Lodestar of the Faculty

Summer 2012

By Fred Zilian

In the tight budget atmosphere of recent years, schools may have chosen to do without a dean of faculty or, at best, to double- hat another middle manager with this responsibility. This is a mistake. That all private schools do not have a dedicated dean of faculty suggests a lack of emphasis on the very component of the school — the faculty — that research has shown to be most important to student performance, satisfaction, and enthusiasm. 

Since the Great Recession of 2008, which placed increasing stress on heads of school to find development dollars and new students to maintain enrollment, a quality dean of faculty can be a critical player in the head’s middle management team. While the over-pressured head of school can outline the school’s mission and vision, the dean of faculty can play a critical role in ensuring the school delivers on its promises.

On the Frontline

No other group of people in the school community — administrators, staff, board, or parents — has as much daily contact with students as teachers do. The faculty — in their roles as classroom teachers, coaches, advisors, mentors (and house parents, in boarding schools) — are the frontline where the school engages its students.

Independent School Management (ISM), in its article “The 21st-Century School: Teaching Time,” describes the teacher as “the linchpin to student success.”1 It’s an apt metaphor. Research has shown that the faculty is the critical school component not only in student achievement, but also in student satisfaction. Studying countries such as China, Finland, Canada, and Singapore, Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, has indicated that industrialized countries are in broad agreement on the key role that teachers play in student achievement.2 

A study involving 2.5 million students over 20 years showed that teachers who helped raise their students’ standardized test scores appeared to have positive, long-term effects in other areas of the students’ lives.3 

In Finland, where education is highly valued and where students often top the international comparative tests, the success is linked to the quality of the teachers — who are paid well, given a high degree of autonomy, and are deeply respected in the culture. 

The primacy of teachers is clear. But in order for teachers to perform well, especially given the complexity of education and school life today, they depend upon the support and guidance they get from the administration. In an article in Independent School, David Bouton, principal of Trinity High School (Pennsylvania), maintains that “a good school is one that finds ways to unlock the change agent within teachers — so that they, in turn, can unlock the potential within every student.”4 Schools that have a dedicated, full-time dean of faculty will generally have the strongest faculty cultures, a clear sense of shared purpose among the faculty, high faculty retention, and a strong alignment between the school’s mission and its program. 

Six Main Roles of Dean

The dean of faculty has six principal roles: chief advocate of the faculty, chief cheerleader, chief recruiter, chief tender of the faculty culture, chief mentor, and chief exemplar. Different schools will give different priorities to these roles, but they all matter.

Chief Advocate

In this role, the dean must train his or her eyes to view all things through the lens of the faculty. When the school’s leadership team discusses new policy issues — for example, at the head’s weekly council meeting — the dean of faculty should be the first to articulate its implications and ramifications for the faculty. He or she must be capable of and confident in voicing the faculty perspective. This is especially important when a policy is being considered that would likely have a negative impact on the faculty’s ability to deliver the mission to the students. 

Chief Cheerleader

The dean must delight in giving hearty support to teachers — at-a-boys, at-a-girls, backslaps, vigorous handshakes, wholesome hugs, and lavish words of praise. It may sound corny, but such cheerleading matters in schools. Since teachers have a broad range of sensibilities, the dean ideally is skilled at sensing the most appropriate type of praise when a particular educator does something of note. Some may need only a private word of praise, while others are best thanked in public. Some may need a pat on the back; others may be best motivated by an appropriate gift, if justified by the accomplishment. 

As chief cheerleader, the dean must also be a first responder to any educator in distress. Among other things, the dean should make available his or her cell phone number to all faculty at the outset of the academic year. Some may never use it, but they need to know they have the option. 

Chief Recruiter

As the chief recruiter for faculty who can deliver the school’s particular mission to the students, the dean must quickly learn all the factors that contribute to the hiring of a new teacher and, more broadly, that will contribute to the overall quality of the faculty as a whole. At a school interested in minimizing outside part-time faculty and coaches, this can often be a daunting task as a particular position usually carries with it coaching — and, at boarding schools, residential — responsibilities. The head may also have budgetary constraints that he or she wishes to place on a new hire. The dean must also learn all the venues the school normally uses to publicize the job opening. 

In addition to individual hires, the dean of faculty must understand the head’s vision for the overall makeup of the faculty, and work with division heads and department chairs to fulfill that vision. This is especially important in schools that are working to change the composition of the faculty in some way — e.g., modify the gender balance or increase the diversity. 

Finally, the dean of faculty must be able and willing to endure the repetitious tedium of reviewing scores of résumés, and to respond to them promptly and professionally. 

