Making the most of meetings

I recently read and enjoyed this post from @curricteamlead on the subject of meetings, which encouraged me to reflect on meetings I have attended, and led, over my thirty year career in schools.  I have sat in both unproductive and energising meetings, and I have to admit to chairing my fair share of the former as a Head of Department, Head of Sixth Form, deputy head and head.  If I could live through my career again I think I would handle many meetings quite differently.

It occurs to me now that when a group of people assembles in a room for a professional purpose – a meeting or a training event, for example – there needs to be some benefit to the fact that they are all physically together.  If, in effect, they are just expected to listen to messages transmitted to them, why do they need to be there at all?  Why isn’t this an email, a document, a video they could watch in their own time?  If this is a broadcast, rather than interaction and exchange of views and ideas, it seems to me a wasted opportunity.

When I work with groups of teachers or leaders in this post-headship phase of my life, I try to include interaction from those present wherever I can.  Even if I am asked to give a keynote, I would much rather plan in some opportunities for individual reflection, some pair or small group discussion and debate, rather than simply speaking at those present.  If they are gathered with other professionals they already know, or with educators they don’t yet know, there should be the chance to learn with and from each other, and not just from me.  I hope that some of what I say may resonate, encourage the audience to think, and perhaps to try something they might not have considered had they not been in the room at that time, but I want them to listen to, learn from and contribute to the learning of their fellow participants, too.  And I listen to and think about the words they offer, and recognise that I have learnt a good deal about education, and about educational leadership, from my experience of working with teachers and leaders since I left headship nine years ago.

So how can we get the most from meetings and professional gatherings so that we all benefit?  These are my thoughts:

  1. Meetings and training events need to be carefully planned and thoughtfully structured.  We would expect meetings certainly to have agendas, circulated in advance so that those present can prepare themselves, mentally and practically, for whatever is to be covered.  If you are responsible for compiling such an agenda, ask yourself: are your own items dominating, or have others had a fair and reasonable chance to contribute? Is the order of the items sensible, with the most crucial issues covered earlier on when the group is fresher, and the later items able to be deferred to another meeting if the timing does go awry? Can you help with the timing/pacing of the meeting by suggesting time limits for each item, and is the meeting chair strong enough to use these time limits to keep the meeting moving?
  2. When planning a meeting or event, can you be clear at the outset what you want to achieve by the end?  Just as in a lesson, rather than focussing on the activity to be covered, can you give careful thought to the learning that you hope will emerge?  What do you want those present to think about/be able to do as a result of being there?  How is that best achieved?
  3.  It is worth considering how receptive and responsive you are as a meeting chair.  If you want real engagement and involvement there needs to be the opportunity for members of the meeting or the event to consider key questions, to reflect individually, in pairs or small groups and exchange views and opinions, perhaps to provoke and challenge each other, but in a professional, supportive and productive way which leads to development in our thinking.  Can you gather ideas from those assembled and use whatever is expressed in a constructive and helpful way, even if – in fact, especially if! – it is not what you hoped to hear?  It may not be appropriate for decisions to be taken in a meeting, but the discussion within the meeting, robustly recorded and subsequently carefully considered, should be used to inform such decisions.
  4. Think about how much of your meeting time focusses on the operational rather than the strategic or developmental.  If the relatively low-level operational tends to dominate, consider scheduling in occasional strategic meetings with one-item agendas, perhaps led by different members of the group.  This could be an opportunity for all involved to give thought to, exchange views on and ideas about, something fundamental, something you can really get your teeth into, which will make a difference to how the team and the school operate, and the learners benefit.
  5. Use minutes/action points/recorded outcomes appropriately to ensure that what was considered and learnt is captured, remembered and used.  If those present can see that the gathering was productive, that their voices were listened to and that this led to something worthwhile, their contribution to future meetings and events is likely to be more committed and energised.  Consider how you can harness that collective energy.

What do you think?  If you have suggestions about how you believe meetings and professional events could be more productive, please comment below.  Can we perhaps share positive experiences and ideas about how we can make the most of meetings?

Thanks for reading and considering this.

(PS: Could you really not just put this in an email? If you have 3 minutes to spare, have a look at this brilliant short video from Thomas Benjamin Wild (@tombwild on Twitter)!)

6 thoughts on “Making the most of meetings

  1. Fabulous article- whenever I have led meetings I have always typed up an agenda, followed by minutes. Dates and times need just passing to colleagues on a piece of paper and not gone through meticulously. Time for reflection is key and forward planning to next term is always useful because then it ‘clears the ground’ ahead. As you say , treat meetings like lessons .


    1. Thanks, Fiona – I appreciate your comment!

      Re: minutes, for SLT meetings we used Action Points instead – very brief bullet points (usually max one side of A4) with actions (& the initials of the person responsible) in bold, and decisions in italics. We’d start each meeting by quickly zipping through the previous meeting Action Points to make sure we’d covered what we planned (or transfer it to the next set of Action Points if necessary).

      I like this piece in the Financial Times, by Tim Harford: and his comment, “A good meeting is a good meeting less because of what happens at the time but because of what came before & most importantly what comes after.”

      Have a good summer break!


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