Staff Meetings: Can We Do Better?

I had a conversation yesterday with a strong second year teacher. Afterwards, I thought about what types of things would have been helpful for me to know or think about when I was a second year teacher. What follows below is my view on staff meetings. Suppose we ask some theoretical high school math teacher in the U.S. the question, "Why did you become a math teacher?" Here are some 'said no one ever' types of responses:

  • "I would like to spend the better part of my twenties, thirties, forties, and fifties grading papers."
  • "I would like to teach a class where kids bring negative attitudes toward the subject matter."
  • "I want to teach a class where students will incessantly ask me, 'When will I ever use THIS in my life?' "
  • "I really enjoy staff meetings."

Let's examine the last one for a moment. Staff meetings. Despair.com has some hilarious de-motivational posters. Here's one of my favorites.

None of us is as dumb as all of us.

In my teaching experience in two very different buildings, I have been at staff meetings that were useful and productive. Unfortunately, these tend to be the exception, not the rule. A contributing factor is that the person or persons running the meeting sometimes do not follow good teaching practice. What would students do if the teacher talked non-stop, without asking for feedback, for 45 minutes? For 90 minutes? The human form is not designed to sit for extended periods of time. Staff meetings serve their function of being a way for a person to communicate information to large groups in one shot, but the problem with passive lecturing is just like a broadcast from a radio tower: if no one tunes in, what's the point?

In my building, I teach on the 3rd floor of the classroom wing. It is rare that a person walks up a set of stairs just to say hello. This means there are teachers in the building, on a staff of roughly 60, I often go without seeing for long periods of time. I ran into a teacher in the hallway last night I hadn't seen for a while, and we had a great conversation. I found myself wondering why staff meetings often do not produce high quality conversations that have impact on teaching, learning, and school culture. What prevents us (teachers) from delving into difficult issues or having productive conversations?

  • Ideas have inertia. It takes force to overcome inertia. That force is someone else piping up and saying, 'yes, I agree with that,' before others jump on board. Sometimes it's too early in the day... or too late in the day... or the person that would have agreed wasn't listening.
  • The vocal minority often do not speak for the entire staff but act as if they do. The staff becomes frustrated because the opinion being expressed does not reflect what is typical of the staff.
  • Meetings decompress to the time allotted. Saying 'we have 15 minutes to make a decision' is very different than saying 'we have 45 minutes to make a decision.'
  • Democracy tends to be a very inefficient way to govern. Power dynamics often play¬† a key role when we open up large group discussion in a staff meeting. The same good idea sounds very different (and garners a very different reaction) when it comes from the mouth of the venerable veteran as opposed to the first-year rookie.
  • And the list... like some meetings... goes on and on and on and on...

 

So... can we do better? What does better look like? Here are some ideas I have about adapting staff meetings to better serve the intended audience:

1. Seek ideas from sources online. I'm not the only person that has considered this staff meetings issue. Here's a great post on finding purpose in staff meetings. And here's another one. And another one. The World Wide Web is chock full of great ideas. Some are not so great and require a bit of sifting, but mistakes can be made in a good direction.

2. Change our perspective. There's plenty of drudgery in mathematics, for example. Many times, I have worked through exorbitant amounts of algebra to discover I made an early error and wasted an awful lot of time. Sometimes we have to endure in order to be rewarded. Staff meetings can provide valuable insight into teaching and the culture of our school building. The conversation can go places that will benefit students but we must first put ourselves in the right frame of mind.

3. Take information sessions and make them webinars. It is pretty frustrating to teachers when nothing happens to the teacher that failed to show up to the 7:00 am staff meeting. The principal 'confronts' said teacher: "Oh, you missed the meeting? It's ok, I just went over some information, catch up with me later for 10 minutes <when the meeting was 45 minutes long!>" Make a video and send the link through email. Tell teachers to watch it before the meeting. Make the meeting a productive discussion about the information in the video... which leads into my next suggestion...

4. Provide opportunities for the conversation to go where it needs to go. We've all seen the ambitious agenda, the bulleted list the administrator or presenter intends to 'cover,' but our subconscious quietly chuckles in the background knowing full well the presenter cannot possibly span the agenda in the allotted time.

5. 45 minute meeting? Do it in 25. Take the allotted time for a meeting, cut it in half, then add 5 minutes. When I share ideas on Twitter, for example, the 140 character limit pigeonholes me into being succinct. The 140 character limit forces me to focus only on the important stuff. Cutting staff meeting time down is analogous to the 140 character limit on a Tweet. Just the important stuff, please.

6. Invite staff members to speak as often as possible. Think about the typical classroom. Kids often tune out the instructor, but as soon as a kid is called to the front of the room, that kid often commands the attention of the room simply because he or she is a peer, not a viewed authority.

7. Don't waste time. Time is the most precious currency of the school and of the teacher. If a meeting is called, it better be worth it to all parties involved.

8. Have a plan. A bulleted list or an agenda is not sufficient. We should be clear about the purpose and the function of the meeting. What if an administrator walked into a classroom and the teacher was entirely shooting from the hip? Or that the teacher had not anticipated student misunderstandings or misconceptions? We should have the same high expectations for staff meetings, too.

9. Consider the man-hours that go into a meeting. On a staff of 60 teachers, for example, a meeting lasting one hour, at a rate of pay of, say, $30, means the taxpayer just shelled out $900. What was the outcome of said expense? Was it worth the expense? Did it improve learning outcomes for students? Did it improve the culture of the school? Was progress made? Ultimately, we are accountable to our customer base. In public education, it is the taxpayer.

10. Teach participants how to interact. This goes beyond 'establishing norms' to ensure respect and professional decorum. What I'm talking about is that teachers often do not receive training on group dynamics or on the psychology of group work. Understanding group dynamics can produce better outcomes from group work and alleviate some of the social friction we sometimes see after meetings conclude.

Have other suggestions? Please share.

 

 

 

 

 

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