The problem with staff meetings (Vol. 1)

Oh dear, we really have some shocking practice in the education sector.  I have sat through too many meetings which have been either dull and irrelevant or difficult and poorly managed.  Why do we do this to ourselves?  You get a group of teaching professionals together but we are not always able to make a meeting productive or meaningful?  Why?  In this first blog, I want to get some practical issues out of the way but I think it is also valuable to think about why groups are not always able to perform as a work group.  What secret and not so secret scripts are being played out amongst a staff group?

I guess it is the word ‘meeting’ which is most problematic, perhaps we should switch to the word lecture or briefing to be a more accurate description of some of this activity.  If some middle leaders meetings had been around in the middle-ages even Dante would have thought it a strange and unusual punishment.  Why is it sometimes such a difficult forum for staff to use to share ideas and support the functioning of a school or department.  What anxieties are at work which might taint the experience?

Whose agenda is it anyway?

I guess staff meetings are called for a variety of purposes including; improved communication, problem-solving, airing of anxieties, review of practice, introduction of new policies, standardisation and pastoral issues.  However,there is an opportunity cost to having all these people in this room every week (often twice or three times) and we need to have clear outcomes for everyone involved.  Everyone needs to feel they are getting something out of it and /or that they can contribute something to it.  This is time that cannot be spent lesson planning and marking.  This is time that cannot be spent working with students, so we must think it a very important activity to distract from our core purpose.  I do understand that with a limited amount of time you are not going to please everyone in the room but there are a few things that meetings should not be:

Extended briefings.  Being talked at for an hour by the same person or same small group of people.  Does the same person need to chair each meeting?  Can this be rotated to broaden the agenda widen the voices?

Notices. Reading of emails that have already been sent.  This is my pet hate.  Thank you, I have read your email but it seems as though I am going to lose that part of my life again as you tell me exactly the same information.

Patronising responses.  Disagreement is okay we do not need to be belittled because we have a different view of an issue.  Rank does not make your voice the most important or your opinion the most worthy.

Materials. Make enough handouts and preferably distribute before meeting if you want people to have read and be able to comment on with a degree of reflection.  Another pet hate is getting loads of data at a meeting and being asked for a definitive opinion there and then otherwise the discussion will be closed.  Have the courtesy to share this stuff beforehand.

Have enough seats.  Preferably in a room that is big enough.  Yes, if you have called the meeting this is your responsibility.

Contributions. Making no time or space for questions.  With a 15 item agenda you are not leaving anytime for questions, comments or observations.  This tells me enough already.  My opinion is neither sought nor valued.  I have mentally gone home.

Discussion that goes nowhere.  Splitting into smaller groups to discuss an issue is useful but not so much if you feel the contributions are not going to have an impact or be considered as the ideas seem to drift into the ether.

How could we do things differently?

Whose chair is it anyway? Rotating chair amongst the members would get different voices heard, we are after all, all leaders of learning?

Flip the meeting.  Send out a briefing sheet before to allow more time for discussion in the meeting.

Meaningful Impact.  Ask teachers what they need.  Evaluate the impact of the meeting on the teaching and learning.  How much of what happens in a staff meeting has an impact in the classroom? It may not be true that all meetings are useless, they’re good to keep the gears of the school twisting but rarely do they meaningfully impact the learning and lives of students.

Genius, Not Endurance.  Too many meetings are to be endured and we are not able to engage the genius rather than the resilience of staff. Too many meetings focus on minutiae and housekeeping.  Could these ideas be put into a briefing sheet and can we prioritise the ideas that will have the most meaningful impact?

Having everyone in one room does make it easier to check off the housekeeping issues – policies, events, priorities, scheduling issues, operational feedback but there is also an opportunity cost of not using this group of people to develop more collegiate approaches to teaching and learning.  The internet and social media could be used to carry out the housekeeping stuff and helping us to keep the main thing, the main thing.  We need to clear the decks to focus on the primary task and mission critical goals like pedagogy, assessment and curriculum planning.

Colleagues, we owe it to ourselves to get out of this rut.  In my next post, I want to explore some of the unconscious dynamics of the team meeting and why change may be harder than we think.