Fragmented English Department?

Today’s post is inspired by a question from Sara, a fellow English teacher and blogger at

I don’t know if you’ve ever served as a department lead, but surely as a member of an English department you’ve some insight into what professional development has been most beneficial to you and your fellow colleagues. I’d love to know what Professional Learning Communities have really strengthened your department.

Ah, Sara, department chair is an honor that I dream not of. While opportunities have presented themselves over the years, I hate meetings, steer clear of squabbles, and hold an aversion to academic acronyms. “Hey, everyone, let’s form a PLC with the SLPs to identify the CCSS that’ll help ELLs with IEPs/504s score Prof.+ on the SBAC.” Sigh…

I have, though, sat through 19 seasons of professional development and worked in a variety of different departments. As a group, English teachers are funny people. All of us Almost all of us are smart, hard-working folks who love our students and yet it seems nearly impossible to get everyone on board with a new idea. We can be rather stubborn…um…opinionated. Me, included.

The best departments are filled with people who know, like, and trust each other. If the only time we spend together is 26 minutes every Wednesday before school at “collaboration,” I doubt we’ll ever have a unified, top-performing team. Cohesion takes time and that isn’t something that can be created by an outside speaker, one-day sub-release workshop, or mandated PLC.

In the best department of my career, we were led by a fellow teacher who was a true leader. Jack O. genuinely liked and respected all of us, despite and maybe even because of our quirks. He set up Friday happy hours, hosted a pre-Christmas potluck/Secret Santa at his house, and opened his room every day to our ragtag English teacher lunch bunch.

If you’re bummed that your department doesn’t have a Jack O., become one. Get things started and send an all-call email to meet at a pub this Friday afternoon. Bring identical dollar-store flower leis for your department to wear on the next spirit day or organize a group Halloween costume. Encourage your department to start every meeting with a 10-minute best practices/lesson humblebrag and resource shareout – and then you volunteer to go first.

If your department is large, break into grade-level teams. I once taught on a campus where all freshmen-level teachers met the first Monday of each month after school to eat Red Vines and share ideas for the upcoming month’s lessons. We were a PLC before the acronym existed. Attendance was voluntary and that made all the difference; in fact, the only time I’ve seen professional development have any kind of success is when the people have chosen to be there. Announce that a meeting is mandatory or – worse! – have your principal assign everyone to a required PLC that meets once a week on your prep period (yeah, that happened one year) and watch misery replace growth mindset.

Finally, I’ve accepted the fact that not all of my colleagues will agree on which programs, strategies, resources we should use. We have different personalities and teach different populations, so just as we differentiate materials for our students there needs to be room for differentiation in our professional practices. Teaching, after all, is an art, not a science.

Thanks for your question, Sara. Now that you have me thinking about these issues, next week I’ll share the all-time best and worst professional development experiences of my career. (UPDATE: That post is now uploaded here.) That outta be fun. Stay tuned…

Teach on, everyone!


8 thoughts on “Fragmented English Department?

  1. Thank you, Sara, and Laura, for addressing this issue. Every year brings new initiatives, and with them, more complaining.
    At our first faculty meeting this year, our principal explained the new changes in the schedule, and one teacher (in my department) immediately began calculating how much more free time that a particular teacher now has as a result of the changes. I struggle with trying to be positive when certain people spend their days being toxic and complain about Every. Single. Thing.
    I agree with Laura: be the change that you want to see. Try to hold onto those team-oriented goals, and do your best to rise above the negativity. Good luck!

  2. Absolutely, Michelle, a few of our colleagues can be especially…challenging. My personal rule (and the one I’d use if I were dept. chair) is that we can’t complain about something without offering a solution. And then I’d follow up with a reminder that everything we do is supposed to be about the best interest of the kids. Period.

  3. Great advice, Laura. How I wish we could follow it! My district mandates PLCs and many teachers are still resistant to the idea. One of my jobs as a coach is to make that PLC time valuable and meaningful for teachers. It’s a little harder when it is something they “HAVE” to do and not something they have chosen because they know its value.

  4. I hear ya, Melissa! Any chance the teachers could choose their own PLC grouping/topic? Maybe do a mash-up of EdCamp’s choose-your-own-adventure board and let people pick what they actually want to focus on this year. If we have to be there, at least we can choose something we want to learn about, right? Just an idea… Good luck with your task. I know it’s not easy. At. All.

  5. We have had mandated PLC’s by subject area for several years. Our asst. principal in charge of curriculum floated the idea of an “innovator’s” PLC for this upcoming year and about 10% of the faculty took that hook. I’m now in a PLC with teachers of other subjects areas who share the same motivation….a growth mindset for ourselves and our students. I’m so happy to be out of the stale PLC that I was formerly mandated to attend. It makes all the difference in the world!

  6. Absolutely, kellyeself, personal choice and surrounding yourself with innovators will make your PD time this year so much more useful. Hooray for a veep who “gets” it! 🙂

  7. Dear Laura,
    I think you would be a great dept head. In Australia, I am a science teacher where big core faculties like English, Maths and Science have about 7 teachers in schools for 1000. I just got the head teacher position at a good school in the area and am really enjoying learning from you, trying to be a better teacher to model for my staff. I sent the HT English at my current school a link to your Youtube channel, as we share resources all the time. if you ever get the chance for leadership I say, go for it!

  8. Thanks for the vote of confidence, Marianne, but I think I’ll stay in my supporting role. I admire my colleagues who step up and lead; we need great folks to represent us with admin. and keep all of us nutty squirrels in line. Kudos to you and your HT English friend for accepting the challenge! 🙂

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