I cannot commend your conduct, for it seems that your meetings do you more harm than good!
Paul (to the Corinthians)
I was going to write about how our department meetings have evolved but, radically, getting rid of most meetings is probably the most conclusive way to improve them. The best examples of improving meetings are almost always about changing meetings into something other than a meeting. Into training or development or CPD. Here’s my proposal – if you are a head of department, you should be planning for a time when the vast majority of your scheduled department meetings are no longer meetings; if you are a leader in a school, you should be working towards a day when calendared staff meetings are a thing of the past.
The timetabled, structured nature of the school day leads us to blindly accept a meeting cycle that doesn’t necessarily reflect the best way of making decisions or sharing information. Al Pittampalli, author of Read this before our next meeting, argues that regularly, mindlessly scheduled, mediocre and bureaucratic meetings ‘insulate us from the work we ought to be doing’.
When leaders are allowed to perpetuate a system where meetings act as live emails or one on one conversations with a hundred bystanders, they waste thousands of working hours. I once attended a whole staff meeting on some renovations to the school building; as many looked on in horror, staff were allowed to ask questions like Will there still be plugs at the back of my room? and Will my room still be warm in the winter? I’ve attended data and progress meetings where we read aloud quietly from ‘the data’ like some sombre spiritual experience.
Pittampalli offers some good principles for better meetings. The best meetings happen in an environment where people already know what’s going on; staff are given all the information they need so they don’t have to attend a meeting to find out what’s happening next week. In my department, I send a weekly email with dates, deadlines and information and I expect people to read it. If people need clarification on something, you can have one of those – what do you call them? – conversations. This is trickier at a whole school level but schools are often doing all they need to make staff aware of what’s going on (calendar/bulletin emails/noticeboards) and then still calling people together to reiterate messages already received in two or three different formats. The best meetings of ten or more people work to implement decisions already made, not to make decisions. If leaders need input to make decisions, they should probably seek it in a format other than a large meeting (conversations, questionnaires etc). The best meetings invite those needed and let everyone else get on with their work. I’m not saying there won’t be whole staff or department meetings where plans need to be shared. Some things are too complex for a bulletin email or a memo. But we need to radically rethink what is necessary.
Already, some schools are replacing much of the meeting cycle with regular and sustained CPD for staff. The models for this may vary but there is not an absence of research on what makes effective CPD. The Teacher Development Trust released this report which outlines the principles of effective CPD. In Creating the Schools our Children Need, Dylan Wiliam describes with some specificity what could happen in a monthly meeting to develop teachers. It would start with feedback on the previous session, where staff are gently held accountable for what they planned to work on since the previous meeting. Next there is some kind of input: perhaps a video or a chapter from a book. Finally, teachers make a plan of how to apply all this to their practice, fully aware they will have to explain what they did in the next meeting. What can seem like a pretty basic format has actually seen great success in school districts in the US. That format might not fit with what you need or the time you have but it serves to highlight that there are evidence-based ways to go about planning those valuable times when staff are together. Shared planning, subject reading and or discussing the application of evidence are just some of the things which could fill that time.
At times, Directed Time has become Mandatory Wasted Time. If we care about staff and students, we need to take a closer look at assumptions and structures which are left to fester under the tyranny of ‘the way we’ve always done it’.