When I began my work in department leadership, I wanted a minute-by-minute job description for what I “was supposed” to do. But now, looking back, I think having a checklist-type job description wouldn’t have captured what I needed to learn about leadership within the department.
The most important thing I needed to do was to know my department– to know the people, to talk to them, to visit their classes. The phrase “lead from behind” captures part of that mindset. I saw my work as supporting teachers, knowing their professional goals, and thinking about the ways I could support them in realizing their aspirations. This meant the biggest mistake I could have made would have been sitting in my office and not having those conversations. I’m very intentional about popping into a space, finding out what ideas people are having, and how to make those ideas move forward. There’s so much potential in each educator. I believe that uncovering and nurturing that potential is the most important thing you can do in the department chair role.
As part of that aspiration, I set the expectation in our department that we will visit each other’s classes. I’ll walk into the class of a colleague just to see what’s going on. Those visits aren’t part of formal observation or evaluation. They happen because I believe that witnessing colleagues’ work is an essential part of growth, for both of us. In the same way, my door is always open to my colleagues. I don’t want people to feel they have to make an appointment to talk to me–I want them to walk in and start talking, to debrief what’s happening in their classrooms.
As teachers, we’ve all had phenomenal classes and we’ve all had clunkers. Those are the best moments to talk it out with your colleagues and department chair. As a department chair, being available is essential to my ability to do my best work. When someone comes to my door, I put away what I’m doing, because I want to prioritize people. The moments of reflection and conversation made a difference, and they help teachers to maintain their health and wellness.
So many things in my work bring me joy. I love seeing a teacher who’s struggling begin to build confidence and competence over the course of the year. We can use our department as a laboratory for innovation and new ideas. When you encourage faculty to have that perspective, they start to ask to try new things. My responsibility as department chair is to see where those new ideas take us. It happens because I set the expectation that it will happen. Working with people I respect and value, and having conversations about new ideas—I can’t ask for anything better than that!
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)