Are you drowning in meetings?

Written by: Paul Gammans | Published:
Image: iStock

Does your school or department call staff meetings for every little issue? Do you spend more time sitting around a table than on your feet teaching? Paul Gammans discusses how meetings could be structured to be more effective, efficient and productive

Over the last two or three years, I have lost count of how many meetings are in the calendar: leadership and management team meetings, staff meetings, faculty meetings, house meetings, link meetings with the senior leadership team, link meetings with my heads of department, whole-staff morning briefings, faculty morning briefings, house team morning briefings, regular CPD, research groups, individual staff appraisals, review meetings – the list goes on.

Somewhere, between attending all those meetings, writing thousands of words of self-assessment review paperwork and marking 200 books, I manage to do a bit of teaching. Sometimes.

What is even more baffling than this, however, is that no matter how many meetings we are subjected to throughout the weeks and months, there are an absurd number of staff who still want more!

So many teachers are over-reliant on meetings, almost needy in fact. They want meetings to discuss everything from the printing budget, to the stationery order, to the size of the paperclips.

I had a genuine meeting request a few weeks ago that read: “I am concerned that the pupils have become quite noisy in the corridor at lesson change over. I think we need to have an extra faculty meeting after school to discuss how we can tackle this problem.”

One quick email later I had asked everyone to make sure they told the kids to be quiet. Next day – noise was much improved.
Imagine if I had tried to call a meeting about this. I would have had to contact all 20 members of the faculty by email or run around like a muppet speaking to everyone individually. I would then have had to perform a juggling act as Dave can make Tuesday but not Wednesday, Sandra can only do Wednesday, Joel can do any evening as he’s a workaholic and so on.

Eventually we would settle on a day to meet (by which time the noise in the corridor has got three times worse) and then spend an hour debating the optimum solution to this earth-shattering problem. The result of which would be me asking everyone to get the kids to be quiet and into lessons promptly!

The other problem with extra meetings is attendance. In my faculty, I have an above-average number of teachers with additional responsibilities, including senior leadership.

Consequently, getting them to attend a scheduled meeting can be hard. In fact, despite the fact that teachers so often want more meetings, they are surprisingly good at finding excuses for missing the ones we do have! In the end, holding a “whole-team” meeting with three or four people is just not worth it. You are better off just sorting it via email.

To be honest, unless your whole team is dedicated to the same cause (subject, year group etc) then a full team meeting can be counterproductive. Large meetings are unwieldy, especially when you have several subject areas to deal with.

In 90 per cent of meetings I attend, there is no more than 50 per cent of the agenda that is relevant to me. The same used to be true of my own meetings – I would compile the agenda, covering every issue imaginable, then hold a meeting that always ran on by half an hour or more. There were often two main consequences:

  1. Too many cooks: because there were so many people present, every agenda item was open to discussion and debate from every angle as everyone wanted to get their point across and digressed exponentially.
  2. People were sat around bored or chatting, waiting for their items and falling asleep in the bits that didn’t concern them.

Time for a change

In recent years, I have adjusted my practice. Instead of calling everybody together to meet, I have instead broken my team down into several smaller groups that have core responsibility for particular areas.

Where teachers mostly work with key stage 4, they form one team. Where they mostly work with key stage 3, they form another.

Where subject teachers don’t work together at all outside a whole-team meeting, they have another. Instead of having one epic agenda which goes on for hours, I now break it down and delegate the agenda items to the relevant groups.

What we now have as a result are quicker meetings, less boredom and topics that get given the time and weight they deserve. Year 11 exams and intervention don’t overpower key stage 3 as it has its own agenda which is worked through without interference.

Nobody has to sit and twiddle their thumbs at any point as they are discussing tasks that are relevant to them.

Even when the main topic is “moderation”, or “data analysis”, this approach works as each team goes through their own marking or data. Meeting as a whole team is now the exception rather than the norm. We still have our weekly briefings all together for information, but our core business is completed far more efficiently in our smaller units.

Meetings often hamper our efficiency

People will argue that they need to get together for meetings regularly in order to increase morale and foster strong staff relationships. In translation, I have found that this effectively means “having a natter”.

There are more than enough opportunities for social interaction and we all like to spend time with our friends, but as far as I’m concerned, a meeting is for work. Otherwise I’ll go and mark another 20 books instead of taking them home.

Let me introduce you to someone. Meet Joel – the workaholic, remember? We all know somebody like Joel. Joel arrives at 7am and sits in his classroom working hard. He’ll work through break and lunch and stay after school until 7pm in the evening. There’s always a pile of books or exam papers to mark, or a lesson to plan, or a PowerPoint presentation to perfect.