Chief Tender of the Faculty Culture

“Faculty culture” is the sum of the dominant beliefs, attitudes, and behavior patterns of the entire faculty. At any given school, it existed before the dean assumed the position and will continue to endure after the dean’s departure. It is not easily measured and is perhaps the most overlooked factor in analyzing a school’s environment. 

This intangible, however, stands as one of the most critical factors in any independent school’s ability to deliver its mission. Faculty culture ineluctably impacts student culture, and these are the two most important components of what can be called “school culture.” Since a school’s higher, long-term goals relate to the inculcation of attitudes for life beyond the school (and college), a healthy school culture is a key driver in the formation of the school’s graduates.5

ISM has stressed the importance of faculty culture and maintains that “developing a growth-focused faculty culture is the most critical ingredient in the long-term quality of the student experience — that is, the central determinant of your students’ performance, satisfaction, and enthusiasm.”6 

A good dean of faculty can tend a school’s faculty culture in a variety of ways. He or she can:

• Assure that new initiatives percolate from educators rather than always being directed by the head. 

• Monitor and support collegiality within academic departments, as well as collegiality among academic departments. 

• Help problem-solve logistical issues — i.e., make sure that teachers do not have major problems finding volunteers, including administrators, to cover their classes.

• Support colleagues in need within and outside the classroom — and encourage others to do so.

• Find ways to get the faculty together for informal exchanges, including having meals together.

• Help orchestrate meaningful professional development that keeps faculty engaged and energized.

In short, the dean must be ever vigilant in tending the lamp of the faculty culture: he or she nurtures it, guides it, defends it, protects it, and passes it on.

Chief Mentor 

The ideal dean of faculty is not only an administrator but also a teacher with many years of experience, an obvious love of students and learning, and a genuine desire to develop the younger cohorts of educators in the school. 

Being the chief mentor is done formally in several ways. First, the dean administers the annual new faculty orientation to inaugurate a new academic year. Second, he or she administers the school’s mentor program, whether formal or informal. Finally, he or she administers the school’s faculty development and evaluation system. Informally, the chief mentor accomplishes this responsibility by keeping eyes and ears open for any opportunities to help faculty as needed. This may be as simple as a brief chat with a teacher about a new classroom tactic for using technology. It may involve personally assisting a teacher in distress or selecting the correct colleague to lend assistance to that teacher facing a personal challenge. The seasoned dean possesses the fingertip feel and experience to resolve these situations.

Good deans will check in with each teacher periodically. A useful technique is a mutually agreed-upon one-on-one chat off campus in which the dean and teacher can discuss the teacher’s experience at the school. The educator should then be allowed to speak as long as possible about such things as his or her likes and dislikes, academic and extracurricular responsibilities, particular challenges and rewards, etc. The goal is to get to know all faculty members well enough to be of help to them — and keep them motivated and invested in the school. These chats also provide invariably some previously unknown professional or personal information about the particular teacher that can help the school in managing the teacher’s career.

In addition to the more personal, informal mentoring, the dean of faculty plays a key role in teacher professional development. Familiar with the size and purpose of the school’s professional development budget and the head’s concept for its use, the dean can clarify the teacher’s professional goals, answer any questions on the school’s support, and gently shepherd forward any teacher who may be timid or reluctant in achieving these goals. The dean recognizes that the school and its students grow and develop in direct proportion with the growth and development of its teachers. 

Chief Exemplar

The final critical role the dean plays is as chief exemplar. This is done by modeling, as best as possible, the ideal educator at the particular school. The attributes of this ideal educator should already be codified in a school document. If such a document does not exist, this could be an early project for the dean, once appointed. Attributes of such an educator might include the following:

• He or she holds supreme the growth of every student.

• He or she is highly competent in his or her academic subject areas and in teaching ability.

• He or she is both collegial and collaborative.

• He or she is positive and upbeat.

Whatever personal qualities a school expects of its adult staff, the dean should embody them.


In addition to the specific roles a dean of faculty plays in a school, there are three important job parameters that must be clear.

How Much Autonomy?

The question of autonomy is crucial. The school must decide whether the dean will primarily be a subordinate of the head or whether the dean will primarily be an autonomous advocate for the faculty. In other words, will the dean be the “first servant” of the head or of the faculty? 

In the former role, the dean may be reduced to a teacher whose principal additional duty is to recruit and hire new faculty. In the latter role, the dean holds a more independent, multifaceted position in the school, loyally and energetically carrying out the head’s instructions, but also unhesitatingly informing the head when he or she is about to do something that will negatively impact the faculty. The latter model is generally in the best interest of the school.

