Posted by: cornvillenutmeg | September 19, 2012

The Demise of the Department Chairmen

Before Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug, the heads of departments of academic discipline were called chairmen.  From then on, they became chairpersons or oddly, I always thought, chairs.  Today in most public schools there are no chairmen, chairpersons, or chairs.  There are Supervisors.  Supervisors are Administrators.

I myself have a master’s degree in Administration and Supervision.  There was a time before I ever set foot in a public school when I imagined I might like to be a Dean of Students.  When I left my last job in independent education, I opted for taking that degree thinking it might make me a more attractive candidate.  Once I had spent my first semester teaching in public education, however, I got over my administrator aspirations.

Supervisors are not teachers.  They may have been teachers once upon a time, but somehow administration and supervision attracted them more than teaching.  Why that might be I haven’t the least idea.

One of the administrators whose answers were part of my previous two posts began his professional education life as a math teacher.  When we first met, he was an assistant principal.  A few years later, he was hired as the principal.  This was in a high school.  Today he is again an assistant principal but now in an elementary school.  While he was principal, he was also the supervisor of the English and Foreign Language Departments, and the Library-Media Center, and as such ran all department meetings.  Please remind yourself that he was once a math teacher. 

He was the evaluator for most of the teachers employed in those three departments.  He was the head disciplinarian for the entire school, student population when he began, 600 plus.  He was also a Home Room Advisor.  He chaired the Leadership Council, and the School Improvement Committee.  He, of course, ran all faculty meetings and staff development days.  He was a member of the Administrative Council (all the administrators in all the schools in that system).  He also supervised the cafeteria during lunches.  He went to athletic games.  He supervised the students as they loaded themselves onto the buses at the end of the day.  He returned to school for meetings of the PTO, for Report Card Nights, for Open Houses, for Eighth Grade Orientation Night, for school plays and school concerts.  He often ran PPT meetings.  He mediated disputes between angry parents and anxious teachers.  He was at the beck and call of the superintendent, who, believe me, was not someone whose becks and calls one could ever look forward to.  He fielded every single complaint and, when it was possible, absorbed the brunt of whatever the criticism was instead of just passing the problem on.  He worked most of eleven months a year.  No one I have ever known was as underpaid for what he did as was that principal.  And because he was responsible for jobs that, to do well, would take at least five people, he was restrained from doing any of them brilliantly.  But he did do them with competence and in some instances, well.

I e-mailed him the above description of what he did, just to check my recall for accuracy.  I’ll quote his response: 

You have captured the essence of principalship, or the act of juggling many balls at once, and systematically putting one of the balls down, in order to add in another several balls.  It was exhausting, in all aspects: physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual;  if there are other aspects, I am quite certain they were exhausting, too.

My work was pretty much non-stop, even when at home, with calls from the superintendent, calls going back to concerned parents, students, and teachers when those folks could not be reached during the day, which found me at my desk before 6:50 am, and through 6:30 pm, with hustling around the building and district all in between, with lunch, if I was lucky, inhaled in 12 minutes.  Then there were the nights out, which I carefully tracked one year and found to rack up to 90 in the course of 180 school days…well, that counted some “Saturday” mandated appearances as “nights out.”  I had more free time as an independent school teacher-coach (of three sports) and dorm master.



I am not exaggerating when I suggest how many people it would take to accomplish expertly all the jobs a principal is tasked with.  Take discipline, for example.   As a parent, who would you prefer dispense discipline to your child, a Dean (or Supervisor) of Discipline or a Warden of Discipline?  Here are some of the things that a student can run afoul of in the course of day which end up needing the official attention of the official whose job description includes disciplinarian:  tardiness, absence, smoking (one or the other or both), drinking, taking food out of the cafeteria, misbehaving in the cafeteria, misbehaving in class, misbehaving in the hallway, plagiarism, cheating, using a cell phone in class or in the halls or in the cafeteria; using a PLD (personal listening device) during class or in the library, vandalism, destruction of property, bullying, driving to school without a permit, leaving school without permission, threatening a teacher or other adult in the employ of the school system, misbehaving on the bus, fighting, running in the hallway, theft, possession of weapons or drugs or drug paraphernalia, wearing inappropriate clothing, and using inappropriate language.  There are more, but I just can’t bring myself to think of them now.  All of the above some teacher or aide will “write up” on a discipline referral form which must, therefore, be dealt with by the supervisor in charge of discipline.

In a school of six hundred students, upwards of forty referral forms are submitted each day.  If you are a dean of students, you expect to deal with those pretty much on a daily basis.  If you are a principal, you haven’t the time to do that.  Instead, you end up finding moments between making visits to the classes of the teachers you are responsible for evaluating, or meeting with parents, or calming down an irate teacher, student, or superintendent.  You bring a stack of referral forms to student lunches and the bus boarding area in hopes of catching up with one or more of the referrees.  Pretty much everywhere you go, you carry a folder of referral forms with you, just in case.  Every once in a while, when the stack of forms has grown from merely unmanageable to Sisyphean, you block out a couple of hours and have your secretary summon from their classes the naughty children one after another (you can imagine how happy a teacher is being interrupted by someone who begins by telling him how sorry she is to interrupt you but, Mr. P needs to see…).  That discipline system, for lack of any better way to put it, is far more similar to the criminal justice system than not.  The students do the crime, and when they are caught, they do the time – detention, Saturday School, in-school suspension, or out of school suspension.  (Expulsion is beyond the purview of the principal.)

Depending on a school’s size and the affluence of a town or city, principals have one or more assistant principals to carry the load.  You would think that might help, yes?  Well, not so much.  The difference in administrative tasks in a school of 500 or fewer compared to a school of 1000 is far more than double.  So while the disciplinary tasks can be spread out among the principal and assistant principals, it really changes little.  The larger the student population, the larger the faculty, support staff, parent body, building itself, numbers of committees, meetings, complaints, and so on.  A school with one or more assistant principals is a school with one or more people doing jobs that are not possible to do.

Now, ask yourself, given how truly important it is to evaluate teachers for the efficacy of their efforts, was it in any way a good plan to add to the responsibility of a principal what was once the duty of a department chairman?


  1. […] Demise of the Department Chairmen The Demise of the Department Chairmen. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like […]

  2. Well, this is certainly eye-opening! And yet, if not the administrative leadership, who best to evaluate teachers?
    In my years as Director of Admissions at Temple University School of Dentistry, the A.D.A. (American Dental Association) would impose “accreditation” on the institution, a rigorous, broad-brushed quality control effort that rolled around every seven years. A committee would be formed to address very specific standards and a period of intense introspection would commence that picked on the smallest of nits. In the end, an objective report of “the status quo” would emerge. If an area of operation did not meet professional standards, an action plan would be proposed to correct the insufficiency so as to be compliant by a certain date, less the institution lose their accreditation.
    Given the workability of that system, could teachers possibly, realistically evaluate themselves? Are there universal professional standards for teachers? Would unions allow for this?

  3. Ah, Mark. You anticipate me. The questions you raise are the subject of my next post, currently in gestation.

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