Short and snappy daily meetings are good for boosting morale as well as sharing information, but care is needed to make them effective, says Mike Fielding.
Some schools call it "the Shout"; others call it "the morning meeting" or "briefing". We mostly call ours "the Ten to Nine". Whatever the name, this daily gathering of staff forms an important strand in a school's internal communication.
It enables everyone to share, as quickly as possible, information about children, events and variations to routine. Reminders about deadlines, exhortations to duty staff and warnings about potential difficulties can be conveyed quickly and easily. Our meeting is also used for quick decision-making as particular issues arise.
The notices are often about children having difficulties and therefore needing particular care or those causing trouble and requiring firm handling. In five minutes there can often be l0 items. Anyone is free to contribute anything and most staff will have made an input in the course of the average week.
Why, then, do we keep asking ourselves whether it is really effective? It used to last 10 minutes but was reduced because tutors were getting to registration late. Staff do not seem to feel less in touch, so could we cut it altogether?
Certainly there are items that could be conveyed in other ways - the wipe-clear white board tends to be underused, for instance - and there are messages that apply to only a small number of staff and could be given directly.
But the morning meeting has a value beyond the sharing of information: it is an opportunity for busy colleagues to meet and draw strength from each other before they start the day's rush from one pressure to the next. In a large school, this may be the only chance for people in different departments to keep in touch. Even in our comparatively small set-up it is possible for teachers who don't use the staff room at lunchtime to go several days without meeting certain other colleagues.
It's also an opportunity to gauge the mood of staff on a daily basis and keep an eye on morale. Grumbles are vented, tempers occasionally flare and facial expressions are often a good guide to how people are feeling. It can also be a way of raising morale: for instance, we always share good news, whether it's a football team's win or congratulations on a successful event.
I try to close the meeting with something encouraging. I occasionally use the send-off from Hill Street Blues: "Let's do it to them before they do it to us."
Despite these advantages, we have to ask whether the morning meeting fulfils its core purpose of information-sharing and this opens the wider debate about in-school communication systems.
Whatever is used - printed bulletins, Today Board, notes in pigeonholes or registers, student messengers or meetings - there always seems to be someone who says: "They never tell us what's going on". "They" in this context is usually the senior management team, who may be equally annoyed because: "Nobody ever seems to remember what they've been told".
To give some permanence to what is said in our meeting, we record every item in a book which remains in the staff room. Anyone who missed the meeting or can't remember what was said can check. It's also a way that anyone who can't get to the meeting can give a message. Anything written in the book beforehand is read out.
Most schools will identify "improving communications" as a target in their management plans. Does this reflect the volume of information which teachers need to share or an increased desire to be involved? Probably a bit of both. It's now much more difficult for teachers to isolate themselves and behave as though their own classroom is the whole world. Also, the development of collegiate and corporate management styles over the past 20 years has created a culture of involvement in which everyone believes in the right to know what is going on.
That, of course, carries its own responsibility. It's all very well knowing what's happening; if you don't act accordingly then the communication is wasted. And this can be the weakness of morning meetings. Unless messages for children or changes to routine are noted at the time, they may be forgotten between meeting and classroom with resultant feelings of frustration all round.
The secret may lie in being selective about what is said. Finding the right medium for any message requires care. Unless the effectiveness of the morning information share is monitored and discussed regularly, its potential for bringing colleagues together and creating a climate in which everyone feels part of the same operation can be frustrated. Once it feels like "just another meeting", then it's time to stop and look at other ways of communicating.
* Mike Fielding is principal of The Community College, Chulmleigh, North Devon.