When I look at my timetable for the week, it isn’t the recorder practice which happens next door first thing every Monday morning which fills me full of dread, nor the infamous Friday afternoon slot which brings about a sense of foreboding. My true timetable terror occurs shortly after school on a Wednesday afternoon.
The (unrelenting) weekly staff meeting should be a time to coordinate with colleagues, create inspirational ideas for the way ahead, and take key decisions for the future of the school. A chance to bring clarity to the chaos, and move the things forward.
However, the reality is quite different. Instead colleagues are ensnared by obligation to sit in dull rooms for hour upon futile hour with no clear direction and even less clear purpose.
And oh, how I have tried to play the game and be a good meeting-goer. I have offered ideas, taking notes, nodded at the right places, offered reassuring mutterings when it was required to do so, but no more!
The meandering, listless, browbeating, ego-stroking, management-speak synergising, vacuous staff meetings have got to stop. We can either continue to hide behind our collective coffee cups (although not Nicky… she has her own), or we can make our weekly meeting of colleagues a meeting of minds. If done right, meetings can be purposeful and energizing.
1) Meeting Requirements
The first issue which you need to address is whether a meeting is needed at all. Most schools have a weekly staff meeting scheduled at the same time each week. This means that everyone knows when the next one will be and will make themselves available. From that point of view, this
makes sense. However, a meeting isn’t necessarily needed every week, and many of the problems and much of the dullness we experience in meetings is because there is a captive audience and the time needs to be filled. Call a meeting when it is actually necessary. If you are concerned about scheduling, bearing in mind that I’ve never met a teacher who doesn’t treat their diary as almost another limb, have a regular slot for when your meeting would be each week, but only meet if there is actually something to meet about.
2) Communicate, Not Congregate
Much of the time a meeting is not needed at all. A face-to-face meeting is not the place for announcements. If meetings are being used to simply read off updates from a list or agenda, email the list or agenda instead. Meeting up is a superb way to discuss and produce ideas, but most meetings are a series of proclamations and announcements which could be communicated electronically.
The sender needs to remember to filter information. Simply forwarding vast amounts of information is not helpful and with each step the message and plan should become clearer and moving nearer to a purpose or goal. Chain emails become very complicated very quickly and your inbox is not usually the best venue for a discussion. Use email for sending documents if necessary, but, if a face-to-face meeting is not deemed necessary, keep any discussion to electronic conversation tools, such as Slack or WhatsApp, which have been designed for this purpose. For those who like the sound of their own voice, you can use the audio functions to read your list of announcements, or even create an audio recording for your colleagues to podcast on their commute!
3) Mowing The Long Grass
Meetings often focus on the minutiae, the trivial, the mundane when there are important long-term goals and projects to consider. Over the years I have spent a whole staff meeting discussing the preferred formation of the letter ‘F’, two whole meetings discussing whether to remove a dead tree from the edge of the school pond, a hour of my professional life talking about what colour bins in the playground will encourage the pupils to use them more, and a whole series of meetings entirely dedicated to replacing lunch trays with plates.
Focusing on these marginal issues means that the staff never have to focus on the monumental changed and progression that need to be made to provide our pupils with an education fit for the 21st century. The necessary, but scary seismic shifts are kicked into the long grass. True decisions mean consequences, and some of them may be bad. Therefore, busying oneself with inconsequential meetings covers the profound procrastination and anxiety we often exhibit when real, long-term development needs to be made. Meetings are often a group avoidance strategy to keep us from ‘sweating the big stuff’. Bringing the trivial to a staff meeting is often a symptom of poor delegation or a lack trust of the staff to make decision without every detail being scrutinised. By trusting your team to make their best decision, even if it is not the one you might have chosen, means that you can collectively focus on more important matters.
4) Decisions, Decisions
Too often staff meetings are used to talk about and to justify a decision that has already been made, where discussion will not change it. The sole purpose of these types of meetings is to make the decision maker feel better and make it look as though others have had an input. In a team where the team trusts the leadership this kind of pretence is unnecessary. Either be upfront about the matter and say a decision has been made and move on, or put the matter out there for true debate with an open mind. Leaders sometimes need to make unpopular choices, but a valued team will understand this.
