Make your meetings count

Written by: Phil Denton | Published:
Image: iStock

Stop, look and listen – school leader Phil Denton offers some reflection and advice on how we can make our meetings count and ensure our time is not wasted

At whatever level we operate in school, we spend an increasing amount of time in meetings. Many will say that the further up the ladder you climb, the more time you spend in meetings. Sometimes we can find ourselves meeting about meetings. Whether you are a teacher, a teaching assistant, a middle or senior leader, we should realise that meetings use up our most precious resource, time. With that in mind it is my belief that we should look at meetings in that light, a serious investment of an expensive and valuable time-based resource.

Start with why

Simon Sinek’s simple but great book (Start With Why, 2009) discusses where we should start from when making decisions about leadership. His message is simple: start with why.

We should be clear about the purpose of meetings both in an intrinsic and extrinsic sense. Every meeting, every conversation has an impact on both parties. Therefore our meetings must reflect our wider value for the school’s mission and immediate goals.

They should be consistent with the moral compass we establish through words written and spoken. For example, in a school that focuses on aspiration, ambition and inclusion, these values should permeate each conversation about data or our pastoral approach.

Extrinsically, there must be clarity in the more immediate purpose of each element of the meeting. In a regular or focused meeting this can be achieved by leading the conversation with a series of questions to direct the discussions. Where the purpose is creativity this can be limiting, but with update meetings or meetings reviewing actions taken, this approach allows for a streamlined process which can be enhanced even more with time limits for each question. The example below is one which could help you establish and maintain the “why” throughout your meetings. Imagine a departmental line management meeting:

  • What progress has been made on actions from the previous meeting? (10 mins)
  • What did the most recent learning walk tell us about the implementation of improved differentiation in questioning? (10 mins)
  • What do the examples submitted for work scrutiny show us about the quality of student work? Please bring examples. (30 mins)
  • Any other business (10 mins)

Setting the scene

The purpose of meetings can sometimes be lost when we are running from one lesson to the next. It is important that the beginning of any conversation starts with the opportunity to set the scene by establishing what will be covered during the discussion, why and what the intended outcome will be.

On occasion this will be routine and part of a weekly process. However, with high-stakes meetings or meetings which are intended to lead to change, there can be a need to establish the “burning platform”.

This is a phrase I first came into contact with when on the Future Leaders training programme. It refers to those issues which must be resolved, as failure to do so will lead to inevitable problems of varying degrees.

Once this is established, the flow of the meeting should then reflect the motivation for the discussion. In establishing change, the “burning platform” establishes the necessity but it does not establish the methodology that will be undertaken.

Any effective methodology is ideally built on a mutually agreed course of action. Of course, this is not always possible but there are steps that can be taken to make this more likely.

One method I have used with colleagues when exploring a methodology is to first establish what the other party needs from the discussion.

For example, let’s imagine you have just watched a collection of lessons through a learning walk and there appears to be an issue with the level of pupil development following teacher feedback in books.

You then meet with a head of department or member of the team who was observed to discuss the findings of the observation/learning walk. There is a need to set the scene to explain the purpose of the meeting, which is to improve this aspect of practice and also to celebrate that which was positive too.

After praising the positive elements witnessed we can then move on to looking at ways to improve. The “burning platform” is that unless this aspect of practice changes, learning will not progress and teachers will be effectively wasting their time with ineffective comments.

We then need to establish what the colleague needs to see happen in order for this situation to improve. The need can be established through discussion – for example it may be the need to improve progress with a particular group of students.

This then leads into the dialogue which can lead to real change. Again, I believe it is pivotal that we recognise the need to change and the “need” for the colleague themselves to bring about this change in order for it to be successful.

The art of listening

As practitioners at all levels we spend a great deal of time developing our communication skills. That is we think, discuss and even role-play ways in which we can deliver messages to audiences of one or many.

However, one thing that we can overlook is the way in which we listen effectively, particularly in professional meetings where it is pivotal that all parties are at least heard.

Bernard Ferrari stresses this point in his book, Power Listening, 2012) He suggests that new ideas and fuel that can drive success are often within our colleagues and that this can be drawn out through effective listening. Ferrari gives three steps to effective listening which could be extremely valuable in promoting effective communication between colleagues. These steps are:

  • Be respectful.
  • Talk less than you listen.
  • Challenge assumptions.

So, we should be considerate of others and go into discussions or meetings with an open mind. This can be easier said than done when as the protagonists in a meeting situation we can often believe we already have the solution in our minds.

However, Ferrari would argue that this can show a lack of respect and result in a lack of real change. Listening more than we speak can draw out new approaches and also show a genuine value for the professional qualities of our colleagues. Ferrari suggests an 80/20 model in that we listen for a much greater time than we speak.

Finally, if there is one thing that is certain in every school it is that there will be a culture. A culture that will lead to belief systems and notions of “the way we do things round here” or “our kids are not capable of this”. These assumptions must be unpicked from the point of origin, raising issues around cultural beliefs which are often based on hearsay or very shaky evidence.

For example, I recall speaking to a colleague who said “the kids round here just don’t revise”. While not professing to have handled the situation expertly, I think this assumption was challenged by reviewing pupils’ progress in other subjects and contexts.

Agreeing where we go from here

The final point that I would suggest is fundamental to any meeting is to leave with a clear set of objectives to move forward with, or simply a plan for how things can move forward.

The action points should always be clear, often with clear success criteria and usually with a timeframe attached. In some creative meetings where the discussion is around generating ideas, the next steps might not be set objectives but they could be the next stage in developing ideas or solutions to current issues.

Whatever the purpose or nature of a meeting, I would argue that it is imperative that we view time spent sitting down together as a precious commodity. This is the case with all time-intensive activities that we undertake as education professionals, but with meetings we have an opportunity to set or create cultures, drive progress and share appreciation for the work of our valued colleagues.

We must make the most of the great opportunities they present but also be wary of the negative effect they can have if used without due care and attention.

  • Phil Denton is head of school at St Bede’s Catholic High School in Ormskirk. This article was written while Phil was assistant headteacher at St Edmund Arrowsmith Catholic High School in Wigan.


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