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The Making of a
Dynamic Department Head




What makes a dynamic, effective high school department head? How can a department head improve staff morale? In what ways can creative conflict benefit group dynamics in a school department? Rodney LaBrecque, author of Effective Department and Team Leaders: A Practical Guide, discussed these questions with Education World.



With 30 years of teaching and administrative experience, Rodney LaBrecque is the head of school at Wilbraham & Monson Academy in Wilbraham, Massachusetts. He has been an educational consultant to more than 60 schools and has conducted more than 200 workshops for experienced teachers and department heads on leadership, team building, and faculty supervision. LaBrecque has headed the professional development commissions for the Connecticut and the New England Associations of Independent Schools. Education World talked with LaBrecque about how a savvy administrator builds and leads a top-notch department.

Education World: What is the main problem that most department heads face?

Rodney LaBrecque: In my workshops, I find most often that the leader shows very little leadership behavior, other than giving simple orders or transmitting information down the chain of command. Assuming the mantle of leadership and challenging department members to move ahead or wrestle with a difficult issue doesn't seem to be a natural step. Often I see department heads who interpret the job as chief problem solver. Actually, it may be more important for the department head to be more of a problem creator as a way to generate discussion and innovation. The tendency is for only safe, previously tested ideas to come to the fore. Thinking out of the box is too threatening to the institution as well as to individuals. A department head must generate some amount of revolutionary thinking, however. Only then can the department move ahead to continually provide the necessary curriculum and program for modern times and changing student interests and needs.

EW: In your book, you discuss creative conflict as a characteristic of a successful team, along with common goals, cooperation, consensus, camaraderie, communication, and care -- the so-called "Seven C's." For creative conflict to enhance team growth and lead, ultimately, to better teamwork, you write that team members must "speak honestly and knowledgeably" and "hear the other[s] with unbiased ears." What can a team leader do to help create a situation in which those things happen?

LaBrecque: We have been acculturated as humans to hide our intentions, to minimize losing and maximize winning, and to ascribe motivations to another's behaviors without verification. To overcome such an overwhelming head start of negative approaches to honest communication takes persistence. The best way to begin working toward minimizing such behaviors is to acknowledge their existence. ...

In any conversation, there is always a competition for listening. As we make a request for a person to listen to what we are saying, the person often responds with an immediate request that we listen, instead, to what he or she is saying. This is the pas de deux of conversation.

Additionally, because we are educated, we tend to provide information in an abstract language. We tend not to call a spade a spade. So by being as concrete as you can in your everyday conversations, you, as department head, model the behavior you'd like everyone in the department to exhibit.

At meetings, it is important to be direct about the need to express one's true feelings. ... I often ask the opinions of those who have remained silent during a meeting, and I try to delve into the assumptions underlying their responses. ... Within a group, shared goals can help ensure a more common ground for discussion, helping openness develop. Creating a shared understanding of the department's mission and how that mission can be accomplished should be the main thrust of discussions at department meetings.

EW: Hiring teachers is often a responsibility of a department head, and choosing teachers with the potential to work productively with others is one key to successful team building. What questions do you ask teachers to help discern whether they are good team players and what kinds of answers do you want to hear?

LaBrecque: I always ask the following questions:

  • Tell me about a group you belonged to that worked really well.
  • How did you feel while in that group and why was that?
  • What was your role in making the group function so well?
  • Tell me about a group you belonged to that did not work so well. Why was that? What did you do to try to remedy the situation?

This question is unrelated to group functioning, directly, but is one I always ask: What books are you reading right now? What is open on your bedside table?

I'm looking for statements to the effect that good groups have a sense of compromise, showing that the person understands the positive nature of group responsibility, especially when charged with producing a successful outcome. I want to hear that the person volunteered to take on tasks and felt comfortable taking responsibility for certain tasks. I am looking for the words that show the person made an emotional connection to others in the group and to the major goals at hand. ... I want to understand how the person gauged his or her performance in each area. When the group dynamics weren't going so well, I want to see if the person took any initiative to set things straight.

