In this blog we’ll look at the following 5 steps as ways to boost your approach to meetings.
- Schedule in advance and rarely cancel (even if the original agenda is abandoned last minute)
- Use every meeting as an opportunity to build teamship, promote key messages and highlight key information
- Define the purpose of the meeting body
- Define the structure or hierarchy of meetings in your school and make explicit to everyone
- Seek clarity in the conventional wisdom of meetings: for example, who will take notes, what will they look like, how and when will they be shared?
Staff meetings. Probably my most annoying habit when chairing them is to open with “I can’t see this one taking too long today, we’ll definitely be done by 5.” Annoying because it almost always turns out to be untrue.
I’m sincere and often mean it, but a combination of less than good chairing and agenda management, coupled with my unwavering natural verbosity, mean that we’re usually all sat there beyond 5pm and my prophetic words have not come to pass.
An obvious downside to this is losing the psychological positive-punch-of-joy that people feel when a meeting is shorter than anticipated. Even those meetings which are exceptionally engaging and enjoyable in their content, debate and thought-provocation are enhanced a notch or two with an early finish.
The trick I need to learn, and the trick I constantly try to teach myself but seemingly always forget when it counts, is to not utter such words at the start of a meeting. In fact, if you’re thinking about how to get the most out of your staff meetings this year, here are some other tricks of the trade which might be worth taking into account.
If there is one thing I have learned over the years it is that binary answers and “either – or” viewpoints are not always necessary. I’ll often read management advice or hear gurus say “don’t hold a meeting for a meetings sake.” The logic being, of course, if you don’t need a meeting then, well, you don’t need a meeting. And a lot of the time I’d agree. “Send it round by email – we don’t all need to sit there to listen to something we could have read.” You see, the argument can be developed further by those advocating this approach. And a lot of the time, I’d agree.
But its not binary. Its not quite as simple as that. Sometimes there is an alternative viewpoint.
To meet or not to meet? That is the question.
Cancelling meetings, especially last minute, can have a positive effect on people, and not gathering staff together unnecessarily can be important on wellbeing and mental health. But I’ve also observed the opposite. Frequent meeting cancellation causes confusion (“is there a staff meeting this week or not?”I can’t keep up with all the changes.”) and a lack of consistency can be just as unsettling on wellbeing and mental health as cancellation can be helpful.
I’ve also noticed that when I’ve tried to call less staff meetings and tried to rely on circulars, memos, emails and staff bulletins, the teamship suffers. Communication feels less. So, sometimes, if we have an agenda that is cancelled last moment, I don’t cancel the staff meeting. I let it run and use the time differently. Going through upcoming dates, giving a general “state-of-play” talk about the budget, the SIP, or recent correspondence can be very valuable. The rhythm of staff meetings isn’t disrupted. The opportunity to talk together is sustained. The chance to slow down, take stock and reflect is amplified. And, quite often, the opportunity for an early finish and the psychological boost that gives is there for the taking.
View every meeting as an opportunity to build the team
How well your senior leaders, managers, teachers, and support staff talk to one another is crucial to creating a productive, efficient, and collaborative environment. Without clear, consistent communication, your teams will be less effective and confusion and misalignment will increase. Getting your staff meetings and other meetings right is part of this equation. Someone once told me that the art of communication is over communication. So any opportunity to bring people together is an opportunity to reinforce key messages, keep everyone on the same page and helps the team retain key information, ensuring that everyone is heard and understands the message. If you add clarity as an additional layer on top of all of this: clarity of purpose, clarity of roles, clarity of agenda and clarity of outcomes, then you are well on your way to getting the most of of your staff meetings.
Crucial to know. Crucial to make sure that everyone knows. What is the purpose and point of the staff meeting? And I’m talking about something far deeper than simply whether or not the meeting has an advance agenda.
For years I never gave this a second thought. We just got everyone together and sometimes we had an agenda. Sometimes we went through dates. Sometimes we had some training. Sometimes we’d make a plan. Sometimes we’d reflect on how an aspect of school was working. The staff meeting was sometimes attended by everyone. Sometimes only by teachers. Sometimes only by full time staff. Sometimes just who was there because of which day of the week we were holding it.
It wasn’t actually an effective way of working.
My advice is to be explicitly clear with yourself and the staff, right from the outset. For example, I’ve set up a hierarchy of meetings in my schools to help add clarity. The staff meeting is now defined in purpose as a communication mechanism. The staff meeting is not for CPD or training; they’re called training sessions. The staff meeting is not a decision making body. Debate and decisions are not taken in staff meetings: decisions are communicated in staff meetings, the debate having taken place elsewhere. Staff meetings are for everyone: all staff. The word “meeting” implies a coming together (physical or virtual) where staff can look into the whites of each others eyes, and togetherness and teamship is forged in that camaraderie.
