We’ve all been there. Sadly. Staff meetings get a bad rep. Often, central office meetings get a bad rep. Sometimes, PLC meetings get a bad rep, and I want to dig into WHY.
It’s week four of #IMMOOC, and this week, Katie Martin, has encouraged us to ponder the following question, “How might you create systems that minimize training and foster a culture of learning?”
Let’s pause for a moment and think about the word training. While I can see that the word training has a positive connotation in some contexts, for example, training for a marathon or potty training (Parents, can I get an amen?), it is also used to describe animals. Whether it’s obedience training or training Shamu at Sea World, the word training can be quite demeaning to humans, and yet it’s not uncommon for us to use the word training to describe the work we do with teachers.
When I picture a training, I picture a sage on the stage, someone with more authority and perceived knowledge on a subject, spending quite a bit of time talking and sharing information, so the group of people listening, can go back and “do the thing” in the same manner in which it was taught to them. I don’t picture professionals bringing their collective experience, wisdom, expertise, and knowledge of their unique learners to the table and making the best decisions they can with the information they have. Instead, it feels compliance heavy. Certainly, we must be in compliance with state and federal guidelines, and there is a time and place to learn the rules. But even when learning those compliance-y things, does it have to feel like death by meeting? Because I am going to be less inclined to know the stuff if my needs as a learner aren’t being met. The average person cannot sit and listen for longer than 7-10 minutes yet we often find ourselves in meetings where people are talking for longer than that amount of time.
And just because you said it, doesn’t mean people learned it.
For example, let’s get back to staff meetings. In the secondary realm, staff meetings often occur at the end of a school day when teachers are emotionally and physically drained. In many meetings that I’ve attended, the principal and assistant principal use this time to share information with people. In which case, I can feel the energy being sucked out of the room. I’ve felt my own soul leaving my body. It’s brutal. Many principals will say they do this instead of making the meeting more interactive because if they put the information in an email, people won’t read it. Well, perhaps we should dig into that further to figure out WHY. Are they not reading it because of how it’s written? Maybe it’s too long or not well-formatted? Maybe it’s not coming to them on the best day of the week? Maybe they simply aren’t reading it because they know they don’t have to because the principal will also go over the information in the staff meeting. That’s human nature. I have a feeling that many teachers would be more inclined to read updates if they knew it meant they didn’t have to sit through the many announcements at the staff meeting.
As Katie Martin says, “Teachers create what they experience.” Many administrators are frustrated by teachers talking at classes of students instead of engaging and empowering them. But if you think about it, that’s often what we do to our teachers.
I certainly have much to learn and have not mastered the art of the meeting, but I do lead many meetings with both teachers and principals, and I believe that if we set the conditions for good thinking and good conversation to happen, we can move big work together.
Here are some meeting strategies I’ve been trying:
Good writing leads to good thinking which leads to good conversation. Before engaging people in a dialogue, give them something short to ponder. Allow them to lift a line and write about it for a few minutes. Give people time with their thoughts. Often, this primes people’s thinking and allows the conversation to go deeper more quickly because people share the same context for the conversation. And BONUS, this is a good practice for engaging students in classroom discussion as well. It’s always good to model an effective instructional practice.
Stop talking so much. The learners who attend the meeting should talk more than the facilitator. Be thoughtful about how often you speak. Is someone taking up a little too much of the airtime? Is the conversation getting off course? Focus your energy there! You can find strategies for keeping the conversation on target in the book, The Art of Coaching Teams by Elena Aguilar.
Treat every meeting like a dinner party for close friends. The little details matter. Music playing when people enter the room, post-it notes and pens on tables, snacks and bottles of water, even a theme for the meeting if you are feeling a little cheesy. Any small touches like these can show people that you care about them and their experience with you. This is a subtle way of saying, “You are special to me, and I want this to be a special experience for you.” I also like to put pictures of students on the table when we are reviewing student evidence of learning. While we may be taking a look at numbers, numbers do not drive what we do, students do. Let’s keep their faces in our hearts and their needs at the heart of the decisions we make. This may save us from forgetting about the student experience…we don’t want kids feeling like they are under a microscope.
Laugh together even at your own expense. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Instead of focusing your energy on being perfect, focus your energy on being connected. Sometimes, that means talking about a mistake you made and how you would do something differently the next time. Other times, it means being willing to laugh about being a bit absentminded. There are no perfect people or perfect meetings. Sure, be prepared and be polished, but be a human being. Sometimes, we wonder why teachers don’t see themselves as leaders even when given the opportunity to truly lead. I wonder if it’s because we have made leadership about something that is unattainable. Let go of perfection. Doesn’t it feel good to read that? Let it go.
Define the style of conversation. Have you ever been to meetings where people talk and talk and no decision ever gets made? Has that frustrated you? You are in good company. It has happened to most of us. Send your agendas in advance, ask for agenda items from participants when appropriate, and consider labeling your agenda items with any version of the following:
Dialogue: This means we are just having a conversation. Often, when it’s the first time you are talking about something, this is a good place to start. Let people think about it and talk about it for awhile. However, be warned, if every meeting is just dialogue, people may start to feel like you are wasting their time.
Discussion: This means that we will be talking more, but this time, we are breaking down possible solutions and the pros/cons of those solutions to get more clarity on which direction we will go.
Decision: Pretty self-explanatory, but this allows people to see that we will decide today. Once I think we may be in agreement on our direction, I will run a consensus protocol to put that final stamp of approval on things. Often, I use a chart that I modified from a “fist to 5 strategy” found in, The Art of Coaching Teams. People put their names down according to their level of consensus. This is a nice way to capture everyone’s voice and level of consensus even those who aren’t as inclined to share during the dialogue and discussion.
1: I am strongly opposed to this and need to see some big changes to approve it.
2: I have serious reservations but could it accept it with some changes.
3: I have a couple of reservations about this decision, but I could let it pass without further discussion.
4: I think it’s a good idea, and I can live with it.
5: I am in total agreement with the decision.
If everyone puts their name in the 4 or 5 range, you did it! You made a decision.
I have also added a 4th way to code agenda items: learning. Sometimes, we aren’t here to talk, consider options, or make a decision. Sometimes, we are here to learn. This is my favorite agenda item of all!
Have you ever seen a well-managed classroom where the teacher is running a minute late from the copier or restroom? It happens. In many of those classrooms, since the students take ownership over the community and learning in that space when the teacher returns, attendance has been taken, plants have been watered, and students are working through the agenda. It’s magic. The same should be true of our meetings with teachers. Teachers should be a part of building our agendas and our community of learning. If something were to happen to you, they should know how to get to what they need and should feel invested enough in this work to pick up the torch and run with it.
That’s what happens when we create a culture of connection, of community, and of learning. These three things are not mutually exclusive.
No one should feel like a hamster on a wheel, a bug in a jar, or a robot. If people talk about feeling this way, these are red flags. We must choose to see these red flags and do something about it. Maybe changing the way we meet is a good place to start.