Department Chair as Educational Leader

Department chairs in teaching universities and community colleges are typically hired from the ranks of professors. Yet, leading an educational program might require a different skill set than teaching or coordinating a course. Our newest paper, recently presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, discusses the role of department chair as educational leader. Literature on transformational leadership, instructional leadership and leadership in post-secondary education, identified the following as important contributors to leading teaching and learning:

ed leadership

  • Leading teaching excellence:

Considering individual instructors’ needs and contributing to improved teaching and learning through the provision and promotion of and participation in high quality, relevant teacher professional development and evaluation of teaching performance;

  • Leading quality curriculum:

Defining and sharing the curriculum purpose, promoting external and internal collaboration with curriculum stakeholders, coordinating curriculum development activities;

  • Leading an optimal student learning environment:

Effectively managing educational resources and program specific student guidance, instructions and regulations;

  • Building and communicating a shared vision:

Including setting expectations and goals for teaching and learning;

  • Assuring program quality:

Evaluating program success and implementing improvement where needed (through collecting information about graduate satisfaction, student graduation rates, student performance on provincial or national exams, student employment rates, employer satisfaction with graduate performance, etcetera).

The paper further explores how leaders in five departments from three institutes conceptualize and enact their role as educational leaders of their departments.

Supporting Instructors through Change

Supporting Instructors Dealing with Change

4371882781_a26b66b576_zTo remain relevant to society, post-secondary education has to be flexible, nimble, and responsive, which requires instructors to keep changing many aspects of their work, including the curriculum, delivery modes (online or f2f), and teaching strategies. During a NAIT PD Day last Tuesday, we learned that it’s important to take personal feelings into account in times of change.

A few weeks ago, I spoke with Denise Forwick-Whalley, Associate Chair in the Medical Laboratory Technology program. I asked her why a program chair should care about supporting instructors dealing with change. She told me:

“Change can be worrisome and uncomfortable for many instructors.  It can create concerns of job security, increasing workloads, or learning new skills.  For any change to be positive, instructors must play a key role in making the change successful.  To do this, they must have a solid understanding of the change process and their role in it.  One of the major issues about change is that it’s often driven by external drivers, and by the time program leaders and instructors find out about the requirements, they need to act immediately, which can be difficult for both the instructor and the leaders in a program.”  

So I asked Denise, “How do you deal with this as a program leader?” Her reply:

“In my experience supporting change in organizations, I’ve found the ADKAR model from PROSCI very helpful. The ADKAR model is a framework for understanding change at the individual level.  The model has five objectives, and each step must be completed for the change to be realized.  The idea is that instructors need each of the following in order to support the change:
A – Awareness of the need for change
D – Desire to support and participate in the change
K – Knowledge of how to change
A – Ability to implement required skills and behaviours
R – Reinforcement to sustain the change”

I was intrigued. I can see how I might help instructors gain knowledge about the change, but what about creating a desire to participate? My next question was, “But as a chair, how would I apply this model in my practice?” And this is where I was met with a wealth of profound knowledge and understanding of change. I’ll share the tip of the iceberg with you.

STEP 1: As a Chair or Associate Chair, you must first understand the reason for the change.  You can gain this understanding by asking questions such as:

  • What are the benefits and business reasons for the change?
  • What is happening inside the business or external to the business that is creating the need for change?
  • How do these external or internal drivers impact the business, our organization, our department, and me as an employee?
  • What do our customers want or expect that is creating a need for change?

STEP 2: Once you have an understanding of this change, you can start building awareness within your programs. Building awareness requires effective communication: face-to-face in groups and one-on-one. It also requires a strong message from senior management in the organization along with coaching of individuals and the provision of relevant resources and documents that support the need for change.

STEP 3: A common mistake is that building awareness automatically creates desire. But this is often not the case. Building desire requires that leaders help instructors understand what’s in it for them. In addition, it helps to describe the risk to the organization and the program if the change is not made. This might create a natural desire to implement the change. In this stage, it’s important that instructors voice concerns and objections that may need to be addressed before people are ready to move forward with the change. Finally, keep in mind that if the direction and values of an individual do not match those of an organization, there is not much leadership can do to gain support for the change.

STEP 4: Develop opportunities for staff to gain knowledge about the change, which may include education and training and the development of clear performance measures. I want to talk about the development of new performance measures because unless leaders set clear expectations for how staff need to perform, they will often fall short.  When a change is occurring, the expected behaviour from an instructor would be to 1) show willingness to learn, 2) be prepared to help, 3) seek information about how to prepare for the change, 4) display a positive outlook, 5) encourage constructive conversation, and 6) be open and honest with feedback about the change.

STEP 5: Instructors might need to develop the skills to adjust to their new reality. For instance, they might need to teach new courses, start teaching online, or engage in new types of work, such as applied research. At this stage, program leaders will need to identify gaps in the capacity of their team and provide support, training, and education so that instructors can perform adequately in the new reality.

STEP 6: Reinforcement is required to sustain the change as it’s very easy to revert to the old way of doing work.  Ensure instructors and program leaders have support when the change is not working as planned and be open to solving problems and coming up with solutions throughout the entire process.

 * picture courtesy of Juan Martinez

** picture courtesy of Live Life Happy

Teaching Excellence: Whose responsibility is it?

In elementary and secondary school, there’s no question about it: teachers learned how to teach before they were hired and are expected to keep learning throughout their careers. By managing teaching performance, the school principal is responsible for ensuring that teachers do a good job. This task is also called ‘instructional supervision.’ Some say the principal should have a top-down approach as an inspector of teaching competence. Others promote a shared leadership model where the role of the principal is to support professional growth in teaching (Poole, 1995). This shared leadership model seems an appropriate model for post-secondary education as well.

However, in post-secondary education, good teaching is often seen as the responsibility of instructors alone (Viscovic & Robson, 2006).  In this blog, we posit that teaching excellence is a responsibility shared by instructors and the organization they work for; in other words, the organization should set the instructor up for success. Program chairs play a crucial role in the organization (Hoekstra & Crocker, 2015). In fact, program chairs can create the circumstances that allow the instructor continuous learning and improvement. However, program chairs should also hold instructors accountable for their teaching performance. Instructors, on their part, should do everything in their power to keep improving throughout their teaching career.

Learning requires willingness and opportunity to learn. Good instructional supervisors:

  1. Remove barriers to learning
  2. Create opportunities for learning
  3. Ignite and cultivate a willingness to learn
  4. Support change

Future blog posts will focus on strategies to make this happen.


Designed for program chairs in post-secondary education, this blog is about creating an environment in which instructors can learn at work, in order to provide quality instruction.

Why does it matter that instructors learn at work? In vocational, polytechnic, and college education, instructors are typically hired because they’re very good at what they teach. They’re good carpenters, social workers, hairdressers, bakers, beer brewers, lab technicians, landscape architects, accountants, and cheese makers. They might or might not be phenomenal teachers; most must learn how to teach by doing it: through trial and error, student feedback, and the occasional course or workshop.

While most institutions offer workshops and courses on how to teach, the real learning happens through practice, day in and day out, during interaction with colleagues and students. This blog is part of a research project, that looks into how this daily instructor learning at work happens and how it can best be supported.

Annemarieke Hoekstra