Archive for the ‘department business’ Category


My job normally does not involve very much time on the telephone.  On Friday, however, I had three pretty important phone calls:

  • I spoke with a high school director from the other side of town who is interviewing Viola for a mid-year replacement position and told him how great she is as a teacher and colleague.  After we hung up, I emailed her to say I thought it went well, and she emailed back to say that she has just been offered a maternity leave position at another school with a very good reputation.  I’m not sure what she’ll do–she had already been in touch to say she was going on the market this year and would I write a letter for her file, but these two positions came up before the real hiring season.  The school I spoke with is much, much more convenient for her (as SA is not) and I think in her position, not absolutely needing to go back to work in January, I would probably hold out for that one and if that one didn’t happen, do the regular job search for a job to start in August.  But we’ll see.
  • I also got a phone call from the IT director about a resource he’d gotten for us that the new AHS was asking about, and needed to talk him through what the AHS’s questions meant and reassure him that no one, least of all him, was in trouble.  The IT director is a good guy and highly capable, but he does sometimes see situations in an unexpected (to me) way and it often takes a lot of talking to construct some version of reality that we can both sign off on.
  • And the most important phone call was from my friend MW, who is spending the semester in Paris with her family, to say that they had gone to bed early and she had woken up in the middle of the night to a bunch of worried emails from friends.

Today I finished and uploaded my sixteenth and final 2015 college recommendation letter, just a few weeks before some of the early decisions will start being released.  We have seven more school days until Thanksgiving break.  How on earth did that happen?

The little friend

Just a brief note to say that I ended up talking with the AHS for over two hours.  There was just so much to discuss!  He’s very eager to understand how things have been done in the past, and why.  We seem to have similar perspectives about some of the directions we need to go in.  For example, the faculty evaluation process we have is superficial and legalistic–it does a fine job of documenting problems with people who aren’t going to work out, but is pretty useless at describing and affirming what basically successful teachers are doing well and helping identify and focus on particular areas in which they can improve. Because I had been part of a committee that interviewed the new AHS, I’d heard about the process he used at his previous school, and I liked his approach–it was one of the things that made me think he’d be a good choice, and I also felt that he wasn’t someone who would come bursting in and upset everyone by changing the process around right away.  There’s a lot of change happening at SA right now, and while the people who’ve been on campus all summer seem pretty energized and upbeat, I’m expecting some anxiety and freakouts when the full faculty returns.

I felt like a fish trying to describe the water it swims in, but it was a great conversation and has been followed up by back-and-forth emails sharing documents and so forth.

We also talked about the current state of the department, and the somewhat fuzzy role of the department chair, which sounds like it’s going to be clarified in the direction of more authority and more responsibility.  This works for me, although I suspect it will not work for everyone.

The casual vacancy

We did make our hire, after seeing a total of four candidates for campus visits.  (I interviewed a few additional people on the phone and one on campus during spring break.)  We saw the spousal candidate, who wasn’t the fit we were looking for (after she had another offer, I broke this news to her on the phone, as warmly and gently as possible, because she will still be a part of the SA community and I want to be welcoming).

We saw a second candidate who was energetic and engaging, but about whom we had reservations: he was a bit erratic in his communication, somewhat haphazard in his sample class (some great moments, but also some slackness), and he showed some questionable judgment while he was here.  The thing that struck me the most was that he complained freely about a dean at his current job–and went on about it well past the point at which most people not on a job interview would have stopped.

The third candidate was a newly minted M.A.T. who gave a pretty dull sample class based on a lesson plan full of inscrutable acronyms (most of which Romola and Olivia explained to me).  She got an offer from another school about a week later, though, which let me gently release her.

We were still thinking and talking about the second candidate when candidate number four came in.  She taught a solid, engaging sample class with genuine warmth and humor, and connected well with everyone she met.  We made the offer pretty quickly, and sealed the deal this week.

I’ve just emailed candidate number two to let him know, as kindly as I could, that we have made our hire.  I do think he’s a pretty impressive guy, and I enjoyed our conversations, apart from the ranty bits.  With Ivanhoe‘s support–which we had–I would have been up for what felt like the slightly risky business of hiring him, knowing that this was a person who might not get all his grades in on time or who might disappear from email for a couple of days.  But I couldn’t pick him over number four.

I wasn’t happy to tell candidates one and two that we wouldn’t be hiring them, but I am satisfied with the way I handled both–and, indeed, with the communication with candidates in general.  I followed up with everyone with whom I had contact during the process, and let them know if we wouldn’t be moving forward with them.  I let the GGE do more of this (or not do it) last year because that’s the way it seemed to work, and I didn’t have any urge to challenge the process, but I recognize now that there might not have been follow-up with people who should have been followed up with.  This year, with more autonomy, I have stepped in and done what I thought needed to be done, usually without asking permission, but keeping people informed with cc’s and forwards.  Having the authority seems to give me the ability to disappoint people as kindly as possible.

