Leadership, Promising Practices, School Community

Working Together for Change

Forging partnerships between principals and subject department chairs

One of the many interesting features of Thunder Bay, Ont., is the concentration of grain elevators from the city’s heyday as the transportation breakpoint for Prairie grain. In the same way that the elevators can separate and hold different grains, secondary schools can often appear as organizational silos, with knowledge and practices being held in rigid discipline-based subject departments. This article considers the role of the principal in working with departments and their chairs in order to implement changes that will improve the quality of teaching and learning within schools. Unfortunately, this is a task that traditionally has not been well handled.

A common theme in the research literature about secondary schools and their departments is pessimism: Principals tend to assume they have little influence over departments and lack explicit strategies for working productively with departments.[1] We believe that a major source of this pessimism is a misunderstanding of the place of the department in the life and work of the school. So, we would like to begin by briefly discussing how this came to be, and two important features of departments that have implications for the work of the principal.

 The rise of public education in the mid to late 19th century, and the demands of university entrance examinations, drove both the academic content that schools taught and the evaluation of that learning. To accommodate the universities’ demands, schools began to adopt standardized systems of timetables, lessons and school subjects. The subject became the predominant conceptualization for organizing the curriculum. Academic subjects gained the ascendency in the life of schools, a reflection of their university designation as high-status knowledge. These academic subjects were to be taught by content specialists, and it was these content specialist teachers who formed the first school subject departments.

 The first modern usage of the term “department” was in 1905 by the American educator Kilpatrick, and by the 1930s departments dominated secondary school organization, with the most important being the Big Four of Mathematics, Science, English and the emerging Social Studies, which were based on Geography and History. Over time, other subjects have either gained departmental status (e.g. Physical and Health Education), or lost their status (e.g. Latin). The school structure you see in your school has evolved over the past 150 years.

 The department’s functions

 The development of departments has given them two vital functions: the social and the organizational. The social function is a powerful one, since it is within departments that teachers are socialized into what is important in their subject content, how it should be taught, and why it should be taught. This social function is foundational to departments’ organizational power, which lies in the capacity to influence how and what teachers teach. Teachers educated into a discipline will generally replicate the academic traditions of that discipline; this is a principal reason why secondary teachers apparently maintain their own practices in the face of efforts to reform teaching and learning. Taken together, the social and organizational functions of departments fill them with tremendous political power – which is at the source of the pessimism that so many principals feel when working with departments.

 So what does this history mean for principals who are seeking to work with their chairs and departments to improve teaching and learning? We would like to suggest that there are two important areas in which principals can take action, and so begin the work of aligning the purposes of the school and departments. The first is to cultivate a trust-based reciprocal relationship with the chairs in your school. The second follows from this: respect for the role and responsibilities that chairs, and their departments, have. At all costs, please try to avoid the story of one Australian principal who stood before his staff and boldly declared, “How do you expect me to treat you like professionals when you won’t do what I say?”

 Hasten slowly

Before doing anything, read Sergiovanni’s warning:

“… for schools and school districts that are less effective in bringing about change, trust is an afterthought… often preceded by vision, strategy, and action.”[2]

It is vital that principals are proactive in developing reciprocal long-term relationships with their chairs. These relationships must be built on a mutual respect for the professional and personal responsibilities of the other. Chairs have a responsibility for their subject and the instructional leadership of the department, while principals have responsibilities to school boards and the wider school community. One of the major responsibilities of the principal is in “defining, defending and enabling a viable educational philosophy throughout the school.”[3] But the actual implementation of so much of that philosophy is in the hands of chairs, and they can be placed in an awkward position. As middle managers, they often have divided loyalties. On the one hand, they have a commitment to their subject and to developing (and maintaining) collegial working relationships with their teachers. On the other, they are also responsible for implementing school-level administrative decisions. Do we see a tension here, and what is a principal to do?

Build the foundations

How can a principal initiate reciprocal long-term relationships? The answer lies in developing clear lines of communication with chairs and playing politics (in the non-pejorative sense of the word). This means that principals must distribute leadership (and power) to department chairs as they seek to improve teaching and learning within their departments. For many principals (and their boards), this may mean challenging their own views on leadership, a task that is never easy.[4]

In working with chairs, the principal needs to understand how the practices (and yes, agendas) of different departments can be brought to bear in pursuing school-level changes that aim to improve teaching and learning. This means that the principal needs to be involved in the work of the department. We are not advocating involvement in the minutiae of the day-to-day operations of the department – that is a sure road to disaster. We mean engaging with chairs in conversations around where the department is, and where the department would like it to be in the next five to ten years. Yes, we said five to ten years – because meaningful change needs to be considered over this sort of timeline. The continuity of working together for an extended period is so important because, as people get to know each other, they can develop the trust that leads to a deeper professional relationship. It is this deep relationship that allows chairs, supported by principals, to lead changes in teaching and learning that will move us to sustainable student success. As an aside, there will still be arguments and tension within trusting relationships, so expect this tension but don’t let it detract from the bigger picture.