Structure / hierarchy of meetings
In my schools we now operate our schedule of meetings with this model
|Staff meeting||All staff in the school||Communication.|
|Task and Finish Group Meeting||Task and finish groups are established for our various workstreams. They are convened only when necessary and work to a brief, or terms of reference. Some projects are relatively small – review and improve arrangements for brining children in that the end of lunchtime – and some are huge e.g. a review of the curriculum. |
Membership of the task and finish group is open to all, and the timescale for the project is set out in the terms of reference. The group manages itself, choosing a project lead from within its membership to co-ordinate. The group has two purposes: (i) review and recommendation; (ii) implementation
|Review and recommendation.|
The group meets to review and prepares a recommendation report on the project matter. e.g a “First Aid Policy” task and finish group may meet to review the existing policy, feedback on staff views and research on best practice; and to prepare a recommended new policy for the school.
Once the recommendations are accepted, the group will meet to oversee the implementation of the project. Once implemented, the group disbands.
|Steering Group Meeting||This group comprises all senior and middle leaders. The group meets to receive reports and recommendations from task and finish groups and is the decision making body for greenlighting recommendations. |
In addition, the group meets to hear information which is disseminated to them from senior leaders. The group may be asked for feedback and views on some of this information, but it is not a decision-making body for anything beyond the task and finish group recommendations.
|Decision making. |
In respect of any reports and recommendations from task and finish groups, the Steering Group will be asked to make a decision whether or not to accept the recommendations. If accepted, they confirm to the Task and Finish Group that they may proceed to implementation.
The Steering Group will be asked for views and feedback on information and strategic plans from the Senior Leaders.
Information disseminated from SLT to Steering Group.
|SLT||This group comprises the EHT, HoSs and senior teacher.||Decision making.|
The ultimate decision making body in the school.
Not all meetings of decision making bodies will necessarily result in a decision having to be made. It is important at the outset to specify whether or not the meeting is convening to make a decision. This is one of the best pieces of advice I can give, and is one of those nuggets I wish I’d known earlier in my career. I’ve sat in so many meetings where there is endless dialogue and a lack of clarity about what outcome is being sought. If it is a meeting to chew the fat – so be it. There is plenty of value in letting meetings explore options. If it is a meeting where we want to come away with a clear answer on something, state it from the outset. “We are meeting today to decide on X.” If the conversation shows no sign of stopping or starts to become circular, end it and call for a show of hands.
This is where the beauty of the task-and-finish-group model really comes into its own. It knows it is not a decision making body. It has the freedom to review, discuss, debate, take views, invite feedback and prepare something which is then looked at in detail by another body, the decision makers. The decision makers are freed from the logistical and operational work of trying to arrive at a suggested policy or outcome, instead they are able to focus on whether or not a recommended course of action is strategically right for the school. It separates out the different purposes of meetings which sometimes become entangled and lead to a slowness and frustration.
There is still space in this model for ad-hoc meetings, key-stage meetings, TLR team meetings and team briefings.
A word on CPD
Split out training from staff meeting ideology, even if the time of the session is the same. Make the distinction and make it explicit. Clarity of purpose is the golden thread running through this blog. If we’re gathering together to learn about sign-a-along communication from an external speaker, it is training and we’re not gathering to make decisions or to feed in our views about policy areas. Everything has value, be it CPD, feedback and input, decisions, implementation, and, monitoring and evaluation. But unless we’re clear which of these areas we’re tackling in a meeting, they can become confuddled and the ensuing discombobulation is not effective practice.
Clarity, clarity, clarity
So if clarity of purpose is central to effective staff meetings, as well as good time management and the bringing together of people, so too are some conventional wisdoms – we’ve already explored that meeting for the sake of meeting is a double-sided coin, for example. Agendas shared ahead of time are always useful. We’re back to clarity aren’t we. If we’re bringing people together its incredibly helpful if they have advance warning of what its going to be about. It gives time for them to gather anything that is required, give some forethought to any areas that may be discussed and of course, allows for ample preparation. Preparation, too, is a key area to get right. Nothing says “unprofessional” more than an underprepared person trying to lead or chair a meeting. Having that person create and share an agenda helps avoid this situation.
Notes or minutes are another oft-quoted characteristic of the effective meeting. Some words on this. Deciding in advance who will take the notes is always a good idea. Its almost always best if these are not taken by a participant in the meeting, and certainly not by the person chairing. Bringing a school administrator along is one solution; if its a whole staff meeting, and the administrator is attending in their own right, they may still be the best skilled person to do this job; but check that they’re comfortable with this. Some schools rotate the duty around each staff member each week so that it doesn’t fall on one participant all the time. Be clear about the style of the minutes – verbatim and records of conversation are rarely required and yet so often captured. Do you require a record of this detail, or will a log of bullet-pointed actions suffice?
I like to make sure that minutes are shared widely, and quickly. These are obviously the first area to review and agree at the beginning of the next meeting, but get them out as soon as you’re able to, especially if they detail agreed action points for participants or records of decisions. We put our minutes – all minutes for all meetings – onto the school sharepoint. So even if you’re not part of the Steering Group you can still access the records of the meetings. I believe in open Government; transparency is always best if your school promotes values of inclusion, a collegiate mindset and a strong sense of team.
If your current approach to school staff meetings needs to be refreshed, try implementing the suggestions featured in this post. Did you find the ideas listed in this blog helpful? Perhaps you have some insights of your own. Share them with Manx Max in the comments section below.