Perhaps of interest to any job-seekers reading this: we had about 150 applications for this position–local, regional, national, and international–including many that were submitted to us by agencies, but also lots from NAIS and our own website posting.  I also got a couple by reaching out to two graduate programs in the area where I have contacts.  Of the four who came to campus for the full day experience, one (the young M.A.T.) was from one of the placement agencies; the spousal candidate came through the spouse, candidate number two applied via NAIS (which is not the prettiest format for an application, but it doesn’t really matter), and candidate number four responded to our website posting.  I tried to look closely at every application because one of my explicit goals was to have a diverse candidate pool, and we did: about half of the people I contacted, and two of the four campus visitors, were people of color, one of whom is the actual hire.  She is someone I overlooked on the first go-round, actually, in part because her resume highlighted her most recent jobs in residence life at local colleges rather than her teaching experience.  After candidate two, another pass through the still-expanding spreadsheet I’d been using to keep track of applications brought her name up again.  Orsino was reading over my shoulder, and actually it was his enthusiasm that made me reach out to her via email and then phone.  So thanks, Orsino, and welcome, as-yet-unpseudonymed colleague.  Glad it’s over for this year (we think), but even gladder that it feels like a success.

Help wanted

Oh, I also did a phone interview with a local candidate.  She and this job probably aren’t the right fit for one another, exactly, but I think she’s great.  She left grad school ABD and has taught at her current school for ten years.  She has done so many interesting things at her current school–revised curriculum, started a speakers’ series, contributed to the community in different ways.  She is really looking for a new challenge, probably at a school that’s more open to innovation than her current school, and while SA is moving in some new directions and who knows what might be possible in a year or two, what we probably need and can offer right now is someone who can teach this particular tenth-grade course, and I didn’t feel right trying to entice her to come over and take a look at us–at this point, anyway.  I was pretty frank about this, but asked her to please stay in touch.

The lost princess of Oz

Pardon me for ignoring the wider world and its troubles in this space, for the most part. Everyone needs a place to natter, and this is mine.

So Dorothea got approached for, and is interviewing for, another job.  She’s happy at SA, but careerwise this would be a step up (department chair).  She has spoken to the GGE and me about whether there is a way for her to take a career step up at SA in the near future, and unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be, unless I get abducted by aliens–and actually, even if I did get abducted by aliens, I’m not sure she would be first in line to be chair: she is mostly in middle school, there are more senior people, more subject-matter experts, who come to mind as leaders of the 6th-12th grade English faculty.  I met with the GGE today to muse about it, and I think we’re on the same page–hoping we don’t lose her yet but not seeing a way to compete with this opportunity if it materializes and she decides to go for it.  I’ve wondered how we would accommodate her interest in taking on more leadership roles; I see opportunities for her to do more in her role as assistant chair for middle school English (which was created in part to give her a way to advance), and other ways she could become more of a player in the school, but I think it might be a couple of years, at least, before there’s a way to craft a new job and a title to go with it.  And she doesn’t want to leave the classroom altogether, or even mostly, nor do we want her to; she’s still more valuable to us as a teacher than in any other role.

So.  We could lose Dorothea.  I said to the GGE that if this particular job doesn’t happen, we are probably safe for a year or two, since she has a wedding to plan, plus possibly other life decisions like house-buying and so on, and might not be up for a full-bore job search as well.  But eventually she will probably decide to let her ambition take her somewhere else.

I filled out an online recommendation thing for her prospective employer, and I was appropriately effusive, even as I was aware that I was flooding them with reasons to hire her.  Sigh.  I said to the GGE that I had been hoping we wouldn’t have to hire this year, and he said, “Oh, you should always assume you’re going to have to hire.”  I suppose there’s wisdom in that–and if it ever turns out we don’t have to hire, that will probably be a pleasant surprise.  Actually, after this year, hiring fewer than three would be a relief.  One would feel like a vacation.

Musical chairs

Year two of being department chair has found me worrying less about being department chair, which has been nice. The care and feeding of the new people is a big piece of the job, which makes me wonder what it would be like not to have new faculty to deal with. We have had at least one new faculty member every year since I started working at SA: Dorothea and Viola, Maddie, Romola, Dinah, Orsino and Sebastian, and then the three new people this year.  Of those, Maddie and Viola are the only ones I’ve seen both come and go–I actually saw Viola do it twice, since she came, taught for three years, was home for a year with her baby, taught part-time for one more year, then left. (She had a long commute, which made the part-time work less doable, and she wanted to have a second baby–she’s pregnant now.)  Maddie only stayed a year and then went back to her Ph.D. program; she’s now an assistant professor at a public research university in the South.

