From Chair to Instructor: Reflecting on a Transition

By Jackie Foster

I was the Chair of our English Language Center over five years ago, but I realized I had never had the chance to reflect on that experience, at least not until my current chair asked if I would mind being sharing my experiences in an interview for her research paper. 

When I reflected on my experiences in this role, I realized that the position of chair is not without its challenges. It is a unique position in that it resides in between the faculty and the Associate Dean or Dean; therefore, you are not really a faculty member, but you are not in administration. Many of the duties are not glamorous and can be quite tedious and time consuming, such as checking timetables, organizing schedules, ordering textbook desk copies and arranging meetings. Yet, the position of chair plays a vital role in supporting the teaching and learning in an ESL department. Although this support is more easily recognized in common chair duties such as conducting new teacher orientations and managing book orders, I have come to appreciate the importance of the more unstated forms of support.

The importance of an open door. In my early months of being a chair, I noticed that my office was a magnet for casual conversations, chronic concerns, pressing issues and dire emergencies. The range was overwhelming, and I never knew what would present itself.  The incomplete tasks would pile up on my desk and the unanswered email and voicemail messages would remain and multiply until the end of the day, when I could finally respond. It seemed at first that the job of an administrator actually started at 5:00pm when I could finally respond to the paperwork, but as I became more experienced, my perspective changed. Students, instructors and administrators would often apologize for interrupting my lunch or taking up a lot of my time, and the gratitude was evident. “Hmmm, I only listened,” I would think or “I only passed on a suggestion I overheard from another teacher.” I didn’t think I was exceedingly instrumental in solving problems, but having an open door was much more supportive than I had initially realized. My real work was to be there for all of those appointments and emergency visits.  The paperwork and email messages would eventually be addressed but not at the expense of faculty and students. My real priorities as a chair soon became very clear.

The importance of being heard. When students first made appointments to see me, I often wanted to fast forward to immediate solutions to their problems. “Yes, you have more of a chance to pass the course if you actually attend your classes” or “You can probably improve your grades if you start to hand in assignments.” Although most solutions sometimes seemed simple enough, I found that students wanted to be heard. By this I mean that they craved an ear that would suspend judgment and just listen. They wanted to explain the dilemmas that they were facing in their young adult lives and yes, they were quite aware of the importance of attending classes and completing assignments, but “please let me explain” was a common refrain.

These young students were encountering adult responsibilities in life that often left them unsure of how to cope. Some students experienced the death of a family member, others found themselves on the brink of parenthood and still others were grappling with their parents’ overwhelming expectations of them. I became aware of how easy it is to forget the challenges that students face in their lives and how these events influence their future decisions and shape their developing characters. Taking the time to listen allowed students the opportunity to express the conflicting struggle they were experiencing with trying to manage the lessons of life with their lessons in English. It is, as I started to observe, almost impossible to separate one from the other. 

The importance of the little things. For a short period of time, our English Language Center had to relocate temporarily and so we found ourselves with the bare minimum of resources needed to operate an English language center. We had one photocopier, one laptop, one printer, several very small whiteboards, markers, textbooks and limited access to audiovisual equipment for 30 plus teachers.  Line ups at the photocopier were sometimes long, instructors, and sometimes students, needed to print documents from the one laptop computer and printer, and many teachers wanted daily access to a CD player and a TV/DVD. With teachers feeling stretched and resources being limited, I was challenged again to reassess my priorities. Helping an instructor to locate a missing whiteboard or find a working DVD player or print and copy a set of handouts five minutes before class seemed largely inconsequential in comparison to the herculean task of finalizing a program timetable or compiling a book order, yet these seemingly understated acts of support garnered endless statements of appreciation.  I soon realized that no gesture of support for instructors and students could ever be too small.  

I suppose as a chair, you could hide in your office, close your door and focus on your own work, which there is always an infinite supply of. You don’t have the weighty preparation for lessons or the stacks of endless marking, but the multiple committee meetings and subcommittee meetings beckon from all hours of the day and email messages are relentless and incessant. The appointments with students never abate and there are always PD (professional development) days or other events to organize. Even with all of these tasks that are more visible and representative of typical chair duties, it seems that it is the subtler forms of support that students and teachers remember and value most. My time as an ESL chair taught me that you cannot support teaching and learning without first supporting the teachers and learners.