Joel, being the dedicated member of staff that he is, is the kind of person who either asks for the extra meeting in the first place, or is the first to pipe up and say: “I’m staying until 9pm tonight anyway, so just tell me when and where!” in a sickeningly cheerful email. Good old Joel – can’t fault him, he’s always working.

But if you look closely at what is really happening, you may see something different. How much time does he spend working and how much time is he spending having a natter (sorry, having a meeting)? Don’t get me wrong – the vast majority of teachers work astonishingly hard and work ridiculous hours, but even so, there is a lot of time spent nattering. This is one reason why when I get a request for an additional meeting (aside from individuals wanting a one-to-one), I rarely go for it.

Instead, I defer it to the next scheduled slot. Perhaps if Joel had less meetings and spent less time nattering, he’d be less stressed and get all his work done by 5pm instead of staying until 7pm.

Sorry – like a delegate at a meeting with too many delegates, I have digressed somewhat. My point is, teaching is a high-pressure, high-workload profession where time is scarce. With this in mind, we need to work as efficiently as possible to keep our sanity intact.

Going off-site

The last, and possibly worst kind of meeting is the off-site lunch. You are probably familiar with it: as a “reward” for working hard, you can all go off to Hotel Relaxo for a “meeting”, with lunch/drinks/cakes supplied. This gets my goat for three reasons.

  1. There is nothing I can’t resolve in this kind of meeting that I can’t sort at school; in fact, in my experience people spend more time complaining about the senior leadership than they do discussing the agenda.
  2. It takes far longer than a school-based meeting as I have to waste valuable time travelling there and back.
  3. It costs a fortune! We are always scratching around to buy resources and always getting refused extra money for our departments, but somehow the school can afford to fund a jolly for 20 people at a local hotel costing hundreds of pounds! My moral compass can’t stomach it. I would rather this money was spent on the kids. Seriously, the mind boggles.

Planning and execution

Well-planned and executed meetings are essential to the running of teams at any level within school. If you are finding yourself swamped with meetings, or struggling to get everything done, try some of these suggestions for an easier life:

  1. Divide and conquer: work out which parts of your agenda relate to who and divide up into smaller groups. Have each group led by a head of department or experienced teacher and conduct several smaller meetings at the same time, rather than one long one. Issues get covered in more depth and by the right people, without worrying about running over time. This also gives staff some autonomy and responsibility, which can make them feel more valued.
  2. Streamline the agenda: does everything on your agenda need a meeting? If not, consider circulating a regular bulletin. Or if you have a briefing slot, fill the briefing with those items that don’t need discussion, are just information-delivery or dates for the diary. Save your meeting time for the issues that need it.
  3. Admin doesn’t need a meeting: for stationery orders, for example, try leaving an order form in your team’s workroom (or a classroom if you haven’t got one) with a copy of the catalogue and tell your staff to fill it in by a set date. You then sign it off, send the order and replace it with a fresh form. Saves so much time and prevents someone saying: “Can we all have a meeting to order pens?” Yes. This really does happen.
  4. Use meetings to improve teaching, learning and assessment: we always struggle to find time for moderation, marking reviews and the like, but they are incredibly important activities. The solution – use your meeting time. Rather than just sitting around debating admin tasks, use the time to moderate exam papers or up-skill your team. Again, use smaller groups – get one group to moderate key stage 3 assessments while the other moderates key stage 4, then you are doing two jobs at once.
  5. Document everything: this only works if there are clear and thorough minutes of each meeting that are shared with all. That way, if someone is absent, or involved in more than one of your smaller teams, then everybody has access to the information.

Conclusion

The thing with meetings is to do just what you would do with any part of your professional practice: continually assess your procedures to ensure they are effectively doing the job you want them to do. Even if you think everything is going just fine, thank you very much, it is worth taking a step back and asking yourself if anything could be done better.

Next time a member of your team asks you for an extra meeting, think carefully before you just dive in and agree. And the next time you think about requesting one yourself, stop and think – do you need that meeting to convince yourself you are doing the right thing? Use your professional judgement, rather than following the crowd. You may be pleasantly surprised.

  • Paul Gammans works as a faculty director in a secondary school somewhere in the UK. He has 10 years’ teaching experience in a range of subject areas and key stages, from primary to sixth form. Where necessary, names and places have been changed to protect the (not so) innocent.


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