Certainly, the dean and head of school should be aligned philosophically. A head can never tolerate a rogue dean. However, the more the faculty perceives that the dean is fully under the head’s thumb, the less effective the dean will be in fulfilling other important roles — indeed, in helping the school function as well as it can. The greater the dean’s autonomy, the more motivated he or she will be and the more likely he or she will develop the position to its maximum potential.

How Many Other Duties?

The lighter the other loads, the freer the dean will be to concentrate on his or her role as the dean of faculty. The greater the other loads — teaching, coaching, extracurricular, and residential — the less energy and time the dean will be able to devote to his or her primary duties. A school should not expect much initiative, quick and timely responsiveness, and tender love and care for faculty members if it imposes nearly full loads on the dean in these other areas of school life.

Of course, in some schools a dean of faculty has to be involved in other activities, but it is best not to underestimate the importance of the position in the school’s overall mission. The freer the dean, the better.

Dean of Whom?

The final major issue regarding the dean relates to precisely how “faculty” is defined. If it is defined in the more restricted sense as simply “teachers,” then the dean’s role is more circumscribed. In the more expansive definition, faculty would include not only teachers, but also other salaried staff who interface in some way with the students, including administrative staff in departments such as admissions, development, college counseling, business office, and communications. Including these members of the school community in the dean’s portfolio may initially ruffle some feathers, but it can also provide another outlet for an administrative staff person who needs assistance with some issue relating to an immediate supervisor but does not wish to elevate the matter to the head.

Attributes of the Ideal Dean of Faculty

What then might the ideal dean look like? What are the more important attributes desired in the dean? These may include:

• Has at least 15 years of experience in private schools with most of these being as a teacher and coach. (In a boarding school, he or she should have lived several years in a dormitory.) At least 10 of these years should be at the particular school.7 

• Has served in a variety of positions, including academic course director, department head, and at least one other senior administrative position on either the student-life side or the academic side of the school.

• Distinguished service as a teacher.

• Respected by the faculty.

• Trusted by the head.

• Proficient at perceiving and articulating the faculty perspective.

• Good at initiating collaboration among colleagues.

• Excellent interpersonal skills.

• Self-effacing.

• A strong spine.

A school can be great without a great head or great dean of faculty as long as it has great faculty who love the school, its students, and the teaching profession. However, if a school has a great head but not a great faculty nor a healthy faculty culture, it will never be a superior school. As the middle manager in charge of the faculty and its culture, the dean of faculty can help lift a good school to greatness — and help keep it there. 


1. “The 21st-Century School: Teaching Time,” ISM, Ideas & Perspectives, Vol. 34, No. 13.

2. “Teacher Quality: What’s Wrong with U.S. Strategy?” Educational Leadership, Dec 2011–Jan 2012, 42. See also Bess Keller, “Teachers Seen as Making Difference in World’s Top Schools,” Education Week, November 7, 2007, p. 8. For a study of 800 pairs of twins that demonstrated the importance of good teachers, see Debra Viadero, “Twin Study Bolsters Arguments for Value of Good Teachers,” Education Week, April 28, 2010, p. 8. 

3. See Annie Lowrey, “Big Study Links Good Teachers to Lasting Gain,” The New York Times, January 6, 2012.

4. “The Key to Unlocking Student Potential: A Collaborative Learning Model,” Independent School, Fall 2011, p. 58.

5. Independent School devoted its summer 2011 edition to the theme “Developing a Professional Culture in School.” See especially Patrick Bassett, “Towards a Professional Culture in Independent Schools,” pp. 9–12; Jonathan Howland, “Morbidity and Mortality,” pp. 24–28; Alexis Wiggins, “Doors Open,” pp. 39–42; and Hugh Jebson and Carlo DiNota, “Trust, Accountability, Autonomy,” pp. 58–62.

6. “The Allocation of Time and Your Faculty’s Professional Growth,” Ideas & Perspectives, Vol. 33, No. 9, July 14, 2008, 35. See also “New Research: The Relationship Between Faculty Professional Development and Student Performance,” ISM, Ideas & Perspectives, Vol. 34, No. 13, October 19 2009, p. 49. In his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink expounds on three key drivers: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. For an example of a school that is attempting to apply these principles in its faculty culture, see Jim Scott, “Finding Our Drive,” Independent School, Spring 2011, pp. 50–54. 

7. It’s possible that a great candidate for dean of faculty may have less than 15 years’ experience. The point is this: the more experience, the better — especially when that experience is within your own school community.
Fred Zilian

Fred Zilian is an educational consultant with Catholic School Management and also an educator at Portsmouth Abbey School (Rhode Island) and Salve Regina University. He served as the dean of faculty at Portsmouth Abbey from 2007 to 2010. He can be reached at zilianf@aol.com. See his education blog:www.zilianoneducation.com.