Finally, if people have a hard time coming up with a book or preferably several books they are reading, I know they won't fit into the intellectual environment of an academic department. This lack of connection would be a negative for the person.

EW: Morale can make or break a school. For department leaders doing their best in schools with overall low staff morale, share a few tips, some things a department head can do to make a difference.

LaBrecque: I believe that department members will work hard and happily to create and bring to fruition programs that they design. These programs more than likely have components that fulfill personal desires. I feel the department head must consciously ferret out those desires and help to mold them into a context that characterizes the specific department and school. The responsibility to provide a departmental program that meets the needs of students and school is the whole department's responsibility, not just the responsibility of the department head.

Allow department members to work together over a three- to four-week time frame to map out who will teach which course. Don't determine who will teach what on a first-come, first-served basis. Rather, work to hammer out which teachers are just right for which courses. This process may cause some friction, but it is friction focused on the good of the students rather than what is comfortable or convenient for a teacher.

Work hard to give weekly meetings substance. Everyone must feel the need to be at the meeting. I kept a public long-term and short-term agenda item board so everyone could have input into meeting topics. I praised people for work well done and during the summer wrote a personal thank you to each member. I also arranged two dinners per year for the department. One was a potluck supper in the fall; the other was a dinner prepared by me for all where no one had to do any work. They came as guests.

Finally, I made sure not to focus conversations on how lousy things were in other parts of the school or other negative news. Rather, the focus was on whatever positive news I was able to bring to the fore. The leader sets the tone for the department.

EW: Much of your experience as a team leader has been in private rather than public schools. What would you say is the major difference between working as a department head in the two settings?

LaBrecque: Actually, at the department level, I would say very little difference exists. The task of running a positive and efficient department is rife with people problems rather than structural problems. People act pretty much the same way in both educational worlds -- in fact they act very similarly in most group settings. Personality clashes, differences in emphases, communication problems are what we face in both worlds.

The underlying needs of individuals are similar. Everyone wants to be taken seriously, listened to, and thought of as important. [Everyone] wants to be productive, wants more time. In all schools, there are students who need our help, parents who are unreasonable, and edicts from administrations that need to be followed.

I think a significant difference may be the powerful unions that exist in public schools that are not part of the private world. Private-school teachers are able to do more on an individual basis without being concerned how it affects a contract agreement with the union. Teachers and department heads have more leeway in selecting learning materials and in developing curriculum because in a private school, a higher power such as a school board or state government usually doesn't direct what must be taught or used.

EW: Would you share the kinds of growth you have experienced because of heading up a successful team building process?

LaBrecque: It is important to accept the mantle of leadership. You must act the role of leader. You must be confident. You must be public about your positions and your thinking. You must also be pragmatic once you have stated what you'd like to accomplish, however. You need to know what your staff wants to accomplish. If you can determine that, then you can focus your energies on those areas.

You have to bring to the fore the ideas of others. Support those ideas, mentor teachers in ways that allow them to use and develop their strengths. I learned that when I supported teachers, they naturally supported me and others in the group. I learned that the leader doesn't have followers but rather has those who are willing to be led. Being the leader of a department is a privilege, and I saw it as one.

EW: In your book, you devote ten chapters to how an effective department head or team leader develops. If you had to narrow down effective departmental or team leadership to one key behavior, which behavior would you cite? Why?

LaBrecque: This is a difficult question to answer because each department has unique needs, and every department head has his or her own strengths and unique goals. An old New England aphorism probably encapsulates the one key behavior for any effective leader to cultivate, be it at the department level or the superintendent. "The best fertilizer is the footsteps of the farmer." Long before MBWA (management by walking around) came into vogue, this advice captured the essence of what it means to work with others, to care about the goals and purposes of the group, to know where and when to put one's efforts to work in crucial areas.

Having listened to and worked with hundreds of department heads over the last ten years, I can say the most successful are those who have been able to understand the needs of others and who have had their finger on the pulse of the group. Without such knowledge about and care for the department, no amount of leadership theory will bring true effectiveness and success.

Sharon Cromwell
Education World®
Copyright © 2007 Education World

Originally published 08/23/2000
Last updated 10/16/2007