Meetings of warped minds

10th January 1997 at 00:00
Staff meetings can be the bane of the teacher's life, especially if your colleagues revert to stereotype. Lindsey Thomas offers a guide to the key characters to avoid.

You are a teacher. You've gone through the training, the teaching practice, through the interviews. What for? If you're still in that "textbook" frame of mind you'll have phrases like "Because I want to help children to become valuable members of the communityto open their eyes to the world around themto equip them with the skills they will need to make their way in a changing world . . ." on the tip of your tongue (if only because you wrote them so often on application forms).

This is all very worthy but demonstrates a fundamental misconception about the education system that teaching and learning is what it's all about. Yes, the students are important, but they are there to serve a purpose. You see, schools and students exist to facilitate meetings. Without students there would be nothing to have meetings about, and then what would we do?

Meetings are the time that teachers get together as professionals, as opposed to nattering over a coffee (which can be equally effective in developing policies). And they serve a number of purposes, political, personal and social; the published agenda is only half of the story.

What are these meetings really for? On the surface they are there to improve schools, to allow teachers to share ideas. On another level they exist to allow people to exert authority, to show off, to bamboozle, to suck up, to enhance their career prospects, to have a good old chin-wag with staff they don't often see about the school. There are some people who attend meetings with the sole purpose of addressing the issues, but often it is a question of degree.

So, it's 3.30pm on a rainy Wednesday in February. You've just lost your free period to cover the most notorious group in the school, you have a cold so bad you are thinking of investing in tissue manufacturers and you need to get home in time for the washing machine repair man. You are not best placed to judge the subtleties of what is going on around you. Here, then, is a handy guide to help you identify the key players.

Name: Peter Pretentious Credentials: usually teaches an arts based subject Typical behaviour: waffles on, generally in an irrelevant way Often heard to say: words like "eclectic" and "aesthetic".

Name: Simon Smoothy Credentials: has been on lots of management courses Typical behaviour: uses lots of hand gestures and intense eye contact Often heard to say: "Can we just put that on the back burner while we unpack John's idea and flag up some of those issues?" Name: Dorothy Details Credentials: was a house wife for a number of years before joining the profession Typical behaviour: offers to take the minutes but is unable to distinguish between the main discussion and the side conversations Often heard to say: "Er, is that window as in w-i-n-d-o-w?" Name: Bob the Boss Credentials: has been a down-trodden, main-scale teacher for the past 25 years and now finds himself, by default, chairing the meeting Typical behaviour: insists on exerting his "authority" as chair when it is totally unnecessary Often heard to say: "Could you address your comments through the chair please?" Name: Marion Married Credentials: has been married 16 years to a moderately successful business man, works part-time Typical behaviour: breezes in l0 minutes late, then tells everyone about her latest consumer battle with a major high street store Often heard to say: "Can we change the order of the agenda? I've got to go at quarter past to pick up my daughter from Brownies."

Name: Michael Moan Credentials: has been sitting in the same corner of the staffroom since the reign of the previous head and doesn't think much of the "new boygirl" Typical behaviour: moans on about anything and everything, blames every problem in the school (even the amount of litter in the playground) on the increased workload created by new initiatives Often heard to say: "I'd like to see the head teach a full timetable and get all this done."

Name: Sally Stick-in-the-mud Credentials: has been teaching the same schemes of work (only she refuses to call them that) for the past 20 years, in the same classroom, usually in some remote corner of the school, and is quite happy to carry on in the same way for the next 20, thank you very much Typical behaviour: tends to dismiss anything new on principle Often heard to say: "Well, that's all very well for the rest of the faculty, but my Year 9s won't be able to cope with that, so we'll carry on doing our own thing."

Name: Brian Body-in the room Credentials: competent teacher, plenty of experience, has no interest in this meeting but is here because he has to be Typical behaviour: you probably haven't noticed him sitting in the corner quietly getting on with something else. Only speaks when called upon to do so and is on his feet before the chair has had a chance to say "meeting closed at 4.30 . . ."

Often heard to say: well, nothing really, save the odd deep sigh.

Name: Timothy Tantrum Credentials: ordinary, mainscale teacher, been at it quite a few years but has found the changes rather a struggle and spends his days looking fairly fraught.

Typical behaviour: starts off making a positive contributions but gradually becomes more and more wound up until he ends up a) slamming down his planner and storming out or b) engaging in a personal slanging match with whoever was daft enough not to spot his mood and persisted in disagreeing with him Often heard to say: "If you sat here, as I do, till 7pm every night, perhaps you'd understand the stress I'm under!" Name: Jolly Jenny (usually come in pairs) Credentials: has no idea about the subject under discussion but as she has to be there, she generally makes the best of a bad job Typical behaviour: sits as far away from the chair as possible creating elaborate doodles and amusing caricatures of the others on the agenda and writing silly notes to the person next to her Often heard to say: "Did you understand a word of that?" Name: Dizzy Doreen Credentials: has a responsibility point for this area. Spends much of her life running round like a headless chicken without seeming to make much of a difference to anything in particular Typical behaviour: tries to make enough of a contribution to justify her allowance, but as she hasn't had time to read the agenda and she has to keep nipping out of the room to check on half a dozen detainees, she doesn't actually know what's being discussed and usually misses the point Often heard to say: "Er, could I borrow your agenda, I think I've left mine somewhere . . ."

So. Those are the participants. What's the game? Meetings fall into a number of categories. Some of them are genuinely useful and informative exchanges. Some of them could more productively be contained on a round-robin (at least then you've got something to write your shopping list on and time to get it done).

There are those which take place because and only because it's on the calendar. There are those "catch-all" meetings which everyone knows should serve a purpose but somehow they go round in the same old circles, year after year; the most decisive they get is to decide to make the decision at the next meeting. Then there are those which happen when the deputy's had a flash of inspiration in the middle of the night . . .

You're going to spend a lot of your waking hours in meetings so you need to know how to handle them. The first trick is to spot your meeting, know what you're up against. Then you need to know what to do about it. Go with your ideas clear and make sure you say your piece but don't allow yourself to get frustrated when others "go into role", that's just wasted energy.

Whatever you do, make sure you take something to write on, either to make a note of your earth-shatteringly brilliant suggestions or to doodle on.

Whatever you do, watch out for the first signs of the "meeting monsters", and although no one would admit to it, we can all fall prey to creeping stereotypes - and you wouldn't want that now, would you?

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