5) Meeting Structure
When we first enter the school/ workplace we are exposed to formal meetings for the first time and what we see in those first weeks and months will likely be the pattern we follow for the rest of our working lives. It is rare for someone to challenge the structure of a meeting and ask whether it can be done better. The quality and culture of an organisation is often reflected in the quality and culture of their meetings.
Therefore ‘meeting inheritance’ is an issue in many organisations have difficulty to shake off.
Before any meeting, decide what kind of meeting it will be. In schools there are really only three types of staff meetings: Discussion leading to a decision, problem-solving and brainstorming ideas, and training to help you better at your job in the classroom. As discussed above, updates and announcements, where a single individual holds others captive but certainly not captivated, can be better communicated in other ways.
Many people in business are beginning to experiment with different formats of meetings. While many feel like gimmicks, trying something new has to be better than the current status quo. Tweaks to how things are done do not have to be big, but things like changing the setting can have a real impact. Standing meetings, where the chairs and tables are removed, have been shown to improve the pace of meetings to ensure you finish on time. Just taking the meeting outside and going on a walk with your colleagues, or going to an art gallery or local coffee shop can improve meeting efficiency and well-being (especially if the head is buying). Even something as simple as playing some music throughout the meeting can change the dynamics and improve participation.
6) Watching The Clock
Einstein taught us that time is relative, and while I commend colleagues for taking this to heart, it can mean a disorderly start to meetings. After all, what does ‘4pm’ mean? Seemingly different things to different people. For many, it means coffee in hand and finding a seat a few minutes to the hour, whereas others have the attitude that a few minutes after the hour to arrive, plus a few moments to be caffeinated and seated surely won’t hurt anyone. Try scheduling a meeting for 3:48pm, closing the door and begin promptly, so there can be no question to the correct start time.
Try adding expected amounts of time to each item of the agenda to indicate to all how much time should be spent on it. This should help to avoid ‘time creep’ and ending any meeting late.
7) Who’s Invited?
Little thought is given to who actually needs to attend a large departmental or whole school meeting, so instead everyone is expected to be there whether they have anything to gain or contribute by doing so. It depends on the type of meeting as discussed above, but meeting organisers may wish to consider inviting specific people, but also let it be know that other are welcome if they choose to attend. Because personalities and staffroom politics can get in the way of a productive meeting, sometimes it is good to invite people who work well with others and do not attempt to dominate proceedings. In our classrooms we wouldn’t allow a few extroverted pupils to domination every discussion, but this is often the situation within staff in our meetings. Extroverts classically think through their thoughts as they are speaking, where as more introverted colleagues are more likely to consider to add ideas to the discussion. Both have valuable contributions to give, but their needs to be a managed balance.
In a reverse to the invitation method above, you can have the opposite system where a meeting is announced and potential attendees can decide whether to attend. Therefore they must see the value of the meeting and the quality of previous meetings held by the same organiser will have an impact. This may help raise the standard of meetings so they become unmissable events in their own right.
Elon Musk famously said that we should walk out of bad meetings. While most of us would find this difficult to do, we should get better at giving a ‘positive no’ when asked to attend a irrelevant meeting and stating why it is not in anyone’s interest that we attend and that ‘you’ve got this’ without me.
Meetings are levers of change within a school, and therefore if the organisation is hoping to progress and improve, meetings are a necessary part of that process. However, gathering your staff together should be for a clear purpose and of benefit to all. Such gathering should not be used to stroke one’s ego or talk to two or three colleagues while the others remain silent and bored spectators. They should be the vehicles to make our classrooms more effective places to learn.
Every meeting should make everyone’s todo list shorter, not longer. Meetings should be the forum to get the big stuff done, decisions made or ideas created and shared. The venue for a team effort to improve what we do as teachers and as a school community.
Only then will our meetings meet requirements.