Time is scarce in schools. Productivity is minutely managed and accounted for. But one anomaly stands out: the staff meeting. We willingly submit to losing an hour each week that might be better spent preparing lessons, creating materials, marking, teaching or just catching a breather before the next onslaught.
School leaders need to recognise this issue and take steps to remedy the situation. You can do so by considering the questions below.
Is the meeting really necessary?
If a meeting is happening simply because it is on the timetable, consider other ways of using that time. If you have nothing to say, what is the point of dragging people away from their work?
Would an alternative format work better?
In a number of situations, a meeting is simply not the right format for the issue at hand. For example, if you need a collective effort to find a solution for an issue, the problem is more likely to be solved by staff working individually.
Could you have `thought time' instead?
Try instituting an occasional 30-minute slot in which staff are expressly forbidden from undertaking any duties except thinking about solutions for teaching problems. Obviously, this requires a trusting senior management team, especially as it may not produce any concrete results. And although creativity can't be simply turned on like a tap, consider the working methods of songwriter and novelist Nick Cave, who goes to his office from 9am to 5pm each day and sits alone, waiting for inspiration to strike.
Is your message memorable?
When disseminating information during staff meetings, the chairperson knows that those present have at least heard it. But will they remember it? If to-do lists and deadlines are distributed through an email system (ideally one that automatically notifies the sender when it is opened), this frees up valuable time and saves teachers from having to consult meeting minutes for reminders of dates and duties.
Do you have your priorities straight?
If there is a real and pressing reason for a meeting, ensure that point is prioritised. It is human nature to avoid confrontation, so matters that are likely to create friction are generally saved for the end of meetings. Staff conspire in this as they don't want to hear unpalatable truths - and suddenly a discussion about the Christmas fair takes up all the meeting time. This needs to be avoided, as it can mean the difficult subject drags on for another week, leaving everyone dissatisfied.
Are you getting true opinions?
Consensus can be difficult to find when the boss is present. Just as some individuals will automatically agree with the most important person in the room, others will always disagree because of their antipathy towards hierarchy; neither is particularly useful. Then there are those who will interject to show how diligent they are or how subversive they can be. Meanwhile, others chip in simply to stop feeling bored. The more introverted members of staff may not speak at all. Could an anonymous survey better capture the mood of the group?
How long should it take?
Just because an hour has been timetabled for a meeting, this doesn't mean that an hour needs to be filled. When the agenda is light, some people will resort to monologues. Leaders need to be strong in these situations, cutting the speeches down and ending meetings early.
Is it all about you?
I have sat through too many inter-agency meetings that simply consisted of status-checking; the school leader wants his status acknowledged and "experts" from other fields want to impress. Of course, these meetings are the most pointless: if school leaders cannot devise a goals-based agenda with a defined aim beforehand, calling people away from their desks will only be a waste of time.
Gordon Cairns is an English and forest school teacher in Glasgow