To give an example, think about the notion of student success, which, according to Ontario’s Ministry of Education, is supported by tailoring students’ education to “their individual strengths, goals and interests.”[5] A principal is responsible for promoting student success by leading conversations that promote a school-level understanding of the notion in practice. And at the department level, principals and chairs need to be asking what that school-level understanding looks like within, and across, departments:

  • What does student success look like in your subject?
  • What does your subject association regard as best practice?
  • How do you know when students are successful?
  • What forms of success are activated across subjects?
  • How can the school and department together work to achieve student success?

Subjects can have different criteria for success, which can all concurrently work toward supporting a school-wide understanding of success. A department we have worked with was considering replacing the final Grade 9 exam with a culminating performance, through which students would demonstrate what they knew and understood about the topic. The principal was the first person the chair went to talk to about the proposal. Having engaged in previous conversations about teaching and learning, the chair expected that the principal would raise legitimate questions about the proposal, and prepared accordingly. The principal did raise concerns about the culminating performance process, and how it linked evaluation, recording and reporting. Working together, these concerns were addressed; the principal supported the proposal and the department could promote best practice in their subject. A further development from this work was that the chair of another department began to discuss with her department, and the principal, changes to the structure of her courses to better address the needs of students who had been identified as at-risk by the school.

Formalizing the conversation

Conversation is important, but we would go further and suggest that it is necessary to develop administrative structures that recognize the particular interactions between schools and their departments. One school that we worked with has established a structure that explicitly recognizes that, while the board and principals establish school-level plans, it is departments that, in large part, operationalize those plans. The principal in the school described it thus:

“In our leadership structure we take our board and school improvement plan goals and recognize the role of the department chair as an instructional leader. Chairs receive lots of support through our program forums. All the chairs get together and receive professional development to advance mandated issues like literacy and numeracy instruction, and subject-specific best practice. On top of this, we have a PLC (Professional Learning Community) structure for departments that happens every six weeks, where they discuss those practices and work to shape them.… The role of the chair is to improve instructional practice in a very careful but directed way that’s aligned with the school and board improvement plans.”

PRINCIPALS offer both tangible and intangible supports to teachers and departments. Tangible supports, such as the provision of resources, time for planning and preparation, public recognition and encouragement, and addressing organizational constraints are certainly important. But, make no mistake; intangible supports can be far more effective in shaping improvements in teaching and learning. These supports can include engagement in the life of the department, managing the inevitable politics associated with reforms and addressing parental concerns when they occur. By encouraging chairs as instructional leaders, and departments as places for teacher professional learning, principals can move their schools from a collection of knowledge silos towards places in which the whole-school philosophy is simultaneously shared and lived in subject specific ways.

Illustration: iStock

First published in Education Canada, May 2015


[1] J. Gray, D. Hopkins, D. Reynolds, B. Wilcox, S. Farrell, and D. Jesson, Improving Schools: Performance and potential  (Buckingham, UK: Open University Press, 1999).

[2] T. J. Sergiovanni, “The Virtues of Leadership,” The Educational Forum 69 (Winter 2005): 119.

[3] B. Lingard, And P. Christie, “Leading Theory: Bourdieu and the field of educational leadership. An introduction and overview to this special issue,” International Journal of Leadership in Education 6 (2003): 329.

[4] See J. Murphy, M. Smylie, D. Mayrowetz, and K. S. Louis, “The Role of the Principal in Fostering the Development of Distributed Leadership,” School Leadership and Management 29 (2009): 181-214.

[5] Ontario Ministry of Education, Growing Success: Assessment, evaluation and reporting in Ontario Schools (Toronto: Queen’s Printer for Ontario, 2010), 10. www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/policyfunding/growSuccess.pdf

Meet the Expert(s)

Todd Campbell

Dr. Todd Campbell is an Associate Professor in Science Education at the University of Connecticut. He has published a number of articles on teacher professional learning and educational change, and is currently Principal Investigator on a National Science Foundation research project.

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Jeff Upton

Jeff Upton has been a Vice Principal in Thunder Bay, Ont., for over a decade and is currently Past President of Lakehead District Ontario Principals Council. He has an MEd from the University of Toronto, and has recently taken on the role of Education Officer in the local Board office.

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Doug Jones

Doug Jones is a Science Chair in Thunder Bay, Ont., and has co-authored a number of articles on science teaching and leadership, as well as presenting workshops on teacher learning and change at board, provincial and international conferences.

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Wayne Melville

Dr. Wayne Melville, an Associate Professor in Science Education at Lakehead University, Ont., has published a number of articles on the role of the department in teacher professional learning and educational change. His second book, on the role of the department chair on leading change within the department, is co-authored with Doug Jones and Todd Campbell, and is due for release in spring 2015.

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