Observations from an Old Department Chair

In my time in District 86, I have attended numerous board meetings and have interacted with several board members. Throughout those encounters, I am always impressed with the great responsibility that board members possess while receiving little gratitude and no pay for all their dedication. Especially now, this must be a difficult time to be our district’s board members. I have had nothing but respect for our board throughout these years. This is the first instance that I have contacted the board directly, but one of the decisions facing you hits very close to home for me.

I beg your indulgence for a few minutes of your time to consider my observations. Twenty-one years ago, I was hired to be the chair of the English department at Hinsdale South, which makes me among the longest serving “administrators” in District 86. Prior to that, I was a curriculum coordinator at the district level for Indian Prairie School District 204 and then English chair at York High School. For me, going to Hinsdale South was a return to my “old district.” I grew up in Oak Brook, and both of my parents lived long and died in their home in Oak Brook. My father was a proud taxpayer to District 86 schools, and he was even prouder that his youngest son has taught at Hinsdale South.

District 86 has indeed been very good to me, allowing me many opportunities to grow professionally and interact with the best students and educators in Illinois. I thank you for this opportunity. I truly love Hinsdale South and its students. I’ve adamantly said that I would do this job for free because I love it so much. In fact, I could have easily retired two years ago when I turned 55 but decided to keep going because I believe in South and believe in the district. And I believe so much in the students at Hinsdale South that I’ve donated generously to the Boosters to help our kids over the years. Thus, with my investment in District 86, I’m concerned about the discussions over transitioning from department chairs to division heads.

My greatest concern centers on the lack of information gathering in making this decision. Prior to teaching, I worked for two years at the University of Chicago for one of the top educational researchers in the nation. In this work, I learned the necessity of identifying needs, looking at best practices, reviewing relevant research, weighing monetary and educational costs, before ultimately making recommendations. Once a plan is implemented, careful monitoring of that plan also becomes essential. In turn, this process has been applied to decisions here at South, from developing reading programs to creating an interventionist model under cost constraints.

Therefore, where is the research process in transitioning from the department-chair model to one of division heads? What examination of best practices across the Chicago area has occurred? What models do other high-performing high school districts use? Other schools in our county? Or our conference? Why is there a rush to make this decision, especially when a cost factor is not a consideration in this process? This shift in models is a radical shift in leadership/coaching structures, one that should not be taken quickly or lightly.

Admittedly, there are advantages to a division-head model, but there are certainly disadvantages. There are also advantages to a department-chair model. Have all those advantages and disadvantages been examined and discussed? Has relevant research been brought forward? There is a great deal of research supporting the transformational function of teacher-leaders in any building. Where is the research supporting the division-head model?

Another major concern is that the district is considering the stripping away of the teachers’ closest, most trusted, instructional coaches in their chairs at a time when their teaching load will become even more challenging. How long will it take to renew these trusts? How long will it take a new division head to learn the staff members of the departments? How long will it take the division head to learn the curriculum of the district and the cultures of the buildings? Again, there is a great body of research supporting the coaching role of the teacher-leader. Where is the research supporting the coaching role of a non-teaching division head?

Another concern is that the division-head model is a backward movement in net administrators. Our district already has one of the highest numbers of administrators per number of students in the state. This model will add another two and a half administrators to the district’s bottom line. These are valuable funds that could be spent on classroom teachers. In a time when we are already shifting funds to infrastructure, every educational dollar should be maximized in the direct contact with students.

There is also a concern that we are not approaching these essential decisions in a shared format when our very own Strategic Plan stresses the words “engagement” and “input” from all stakeholders. Moreover, the division-head model will most likely encourage a top-down model of decision-making rather than the collaboration found between chairs and their departments.

Division heads may help the district realize curriculum equity and other district-wide consistency. However, other districts have been able to achieve this without the additional administrator load of division heads, and my own experience supports that department chairs can help the district achieve these goals just as effectively, if not more so, than division heads. My colleagues in the Downers Grove, Glenbard, Addison Trail/Willowbrook, Naperville, Indian Prairie, Wheaton, Glenbrook, and Highland Park/Deerfield high schools all attest to the department-chair structure’s added benefit of collaboration and alignment in district-wide curriculum. Do we have to wait until the division-head structure to improve our alignment? We have been working on alignment all along, and we can get it done with some guidance from the administrators above us. With directives from above, current chairs are more than willing to develop common assessments, common texts, and other alignments as needed between the two buildings. We lost a golden opportunity for added guidance when our district employed two Chief Academic Officers in the fall.

These are a few of the concerns that puzzle me about the district’s proposal to move to a division-head model. I urge the board to consider this option carefully before moving to a different leadership/support model for our teachers. At a time when financial considerations should be at the forefront of discussions, this proposal appears to help little, especially when all potential ramifications haven’t been fully considered, such as adding more administrators, having current department chairs teach additional periods, while nudging out the lowest paid teachers in the district.

I can sincerely say that I am not concerned about my own status in securing a position as department chair as I’m already in the retirement pipeline.

I hope that any cuts are made as far away from students as possible. District 86 will gain even more administrators with division heads. And with the loss of department chairs, South and Central will lose another piece of their identities, lose another advocate for kids and teachers. A much simpler model would be to keep current department chairs while slightly increasing the number of periods that they teach for next year, saving even more money than the division-head model. In addition, should a referendum pass in the future, some of the release periods could be reinstated to department chairs in a simple fashion.

David Anderson
Teacher and Chair,
Department of English
Hinsdale South High School