The people I’ve seen leave include Elinor (husband’s new job in another state); another really good teacher I never wrote about here (new job closer to her home); the sixth-grade teacher who moved to an administrative position; and Alpha, the only one whose contract wasn’t renewed.  We’ve hired more people than we’ve lost, and the department is larger than it was when I came.  We’ve also had parts of our faculty’s schedules commandeered by different programs; for example, journalism was until quite recently taught by a staff member, and now it’s part of Dinah’s courseload, and another teacher I have never pseudonymed teaches mostly film.  And Lucinda, as I’ve mentioned, is teaching just two courses now.

As I look around this year, and watch the new folks get settled in, I think the most likely source of change for next year is that Romola might get pregnant and have a baby.  That would be a good thing, of course, and depending on whether she leaves altogether or just takes a leave, we might not absolutely have to make a new hire.  I think I would consider myself lucky if that’s the only disruption to our deployment next year!  It will probably be more complicated than that, though.

Why am I thinking about this now, when there is so much to think about that’s more immediate?  (I think I just answered my own question.)

Quiet loud

With all this technology that IT has been handing out to people, and the various moves, and the new folks, our department was a little behind on security for the technology.  So the week before school began, I polled the department to find out who needed laptop locks installed at their desks, and wrote an email to the very nice, highly competent woman, Iris, who handles the workflow of the security staff, laying it all out for her and for the security staffer who typically does the installations.  (It sounded like no one in IT had mentioned all the new hardware to security; I get the sense that security would want to know about all that, but feel I’ve done my part in tipping them off.)

Anyway, the woman I wrote to responded that she was creating work orders and would try to get the locks installed soon.  It hasn’t happened yet, but I haven’t been alarmed–the first weeks of school are a busy time for everyone, and the safety of people is more important than the security of equipment–especially when a lot of those people are new, young, and a bit lost.

My mistake, I guess, was not cc’ing on our email correspondence all the people whom I’d polled about their needs, because today, after two weeks of nothing happening yet, Romola wrote (and cc’d me on) a rather terse email to the overall head of security–the guy who oversees the safety of the entire campus and the over 1,000 people in it–saying that “she and Lucinda” had asked for laptop locks, this had not yet been done, and when might they expect them?

I was mortified on the behalf of the department, and on my own behalf, even though I know Romola is an adult and responsible for her own relationships with all of these people.  I thought about not doing anything, but I was afraid that the two staffers would feel caught out in front of their boss–even though I thought it was much more likely that all three of them would roll their eyes at her imperiousness.  (I also did consider the possibility that Romola was trying to take initiative and handle something without getting me involved.)  So I wrote a quick follow-up saying that I should have cc’d her and Lucinda on my original email to Iris, that Iris had generated seven work orders for locks for our department alone and probably a lot more for the rest of the campus, and that if we were contributing to the problem by constantly moving the laptops around (between rooms and also taking them home, of course), they should please let us know.  And thank you.

So now Romola probably thinks I am an interfering micromanager, and if she’s not feeling that, she’s probably feeling rebuked.  Or both!  However, she did send a warmer note thanking Iris for all her help and promising to “wait patiently.”  Still, I’m ruminating about the incident.  Is she a little blind or am I a little too touchy?  Or both?


I have just one free prep period in my own room this year.  I teach four classes in it, Orsino teaches two, and Lucinda–despite the fact that she’s only teaching two classes–teaches one.  (She is now sharing a room with my former roommate, Romola.  This is a win for Romola, because although she doesn’t get her very own room, she has about as much peace and quiet in her room as anyone in our department has–including two prep periods on her own.)  Penelope and I decided to prioritize Romola’s teaching in the room over Lucinda’s, in part because ninth graders need the structure and consistency just a little bit more than tenth graders do, and because Lucinda got lots of consideration in the scheduling of her two classes so that there would be days when she didn’t have any classes at all and would not have to come in to campus.  So there are days when Romola has the room entirely to herself, although both Lucinda and newbie Olivia teach in there too.)

