Please just shut up and get on with it

21st April 2000 at 01:00
I DON'T think that anyone could ever have sat down and decided to invent meetings. Take a bunch of weary teachers, add piles of marking, mix in negative media coverage, insufficient parental involvement, pressure from the Scottish Executive and any other old chestnuts you care to find. Whip up everything thoroughly and then fold in the coup de main - a meeting which achieves nothing.

The staff meeting fairly brings out the mouths. Big vivid stereotypes who play their parts with delicious aplomb. The heckler. The egotist. The he who must speak especially when he has nothing sensible to say. The idealist. The list could race on but let's draw the line somewhere. Most irritating of all is the whinger who spends most of the meeting muttering bitter comments to his neighbours. Every school has at least one, oblivious to dirty looks and darkened brow.

Then there are the crackling tones of the cynical breed who have always been there, done that, usually before you were born. They have one old message and they churn it out regardless. We're all far too polite. In other places such characters would be told to sit down and shut up.

The most valuable meeting person is the careful thinker who listens to the debates and responds with measured consideration for the good of the pupils.

Some years ago, when serving on a National Health trust board, I was privileged to see a talented facilitator in action. He sat for hours not writing a single note but listening intently. At the end he summed up not just the issues of the meeting but how the individuals on the board operated with one another. I know that such expertise is beyond any budget ever available to schools but it would pay off in terms of the development of good working relationships.

The quality of these relationships is on show at department meetings. You know the kind of thing - a wearied trek through miscellanous items. How much time is given to good practice in the classroom? If you walk, unannounced, into such a meeting what kind of atmosphere do you sense? Constructive? Creative? Is there a genuine feeling of respect for others and the will to work together? Or is it all heaving scheming and axe-grinding subplots?

What can't be seen is so hard to change. That's why it is essential - and I make no apologies for returning to an old theme - to operate in an open and consensual manner. Some teachers complain that the armour of defence is still often flaunted at school meetings. Most of us are acutely aware of the difficulties of children with challenging behaviour, yet surely we must also address the needs of staff with challenging behaviour.

One young teacher compared the very public defensiveness of his line manager to the exposed anatomy of a corpse under the pathologist's dissecting tools. He acknowledged that he felt sympathy for the guy but queried if this person's mental apparatus was appropriate for his promoted position in his school. I'm with him on that one.

Meetings in the style of big formal jamborees are not the only indicators of whether "something is rotten in the state of Denmark". Informal face-to-face interactions afford the opportunity to correct any subtle miscommunications. I know that I couldn't work in a school which operated a totalitarian state. I have become used to "open government" and an unbridled consideration of ideas regardless of whose they are.

Our rector, for instance, has just spent considerable time seeing us all individually - informal meetings where the emphasis has been on listening to and then acting on the views of staff. So, if you're gagging on your coffee because you're not so lucky, it's time you called a meeting or two. But watch out for selective deafness, it's as common in schools as hearing with two ears.


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