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Time for a meeting of minds

Committee-style discussions are a necessary evil, and can inspire or deject. To make the best of them, Mike Fielding advises a cautious but positive approach.

One of the most quoted of the John Cleese training videos is Meetings, Bloody Meetings. The phrase also describes how many teachers feel about the way their schools are run.

As a new member of staff, you'll need to find your way round the meeting culture and learn to make the most of this essential part of school life.

Meetings come in various forms, including colleagues in your curriculum or pastoral area, whole staff meetings and task groups for organisational improvement.

In all cases, certain rules apply which, for a newcomer, may not be easy to work out. For instance: will it make a difference? Or is it just a talking shop? Meetings can involve staff in school decision making. Sometimes, however, they are a charade of consultation over choices which have been pre-determined.

Even when contributions are genuinely welcomed from the chair, "consultation politics" still has its pitfalls. Who, for instance, are the individuals who always talk? What hobby horses do they ride? Meetings are the public arena for a school's power brokers to demonstrate their importance. They are also often the forum for the disgruntled to exercise a negative impact on what others, especially the head, are trying to achieve.

Other meeting "types" include the naive, who believe they only have to speak to achieve their objective; the persistent, who constantly return to the same narrow point; the tangential, who want to make a different point from the one being discussed; and the jokers, who think no meeting can succeed without their humour.

There are also those for whom meetings are merely a contractual obligation to be suffered in silence.

A meeting's effectiveness often depends on the chair. A clear agenda, papers circulated beforehand and time limits on discussion are simpl techniques. But anyone who wants to influence decisions needs to be equally well prepared.

If issues have not been thought through, meetings will ramble and either come to no conclusions or make snap decisions because of time constraints. For the new teacher, this can be frustrating and demoralising. You need to be clear about what you want to say and make sure you say it, otherwise you'll leave frustrated.

As a newcomer, there will be things you don't know, but your very naivety may help others see things differently. Your newness should not stop you speaking if contributions are welcome. If they are not, then silence may be advisable.

Listening more than you speak is good practice anyway. It enables you to gauge the way things are doing, spot the undercurrents, judge the right moment to contribute and avoid a reputation for prolonging proceedings unnecessarily. The person who produces a new point just as the session is winding up will not be popular with colleagues.

Meetings, of course, aren't just about talk. Action should follow. And that means you have to read minutes or action notes and ensure you carry out what was agreed, if it is your responsibility. You can feel pretty small at a follow-up meeting if you forgot to do your part.

Meetings can also be a source of professional development. Where they are well conducted, tackle significant issues and attended in a spirit of co-operation aimed at school improvement, a new teacher can learn from more experienced colleagues - invaluable in-service training.

Although everyone complains, few would abandon meetings altogether. When people leave feeling they've made a difference, the buzz is palpable. And your contribution could be the turning point. So make the most of them. If you approach them with a "meetings, bloody meetings" attitude, that's inevitably what they'll become.

Mike Fielding was principal of The Community College, Chumleigh, north Devon

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