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How I became a high school department chair

Wondering if you should pursue a master’s or doctorate in education? For Karen Woods, it’s paid off in more ways than one.

How I became a high school department chair

Science department chair Karen Woods gets the reward of inspiring a love for biology in her students.

For Karen Woods, her career was going to pan out in one of three paths—she was going to be a doctor, a teacher or a ballerina. That’s what she decided in fourth grade anyway.

Despite her mind being set on medical school in college, she took a risk with a student teaching practicum and discovered a newfound love for education.

Now a science department chair at Somerville High School in Somerville, Massachusetts, Woods, 31, gets to blend her passion for science and teaching while reaping the incredible reward of impacting students’ lives.  

“I really enjoy working with teachers to help them improve their practice so that they can be the best possible teachers for their students,” says Woods, “and working on new initiatives to make institutional change to positively impact the entire school.”

Her typical day

“Though in education, there really is no typical day,” says Woods, she teaches, supervises other science teachers, and meets with them and the high school administrative team to evaluate their growth.

High school department chairs, or school administrators, share many tasks with teachers but also have many additional responsibilities. Woods loves teaching, but she sees a lot of growth in her position as an administrator.

“There is growth in this field. Many administrators with a curriculum focus go on to be assistant principals, principals, or district-level administrators such as curriculum directors and superintendents,” says Woods.

The salary range for school administrators—$35,889 to $104,612—is significantly higher than teachers’ pay—$30,987 to $70,685—according to PayScale.

How she got her start

Woods started her collegiate career as a biology major at Boston University in 2001, and a year later, she started a dual degree program with a second bachelor’s degree in secondary education with a specialization in science. 

“I was fortunate that there was an open biology teaching position at Somerville High School for the 2005-2006 school year,” she says, “and I was hired to fill that position.”

Woods would work as a science teacher for the next seven years. That was just the beginning of her career in education.

She went on to get her master’s in education from Northeastern University and completed an educational leadership program at Simmons College, which she attributes her career success as a department chair.

Woods was hired officially in 2012 as the Somerville High science department chair and is currently finishing her third year.

Her favorite part of the job

“I feel fortunate that I get to work directly with both students and teachers in my position and that I have had a positive impact on students’ lives,” says Woods.

Woods recently met up with two former students from the class of 2010, both graduates with degrees in the science field.

“They tell me that I am the one who inspired them and sparked their love for biology,” says Woods. “I cannot accurately express all of the feelings that makes me feel.”

Her biggest challenge

Working with the complexity of the educational system and its federal, state and local government regulations is the most challenging part of the job for Woods.

“Making impactful change within a school is often a slow and tedious process,” she says.

What her future looks like

With her interest in educational policy, Woods has started investigating a few different doctoral programs in educational leadership.

“My hope is that through continuing my education, I will meet other professionals and be exposed to new ideas that will open doors, provide new opportunities and define the next steps in my career path,” says Woods.

Her career advice

Interested in teaching or shifting to a role as a department chair? Woods advises you take classes, attend professional development workshops and conferences and subscribe to professional organizations. She recommends the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) for leadership and pedagogy and the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) for science.

“Life is best when you have options—do the coursework, earn the degrees and get the licenses, so you are prepared to take opportunities when they present themselves,” says Woods.

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