The 4 C’s: How Administrators Can Best Support Department Heads

by Elise London, EXPLO Elevate Senior Consultant

In my consulting work, I have the privilege of meeting one-on-one with individuals who serve in a variety of different roles in schools.

When I get to meet individually with a school’s department heads, afterward, I am able to step back and look carefully at what I’ve learned about the bigger picture of the school as a whole. Looking through these different lenses helps me to see the ways that school administrators can be better positioned to support department heads in doing their best work. Because – when department heads are supported, their departments can thrive, and when departments are thriving, the overall quality and experience of education for all of the students is improved!


Some common themes that have emerged in my work one-on-one with department heads have led me to consider the ways that administrators should tune their focus to the “4 C’s” of support: clarity, compensation, collaboration, and celebration.




CLARITY is both the structure of school-wide policies that must be followed and definitions of tasks, vision, and purpose. 


Schools that center CLARITY actually take some work off the department head’s plate by saying “this is the way we do this here, and here is how your work fits into that structure.” When schools can provide this degree of clarity around some tasks, like teacher observation/feedback cycles or hiring policies, department heads can structure their work to fit within the set parameters. Not taking the time to invent a department hiring policy can free up the time to set a vision for education and curriculum within the department.


Similarly, it is essential that school has a written, updated, and public job description for the department head role and that it includes the spaces where consistency across departments would be expected and where differentiation might flourish. This type of clarity is particularly critical in schools where the department head role is on a five-year rotating schedule within the department’s existing faculty.


CLARITY removes some of the burden of creation and therefore provides tremendous support for the department heads to focus their time, vision, and leadership on the spaces that are within their purview. 



COMPENSATION goes beyond the standard course reduction or stipend. 


Many department heads with a course reduction will note that the work they take on in this role far exceeds the demands of teaching another section of a class. Therefore, it is worth examining what other forms of compensation might be provided to department heads in order to help them to feel supported in their work. In this, it is so important that administrators  keep in mind that each individual might have a different conception of what support looks like. What is a burden to one department head might bring another great joy. Having conversations about compensation and truly listening to the needs of each department head can help administrators structure this support individually and personally.


School administrators can start with a list of possible “add ins” or “take aways” that could reasonably be offered. Some examples might include: adding a work space, taking away the responsibility for finding sub coverage for classes, adding a personal day, or removing a co-curricular or chaperoning responsibility. Each school will have different possibilities that can be offered in order to provide additional, non-financial, compensation to the teacher leaders who serve in the department head role.


In addition, it is also important for administrators to consider the compensation that comes from the satisfaction of a job well done. When department heads feel that they are valued, and that they are contributing meaningfully to the growth and progress of the school, they reflect more positively on the overall demands of the role. 



COLLABORATION can be found within the network of department head peers.


The job of department head can often feel isolating within the context of the school. Regular department head meetings can provide time and space for individuals to come together and connect regarding best practices in their various roles and responsibilities. Department head meetings are an ideal time to utilize the varied experiences and wisdom of a group of master teachers in order to progress the school forward toward meeting a goal. Administrators who convene the department head meetings can encourage collaboration among the department head group by providing opportunities to dig into meaningful work in line with specific interests and expertise. Perhaps a subset of department heads can work together toward developing a competency-based grading policy and another can consider best practices in communicating academic integrity expectations. Perhaps one department head with expertise in observing teachers with an equity lens can share that wisdom with the group.  Meaningful exercises in collaboration lean into the leadership work of the department head and further their role in contributing to the vision and mission of the school.


One helpful way to approach the essential collaborative nature of the department head meeting is to establish a simple meeting norm: Everyone comes to department head meetings with something to contribute and everyone leaves department head meetings with something to do. Centering the collaborative nature of the work contributes to department heads feeling that meetings have purpose and value within the context of the school.



CELEBRATION reinforces gratitude for this valuable work. 


School administrators should never underestimate the power of a simple thank you and the value of both private and public recognition for outstanding work. Providing time and space to celebrate and thank the department heads for their work helps them to feel seen and appreciated. Thank you notes, public recognition during faculty meetings, or even gift cards for coffee all go far in helping department heads feel valued and celebrated in their service to the school.

Please also read Elise’s recent post about the different types of leadership department heads need to balance.

Elise London has spent more than two decades working in and learning from diverse independent school communities. She began her teaching career at Carolina Friends School in Durham, North Carolina, where her role evolved from full time math teacher to serving as the college counselor, dean of students, and sometimes philosophy teacher. She worked in the college counseling office at St. Mark’s School in Southborough, Massachusetts, before moving to Providence, Rhode Island, to serve as the Head of Upper School at Moses Brown School. After spending many years as the Chair of the Board of the Independent Curriculum Group, she currently serves on the Board of Trustees of One Schoolhouse.
Elise grew up in the school her parents ran on a small farm in Vermont, going from there to Williams College (BA) and Harvard University (MEd in school administration).