Dean of Faculty John Taylor seats himself in the conference room before anyone else arrives and quietly sips his mate. Many believe that drinking yerba mate is good for the soul, and can actually be a form of meditation or reflection—simultaneously resting and stimulating the mind. If this is true, then it’s a perfect time for mate, as one by one department chairs join him around the table for their weekly symposium, which is sure to include some intriguing conversation.
In years past, to be a faculty member at an independent school quite often literally meant working independently in one’s own classroom, and as for “chair,” that title was sometimes more honorific than substantial. These days, however, isolationism has become defunct on a global level; it is the same at Deerfield, and Taylor and the chairs agree, that’s a good thing. Today, an interdepartmental sharing of ideas, methodology, and pedagogy is taking shape. “We bat around ideas,” Taylor says modestly. “We talk about how to make the teaching at Deerfield better but we don’t
necessarily set policy— I think of our team as providing software to the institution as opposed to hardware.” “Batting around ideas” is a bit of an understatement though, since chairs are leading the charge for some innovative projects that are underway, in addition to other new responsibilities. “I see chairs as ambassadors and translators between the administration and the teachers,” Taylor says. “Historically, being a chair could be a lonely endeavor; now we are shifting the focus, and asking our chairs to be
instructional leaders and work together as a team. It’s a challenging job,” Taylor adds. “Chairs are playing a critical role, and providing a link between faculty and administration, but sometimes it’s difficult to be in the middle.” Responsibility for supporting the chairs and enabling them to be as effective as possible falls to Academic Dean Peter Warsaw, but he is not alone in the effort. “The work we do in our weekly symposiums and the advances we facilitate are people focused,” Warsaw explains, but Warsaw and Taylor also provide input from a programmatic standpoint, and
equate the weekly symposium to a classroom for adults. “The symposiums give us an opportunity (and time) to explore what’s going on outside of the ‘Deerfield bubble,” Taylor says. “Chairs are discovering that the best professional development is often colleague to colleague, while simultaneously acting as ‘antennae’ for their departments.” Warsaw draws on a familiar mechanical metaphor to explain his curricular goals: “Think of a school as a vehicle powered by a program, its internal combustion engine. Faculty are the
pistons moving up and down—working hard— within their departmental cylinders, with ideas and pedagogies acting as spark plugs. But if the pistons aren’t attached to the crankshaft (i.e. the school’s mission), then the vehicle won’t move. Conversely, if all systems are linked—faculty, pedagogy, mission, and program—then we can move forward and further the work of the school, to the benefit of our students.“
Firing on All Cylinders For the past five years Ben Bakker has served as chair of the Science
The alumni journal of Deerfield Academy