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How to get the silent staffroom majority to speak up

There are always some who are more eager to give feedback than others but, as a leader, it's important to have access to different perspectives. Nikki Cunningham-Smith offers her tips on hearing from everyone

How to get the silent majority to speak up

We all know of the different groups of pupils in our class that we try to engage. The ones who takes up most of our time and attention tend to be those that make the most noise.

Then there are those that are actively uninterested, so you have to plan a little harder to try to get their engagement on the topic.

Then, of course, you need to factor in the high-flyers, for whom you’ll need to bring a level of intrigue and further learning to make sure they are still interested and being pushed.

Once you have planned for all of these eventualities (and these are only some of the examples), you may have run out of steam to find a way to engage those middle-of-the-road pupils.

You know the ones: they come into the lesson on time, always have the equipment they need and their homework is ready to be handed in. They work diligently throughout the lesson, no matter the subject, but they can fall under the radar.

But what happens when these personalities are replicated in a staff meeting? The silent majority can be overlooked.

When feedback is required, you will often hear the same voices. But just because some people find it easy to speak up, that doesn’t always mean that what they have to say is more valuable than someone who doesn’t say anything at all. Nor does it mean that those who say the least have no expertise or opinion on the subject.

I once remember a problem that had been plaguing the teaching staffroom for months: how to engage with some disaffected Year 11 girls.

No one was having any success, even though we were all throwing ideas and theories. However, no one thought to ask for the opinion of the trainee teacher who had been sat in the staffroom doing her work.

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She had been quietly listening to everyone’s issues and managed to deduce that the common denominator for the lack of engagement was the past papers they had been using.

The information came up during a meeting with the trainee’s mentor, who then shared the information at the next staff meeting on her behalf.

Had anyone asked for her opinion initially, they may have saved time, effort and got better results more quickly. It does highlight the effectiveness of being able to give those who feel they don’t have a voice the ability to be heard.

Here are some things to consider to allow the silent majority a level playing field:

Death by flip chart

Sometimes the go-to method of receiving feedback is to have people around the table contribute to a large piece of paper while someone scribes.

This can become the same environment as feedback in a large space, resulting in the same voices being heard. Instead, try giving people individual Post-it notes to write their thoughts on.

Contributions prior to meetings 

Why not make it a part of the school culture to release details of the topic that will be worked upon with an option to supply information beforehand?

For example, you could ask whether staff have any prior knowledge that they would like to share and be able to contribute in advance. 

Break-off opportunities

Set aside allocated spaces during sessions for smaller groups or individuals to break out into. Set up a way for staff to respond, such as providing a dedicated email address that they can share their thoughts through in real time, with the leader of the session able to receive and feed back.

Relevance

Although there will always be meetings where everyone will need to attend, whether they feel it is relevant to them or not, it is good to be aware of who actually needs to be in your meeting.

This should help retain interest and ensure higher enthusiasm from the ones in attendance, and allow greater levels of engagement. 

Buddying up 

Ask whether some of the silent majority feel that they would be able to provide more feedback if there was a designated spokesperson who could respond for the group? 

A buddy system could be beneficial for ensuring that all taking part, leaving the opportunity for more responsive and reactive dialogue.

Ultimately, making staff feel that they are in a safe environment and that all opinions are valued will hopefully help open the door to those you may not hear from so often. 

Nikki Cunningham-Smith is an assistant headteacher in Gloucestershire

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