Department chairs stand on the front lines of education, handling a great deal of preparation work each semester. These professionals might spend all summer working on revisions to the curricula and training teachers about the changes. The start of the school year can be a rush of meeting students, on-boarding new teachers to the department, and putting together a schedule of classroom observation days, testing schedules, and budget reviews.
Department chairs are management professionals who often directly supervise the teachers and professors delivering educational content in the classroom. Depending on the skillset and ambition of the instructor, a move up into the role of department chair may be a significant step on the career ladder.
Communication skills are essential to a department chair, as these professionals must be able to seamlessly blend the wishes of the administration with the needs of students and faculty. Department chairs make up about 4% of industry positions, making this a career path with relatively few openings. Advanced education and experience are a good idea when pursuing a position as a department chair.
Job duties can vary dramatically for a department chair, depending on the learning institution. In secondary and elementary institutions, a department chair is often the person who helps with instructional support, discusses curricular requirements with administrators, and strategizes how to track learning outcomes. In colleges, a department chair might be out of the classroom altogether. Here is a brief list of the duties an employer might expect from a department chair:
In an elementary or secondary school, department chairs often spend a full day in the classroom and provide guidance on curricula development and faculty management. Some may be heavily involved in the hiring process, while others may focus more on educational development. In a college setting, department chairs may spend little to no time in the classroom, devoting more time to interfacing with administration and dealing with grading issues.
In addition to a department chair’s critical role as a channel between administrators and educators, they also must have a range of management skills to implement policies effectively. Some of the most important skills for a department chair might include:
It can take more than a decade to develop the academic credentials and experience needed to take on the role of department chair. Most institutions require at least a master’s degree in education, and a doctoral degree is preferred.
As instructors first, some department chairs may also need advanced degrees in their specific area of expertise. For example, someone teaching advanced math might need a master’s degree in mathematics in addition to their degree in education. Because of the dual requirement, the educational path to department chair is rarely straightforward.
In most subjects, an advanced degree and/or applied experience in the field is enough to supplement a degree in education. However, in many technical fields, certifications can be as valuable as a degree program or may be required alongside a degree.
The pay rate for a department chair can vary dramatically based on the type of institution, experience level, and education. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that for department chairs at the elementary or secondary level, local governments often offer the highest level of pay. They also employ very few department chairs. Below is a quick glance at average salaries for those employed in a department chair position.
For department chairs in a post-secondary institution, job growth is projected to reach 7% by 2028, which is faster than the 5% projected for all other occupations combined. Growth projections from the Bureau of Labor Statistics are based on the increasing need for higher education and population growth. More students result in the need for more instructors and management professionals to oversee those instructors.
While any job has its challenges and delights, working as a department chair has a surprising number of benefits. Those who enjoy teaching can continue to work in the classroom, putting cutting-edge educational techniques into practice and interacting directly with students. For those who enjoy the research of education, some department chair positions are more data-oriented and involve very little time as an instructor.
Summer break may mean an extended amount of time off, though many department chairs do work year-round.
One challenge facing a department chair is that job performance is often measured by outcomes over which instructors and administrators have limited control. However, developing materials that show an improvement in outcomes can be immensely satisfying.
Moving from a position as an instructor to one as a department chair means a step toward administration. Advancement opportunities might include policy positions that help determine curricula at a very high level, administrator positions such as vice-principal or principal at the K-12 level, or advancement to a dean or provost position at a university.
Like all educators, department chairs must stay current on the latest learning models, instructional supports, and regulatory changes. Some universities may require 12 continuing education credits, while others may want more or less. At the university level, continuing education may also include topic-specific classes rather than credits related directly to instruction.
Department chairs of the same subject may find online resources an invaluable tool for keeping up with the latest tools and technologies. Some may offer insight into the day-to-day struggles of the job, while others might be helpful when interfacing with the faculty.