The hell of school meetings

Tes Editorial

Tom Bennett

Every week Tom Bennett will be shouting at the laptop about some damn fool idea in education, or else he'll be writing aboutclassrooms, students, or why teaching is the most important job in the world. This week, Tom offers a comprehensive guide to making sure your meetings are as hellish as possible

You probably didn't become a teacher so you could attend meetings, but then there are a lot of things you probably didn't expect about being a grown-up. Meetings are the antithesis of what you expected life to be like once you'd left school; you imagined breakfasts of trifle and sherbet dips, and instead you somehow ended up sitting in a classroom filling out a questionnaire on homework policies.

Billy Connolly used to speak about the predictable nature of most sermons: it would start with an anecdote, and then the priest would slip in a `.and in a way, that's a bit like what Jesus was saying on the Mount.' like an awkward DJ segueing from a news bulletin about an earthquake to the latest Justin Bieber single. Most staff meetings also follow a structure you could play like a xylophone.

Here's how to make sure they're as awful as possible:

Start late

That's right, start late. That way, an hour-long meeting can become an hour and a half because five people were sitting in the staffroom waiting for the kettle to boil and laughing about how they were `going to be late for the meeting.' This is especially fun if the meeting is at the end of a long, hard day.

Kick off with a PowerPoint

Most people at a meeting don't want to be there. They don't want to get involved, and they don't want to have to contribute. So why not use one of the least memorable ways of displaying information in human history? In fact, why not kick off with Shift Happens, or a TED lecture, or a Monty Python clip with no connection to the rest of the day? Then slide stylishly into a PowerPoint crammed with more text than the Apple Store terms and conditions? Then - and this is important - read the whole bloody thing out loud. Show sympathy for your audience by saying, `I'm not going to read it all,' in a way that you imagine conveys empathy, despite the irony that you have engineered this soul-crushing moment of anti-life.

Then do the same thing for five or six more slides.

Put people in groups for `workshops'

I know a lot of teachers who are dead keen on group work, but the minute you put a table of teachers together, only an idiot would be able to ignore the obvious: two people do the work, three people talk about what they're doing later on, and one person gets a phone out. Which is exactly what kids do, incidentally, unless you somehow imagine that children are forged from finer matter than us. Usually the keenest participants are the highest in the school food chain.

Then, the feedback

I like calling it feedback, because it reminds me of the upsetting din you get when your guitar gets too close to the amp. It certainly rarely resembles the real purpose of feedback - to influence the outcomes of the meeting. Ninja-level meeting hosts can take feedback from each table, nod like a children's entertainer and say, `Great stuff, let me summarise.' before rewriting the script of what was offered. Fortunately few people are in the mood to argue because they didn't care in the first place. Why not get them to write their thoughts on a piece of sugar paper, and collect them at the end, promising to collate and display all the ideas? Why not offer a manicure? That won't happen either.

It's odd how we as a profession get our knickers in a twist about the best way to teach children, but when our tribe gathers to teach itself, we turn into clownish parodies of bureaucracy. I'm going to suggest that the remedy is, to quote Chili Palmer in Get Shorty, `Say as little as possible - if that.' They're grown-ups. They'll get it.

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