How Leadership Positions in School Departments Work
by Seth Sosebee
Navigating how school departments function can be confusing at times. Teachers often hold various roles other than their regular classroom duties. How are these roles filled, and who decides who is right for them?
If you're a teacher considering additional leadership positions in school, read on to see if you and your schedule may be a good fit.
Teachers wear many hats
All schools employ dozens of faculty members who hold responsibilities that extend beyond their teaching duties. While most of us are familiar with the principal-teacher dynamic, other leadership positions in schools are lesser-known.
The fact is, many teachers perform multiple duties outside of the classroom. I've personally worn many hats as a high school educator at a school with over 2,000 students. I've served on the scholarship committee, been an advisor for student clubs, and led a professional learning team of AP Human Geography teachers.
A number of my colleagues served as department heads, while leading professional development sessions for other teachers, taking students on trips abroad, or organizing a school garden.
What is the role of the school department head?
The school department head job description can involve a variety of factors. Department heads oversee the matrix of committees and learning teams, to ensure departmental order and to foster efficiency and communication within the school community. Teachers are typically nominated and voted for by co-workers to oversee a department as its chairperson for one full school year. Once they accept the position, they generally assume the following duties:
- Liaison. Department heads represent teachers in the same subject area within their department. They act as an envoy, meeting with teachers, administrators, parents and students to communicate the needs and wishes of one party to another. For instance, if administrators need to inform teachers of changes to an academic subject's curriculum, they meet with the department head, who then communicates the details to other teachers.
- Department administration. Every school year, funds are allocated for departments to spend on essentials like textbooks and classroom equipment. The department head decides what the needs are, how to divide the money, and who is responsible for keeping an inventory of materials. Another responsibility of the department head is to help administrators determine what classes will be taught by which faculty members.
- Personnel decisions. While department heads cannot hire new employees or fire existing ones, they can greatly influence administrators' decisions in those matters. For example, when I interviewed with my current school, I spoke with both the assistant principal and the Social Studies department head. The administrator asked about my work experience, while the department head put a spotlight on my content knowledge and classroom management style.
- Leadership. Department chairs are selected by their colleagues because they are trusted to navigate whatever problems arise. Each new school year presents a unique set of challenges. These challenges fall at the department head's feet. My department coped with the deaths of two beloved colleagues, each in their twenties, within a two-year span. Throughout this trying time, our department head fielded questions surrounding their conditions and spearheaded ways in which we could support their families. This department head was also tasked with the difficult job of finding viable candidates to fill the vacancies.
Keep in mind that, depending on the school, education department jobs and leadership roles may vary.
How are department heads selected?
Being selected as a department chair depends on many circumstances. Here are some factors that determine who fills the role:
- Experience. Being a department head isn't a job for a first-year teacher. A successful department head knows the ins and outs of the school and has strong relationships with their co-workers and administrators. If you're a new teacher interested in leadership, build your resume by volunteering for committees within the school or your department.
- Workload and availability. Each teacher within a department has a unique class schedule, home life and personal responsibilities. Often, the most experienced teacher within a department also chairs numerous committees or clubs. However, due to their class workload, they may not always be the best person to take on a leadership role. The best person for the position may actually be a less experienced teacher with a schedule that isn't as grueling.
- Willingness. Before taking on a leadership position, you need to weigh the perks versus the challenges. While accepting the duties often includes a small stipend, and can help with career advancement for teachers, consider the stress and time required. Unless you're mentally and physically prepared to take on the challenge, you're better off passing it along to someone more ready.
Remember, if you're applying to a department head position, be sure to refresh your resume and write a compelling cover letter that highlights your leadership skills (easy to do with our Resume Templates and Cover Letter Templates).
Should you become a department head?
Taking on a leadership position in school is a personal decision. Colleagues of mine who have served as department heads enjoyed learning how their schools functioned and being involved in the hiring process. It's a role that allows you to influence the current and future state of your school, which can be extremely rewarding.
On the other hand, managing relationships with teachers, parents, and administrators can sometimes be frustrating. As a department head, you'll be required to sit in on a lot of meetings and tend to time-consuming details. If you're interested in becoming the chair of your department, it's a good idea to first speak with co-workers who have held the position before. Their input can help you decide if the role is a good fit with your schedule and day-to-day responsibilities.
Thinking of applying for a teaching role or other types of jobs in the school system? Consider using our Resume Builder and get help securing the position you want.