By Teachers, For Teachers
Humorist Dave Barry stated that, “If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be 'meetings.'” Economist John Kenneth Galbraith quipped “Meetings are indispensable when you don't want to do anything.”
Meetings are often perceived as annoying impositions that unproductively consume valuable time. And rightly so – if you’ve ever thought this way about meetings, many fellow teachers would agree with you. After all, our time is a valuable possession when there are students to tutor, parents to call, forms to complete, lessons to prepare, and work to grade. Is it really that important to find another reason to sit around chatting with one another about professional development?
No doubt meetings have achieved a sour reputation, but at the same time there’s a great deal of power emerging from a meeting that’s run well, including effective group decisions, solid action points, professional development, team cohesion, and steps towards crafting an even better school. How then can we get the most out of our meetings?
Meetings help us do something that, at times, is very necessary to do: Physically get together and talk about something.
It’s funny, actually, how much of an exception this behavior is. As teachers we value when our students put their heads together, share their perspectives, and work together to achieve a productive outcome. But taking part in this ritual ourselves is a different story.
In this era we possess dozens of ways to send messages and share ideas with one another. But meetings – the act the meeting physically in the same room – create a space where we can speak directly to one another at the same time, read each other’s body language, share notes and materials, and generally have concord and unity in a way that other forms of communication just can’t replicate. It’s difficult to put a quantitative value on face-to-face communication, but being together greatly impacts our ability to communicate and build positive relationships with one another.
When we look at meetings like this, there is some discernable value in taking time out of an already busy schedule to get together with colleagues.
You’re busy. Your colleagues are busy. We do not want to add one more element to our schedule unless we sense there is inherent value in what we’re meeting for. Follow all of the recommendations below to ensure that you are maximizing the use of yours and your colleague’s time if you’re in the position of organizing a meeting for a team.
Do not love meetings. Thomas Sowell, an economist and author, said, “People who enjoy meetings should not be in charge of anything.” I don’t entirely agree with this, but the sentiment is true. Meetings are a means to an end; not an end in themselves. Meetings should be enjoyable experiences, but check yourself to make sure that you’re not valuing the process over the product. Scheduling too many meetings is a surefire way to make other teachers feel like you’re infringing on their time.
Have an objective. Every meeting should have a rock-solid goal. There should be something that does not exist at the beginning of the meeting that exists by the time the meeting is over. Is your group meeting to plan something, share curriculum ideas, brainstorm a calendar, resolve conflict, or answer questions? Ask yourself what is it that needs accomplishing, and make sure that you make it clear to your colleagues that this is the reason why you’re getting together.
Are there alternatives? Before scheduling a meeting, ask yourself, “Is a meeting necessary?” Take a strong look at your desired outcome, and determine how necessary it is that you actually get together to discuss and work through your content. If alternatives – like sending e-mails, working with shared documents, or scheduling short one-on-ones – work better, than ditch the meeting.
Have an agenda. If an objective is your destination, then an agenda is your roadmap. An agenda should list the topics for discussion or the necessary steps required to achieve the goal. You should have the agenda set well in advance; if possible, distribute the agenda to your colleagues for their review. This will help them feel prepared. Also, having an agenda means that during the meeting you’ll know if you’re on task or not.
Be organized. In addition to an agenda, make sure that you have any other necessary materials on hand. If there are handouts, electronic resources, posters and markers, or anything else essential to the course of your meeting, be prepared with those materials. The better equipped you are, the better prepared your team is to move forward.
Encourage voices. Why is everyone who’s at your meeting there in the first place? Maybe they were assigned, maybe they volunteered, or maybe they were recruited as part of your effort. Whatever the case may be, remember this: Everyone’s voice is important. Make sure that everyone feels comfortable sharing their perspectives, and even directly ask some quieter participants what they’re thinking. The outcome of your team will be better off when all voices are equally heard and all ideas are given equal consideration.
Have an outcome. When is a meeting over? When the desired outcome has been achieved. Just like you should have a tangible objective going into your meeting, you should have your tangible outcome achieved by the time the meeting is dismissed. Consider how you can make sure you know if your outcome is achieved or not.
Keep records. As your meeting progresses, keep a record of the items that are discussed and the courses of action that are agreed upon. Even keep track of who was present or absent. The meeting might seem crystal clear to you soon after the fact, but as time goes on, memories fade and you’ll more heavily rely on your notes to recall the essential components of your time together.
Respect the clock. No matter how important the content of the meeting is, it becomes a burden if people’s time is abused. Set a finishing time for each meeting, and make sure that you end on or before that time. If the outcome still hasn’t been achieved, talk with the team about what next step they’d like to take to complete the objective. Do not -- I repeat -- do not run a meeting longer than you forecast. Many teachers’ schedules are already constrained by bells, and respecting their time means that you respect them.
Since a meeting is often a means to an end, then what’s the end? In most cases, you’ll find that the people involved in a meeting with you require some kind of follow up action that solidifies the outcomes, decisions, or action points of your meeting.
After the meeting, try some of the following to make sure that your team stays on the same page after they leave the conference room:
Death, taxes, and meetings seem like the three inevitabilities of American professionals. While the first two are always negative experiences, the third can potentially serve as a powerful positive in your school building when they’re run effectively. After all, as teachers we’re responsible for running our classrooms in a positive and productive manner; it only makes sense that when it comes to working together, we’ll employ the techniques most conducive to helping us achieve those desired outcomes.
What do you hate about meetings, and how would you change them? Share your additional tips with us in the comments below!
Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website www.jordancatapano.us.