearly outline the parameters of the job itself. Revisit your school’s Department Chair job description. Make sure that it includes the present work and has eliminated some outdated bullet points. Make sure it includes a focus on the three points (task/people management, teaching/student interface, instructional leadership) and a focus on how to get the work of these three buckets into BALANCE.

Some next steps for schools:

  • Open discussions about the inevitable inequities between different departments and, therefore, Department Chair roles (care looks different for different people)
  • Consider what tasks can be removed from the Department Chair task list to provide more time to focus on instructional leadership.
  • Ask the Head of School to articulate a vision for the role of the Department Chair.
  • Articulate the WHY, WHO, WHEN, WHAT, and HOW of your Department Chair meetings.
  • Redesign your Department Chair meetings.
  • Arrange a summer retreat for your Department Chairs

For a more comprehensive list of recommendations, protocols, and meeting prompts, CLICK HERE!!

We Can Help!

Do you want support in any of this work? Connect with Elise and Dave to see how an extra set of eyes (and ears) can help your Department Chairs feel supported and do their jobs to the very best of their capacities!