Leadership - Meetings matter: make them count

7th February 2014 at 00:00
Turn ineffective gatherings into a forum for inspiring the very best teaching and learning

Is any element of the school timetable more likely to be despised by teachers than the staff meeting? That hour or so at the end of day when, if the situation is handled badly, the loudmouths spout off, the maligned get even and the quiet or uninterested stare out of the window and plan their weekend.

It shouldn't be that way. When organised and run effectively, meetings are an essential element of successful schools. They are a forum where agendas should be set, directions plotted, issues raised and vision re-established. They should be where achievement is celebrated and best practice shared.

So how do you make meetings an effective part of everyone's day rather than a wasted hour in already busy schedules?

A first step that schools can take is to ring the changes in their meeting schedules from time to time to avoid stagnation. Be careful not to change things so much that people cannot plan ahead, but switching the time and day of a meeting each term can be refreshing.

Beyond that, it is all too easy for meetings to become predictable and, worse still, an occasion for people to deliberately get on each other's nerves. The best schools write ground rules, including the following:

- Have a timed agenda - restricting the time for each item ensures that the meeting does not drag on and focuses conversation on the most important points.

- Avoid "cheap shots" - genuine issues deserve to be aired, but point-scoring or pettiness should be banned.

- Start on a positive - begin by getting people to speak up about the things that have gone well since the last meeting.

- Rotate the chairman - this avoids one person dominating and can be helpful for training future leaders.

- Focus on teaching - avoid administration or business issues, instead emphasising teaching, learning, assessment and curriculum matters.

- Don't impose on personal time - meetings held outside the school calendar only damage morale and breed resentment. Nothing positive will come of them.

One leader at a very successful primary imposed these rules and more to great effect. Knowing that what teachers talk about influences whether a school succeeds or not, she decided that meetings needed to be entirely about teaching, learning and assessment. Business could easily be covered by staff briefings, the staff noticeboard and the e-learning platform.

She also decided to rotate staff meetings from one classroom to the next, with the first item on any agenda being the host describing why they organised the room in that way, how they involved the students in classroom management and what they intended to do next on the display boards. The rest of the staff were then asked to comment on one aspect they particularly liked in the display and why. Once every teacher had had a go, discussion moved to communal spaces within the school, such as corridors.

This intervention cost nothing, set the tone for changed discourse in staff meetings and led to discussion about the best use of teaching assistants in the school.

Although this example is from a primary, it is easy to see how the same approach, slightly modified, could apply in secondary schools, with departments taking it in turns to host and explain. It is also easy to see how meetings for particular departments or phases of education could be organised along similar lines.

What the above establishes is a framework in which every teacher can have a voice and partake in proceedings in a structured way. Rather than picking on individuals and asking what they think, prompting fear and embarrassment in some, these formal opportunities enable quieter staff members to prepare and have their say. They also ensure that the more vocal staff members have a purpose and focus for their enthusiasm to talk.

By prioritising teaching and learning, providing structured speaking opportunities and being careful to monitor comments and ensure items don't overrun, you can transform school meetings from an irritating obligation into a vibrant and productive forum for school success and teacher development.

This is an edited version of the chapter "M is for Meetings" from The A-Z of School Improvement: principles and practice by David Woods and Tim Brighouse, published by Bloomsbury at #163;24.99. To claim your TESS subscriber 20 per cent discount, visit www.bloomsbury.comeducation and use code GLR 8RW


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