Anyway, back to me–this is not very much time in my own room, and I’m learning I need to be pretty organized about what I carry with me when I walk out.  At a minimum, I take the ThinkPad and a pink folder into which I am putting, essentially, the stack that normally lives on one corner of my desk.  It contains things I need to look at, respond to, and file–I can’t file when I’m not in my room, but I can do the other stuff.  And actually I could scan many of those things and file them electronically.  Hm.  I also have separate grading folders for each of my classes, and I’m making an effort to plan when I grade, not least because I can’t rely on “when the spirit moves me” if I don’t have the right things.

I might, actually, designate a cloth bag–maybe one of the many AWP bags I have lying around–for things to go with me when I leave my desk.  That would be a helpful item.

Here we go, Week Two.

Labor Day

I like the three-day weekend part; the part I’m less fond of is the four-day week that follows.  It always feels a bit crammed.  There are only four days’ worth of classes, true, but it seems as though there are still five days’ worth of conversations, decisions, meetings, etc.

I need to pop in and visit all three of my new teachers’ classes, for example.  And I need to try to do it at times when we will be able to speak for a few minutes afterwards.  Which means that one or two of them will almost certainly be at the end of the day, which isn’t most people’s best time–but then, I am not trying to see them at their best time, necessarily.  One reason for doing this, frankly, is to give them the impression that I am taking their evaluation seriously.  My demeanor tends to express “You’re great, everything is awesome,” so I probably need something as a corrective to that.  I would rather reassure them than worry them, but I also don’t want to come across as if my main concern at this moment is reassurance.  My main concern right now is see how they are teaching in this environment, and where necessary, to help them adjust their practices so that they will have the most success possible in the first year. So they need to see that I am looking to see how they are doing right now.


Reading is fundamental

More books!

gilliesDo you remember when Isabel Gillies’ memoir of the breakup of her marriage to a poet/professor husband, Happens Every Day, was sold at Starbucks and seemed to be everywhere else, too, if only briefly?  I read it then, as a guilty pleasure on a plane, but was pleasantly surprised by her breezy, frank, highly readable prose.  Recently ran across the follow-up, A Year and Six Seconds, at the library, and it’s even better. (It didn’t seem to get anywhere near the attention of the first, though.  Different publisher, too.)  Its style is almost naïve–there’s a lot of second-person address (“Around now, you might be thinking…”), a very informal, conversational style–it almost sounds as if it was composed aloud.  I liked it, and I’m happy that (this is not a spoiler) she ends up married to someone she sounds thrilled to be with, who is thrilled to be with her.

I’m partway through several other books at once, so I’ll save those until I either finish or decide to put them aside.

Teacher and professor friends, are desk copies still a thing?  It’s hard for me to tell, since I moved through a succession of institutions, but it seems as if the whole scene has changed, all the belts tightened.  It seems to me that it used to be that I got all the examination copies I wanted, and many that I didn’t ask for–although the greatest abundance was of composition textbooks and anthologies (the office I shared at NCC was stacked with many years’ worth of sample copies left by hopeful sales reps).  Years ago, the bookstore (at GU and the other R1 where I had a lectureship) would take your order for a desk copy when you placed your order for the books.  When I got to NLNRU, I found that they didn’t do that; although course orders were (technically) due something like eight months before the first day of classes, we were on our own for ordering desk copies, and that involved visiting different publishers’ websites and making requests via web forms or fax–the sort of thing we could sometimes ask a work-study employee to do, if there was a lull.

Now, at SA, we can order through the purchasing department or buy them on our own and get reimbursed, but as far as I can tell, the school doesn’t get free desk copies from the publishers.  Maybe they do for the really expensive hardcover textbooks, but I don’t believe I’ve gotten as much as a free novel in the whole time I’ve been here (unless you count local authors doing their own publicity).  Between new teachers in 6th, 8th, and 10th grade, and continuing teachers taking on new courses, I ordered around forty books this spring!  And yet it does look like many publishers do extend the offer of free desk copies to HS teachers if someone is willing to do the legwork.    Maybe this is a way of stretching our budget a little farther?  And why not, considering that all of our students buy books (or have books bought for them, in the case of some scholarship recipients), and many of them buy new?  (I usually get the Snork Maiden new English books, but buy used or rent most of the big textbooks.)

What got me thinking about this was receiving a mailed offer from Signet Classics for one free examination copy from one brochure, and a few other brochures offering a selection of examination copies for $2.50 or $3.00 each.  The offer of a “free” copy was too tempting to resist: I ended up ordering five books, two of which could be possible World Lit adoptions, one of which will serve as a desk copy, and one of which will let me see whether I should order the Signet Classics My Ántonia next year instead of the Penguin Classics.  (It’s a few dollars cheaper, and Signet actually belongs to Penguin, but I don’t think they’re exactly the same.  It will be good to compare.)

How are desk copies handled where you teach?  Has the process changed?