Scrap meeting misery. Let’s turn our get-togethers into great conversations.
Time is a school’s scarcest – and most often squandered – resource.
One of the biggest gripes from teachers and school leaders is they spend too much time in meetings, meetings that clog up time and don’t work well. Raise your hand if you think so too.
I once visited a governor’s meeting that lasted 7 hours!
Meetings are a pain point for millions of staff in schools all round the world. Disheartened, many may give up hope that meetings can be any better.
Count the cost
How much do meetings cost us? in time and treasure? given that time *is* treasure in schools?!
Start with time. Think back to the last 10 years in the school. We have 100 teachers, say, all with directed time of two hours a week for meetings, 76 hours a year. Across all staff, that’s 7,600 people hours a year, 76,000 hours over the last ten.
Next, treasure. Each hour of time costs upward of £30 an hour. That’s £220,000 a year for each secondary school. Multiplied by 3,000 secondary schools: £6.6 billion a year, £66 billion over the last decade.
We spend thousands of hours and billions of pounds every year on meetings in schools. How can we make the most of the time together?
Five Insights from Science
Time together involves the human mind and group dynamics, both of which psychology has studied for over a century. What have researchers learned that’s most useful for us? What certainties can we base our thinking on? Here are five.
Distractions disrupt our attention, thinking and learning.
Overload affects all of our minds, especially with more unfamiliar topics, unless we have very strong knowledge of the area.
Forgetting happens fast, even after a day, especially after a week, fortnight or month, unless we revisit.
Confusion: we tend to struggle to work out what the very best next step that each of us can take going forwards.
Avoidance: we tend to want to conform and belong, so are challenge-avoidant; we need thinking time in advance to prepare to share what’s hardest to share honestly.
Five feelings from long experience
‘I can’t wait to get out of here and get back to what I need to do!’
‘I don’t feel I can bring up the real issues that need to be addressed.’
‘I don’t agree with what’s being said, but we were already running way behind, so I didn’t say anything.’
‘We just talk about the same things over and over again – nothing gets sorted.’
‘I hate meetings! We have way too many, and they don’t seem to do any good!’
Mistakes I keep making
Despite knowing all this, there are still mistakes I keep making in getting people together when trying to make the most of their time. I don’t prepare well enough. Meetings I run, frankly, aren’t that enjoyable! They feel rushed, try to do too much, and lack the time for truly honest challenge. I miss opportunities to clarify the very best action that each person can take to move things forward.
Several moments each week I share with colleagues: mostly one-on-ones, but also team discussions. Throughout my time in school leadership, and still to this day, I’ve felt frustrated about how badly I’ve used other people’s time when I lead these team discussions. I feel gutted when I look back on how much of my colleagues’ time I’ve wasted through insufficiently strategic thinking, through insufficient clarity, through overstretch, not saying no and doing less better.
I feel fierce indignation about how much time together as staff in schools seems to go down the drain, with very little, or even nothing, coming out of it. I vividly remember one SLT meeting, years ago in one school I worked in, about attendance. The last time we’d spent the meeting just on attendance was the previous year. The one action we’d decided from the previous year had not even been completed a year later. It was a ghastly and gutting moment.
Five problems with meetings: low prep, joy, challenge, followup
Problem #1. Meetings lack preparation
Low preparation ahead of time, wastes others’ time together.
Problem #2. Meetings lack joy
Low enjoyment means few truly look forward to (or feel excited for) meetings.
Problem #3. Meetings lack challenge
Low challenge means crux concerns, obstacles and reality get avoided in favour of ostrich-style head-burying and a bit of an easier life – but only short-term.
Problem #4. Meetings lack followup
Low followup means little is clear on who can best do what, little traction is gained, little improves.
Problem #5. Meetings lack expertise
Low knowledge and expertise means the selection of discussions and decisions is poor.
These problems are compounded by dysfunctions further upstream in strategy, expertise and cohesion: invisible, often-unknown-and-unaddressed knowledge deficits; misaligned/divergent beliefs that are avoided; unclear remits; trust/honesty/challenge gaps; tricky team dynamics; fuzzy goals at-war-with each-other; misguided priorities; distorting incentives that warp school leaders’ time use, sacrificed for outside audiences like inspectors, trustees, governors or local authorities.
It’s time to work upstream on strategic knowledge-building and team cohesion.
It’s time, too, now, to rethink our fixation with meeting misery.
Five keys for staff time together: prep, joy, challenge, followup
Insight #1. Staff time together must require good preparation
What if every get-together required..
-A clearly assigned leader with accountability for making it work really well
-Questions prepared in advance
-A 1-pager and a 1-sentence summary for each question in advance
-The questions and summaries shared a week in advance
-A clear overall purpose prepared for any regular get-together
Proper prep prevents piss-poor practice.
Insight #2. Staff time together must be enjoyable!
What if every get-together..
-started and ended with appreciation, awe, encouragement or excitement
-reconnected with our heartfelt purpose, successes and impacts
-celebrated being together, learning together, enjoying our time together
-recognised people’s unique strengths and our peculiarities
-involved upbeat energy, moments of playfulness and laughter
-built team spirit and unity
Enjoyment helps build teams.
Insight #3. Staff time together must encourage good challenge
What if every get-together..
-revisited agreed-actions with accountability to get us to 100% follow up
-invited honest healthy challenge and constructive feedback
-shared struggles, snags, obstacles and ways to overcome them
-encouraged sharing of mistakes and lessons learned
Honesty and vulnerability can be intimate, endearing, fascinating.
Insight #4. Staff time together must ensure good followup
What if every get-together..
-took the time to shared agreed actions by the end of the time together
-shared this in writing with all participants afterwards as well
-checked understanding of the agreed actions afterwards too
-clarified understanding where anything is unclear (such as attendance and punctuality!)
-the leader of the get-together getting coaching and people’s input on how to improve
The palest ink is better than the best memory. Follow up requires good notes. Capture the actions.
Insight #5. Staff time together must build upstream expertise
What if every get-together..
-built shared knowledge about problems, causes and solution options
-built team habits and relationships
-revisited shared values, beliefs or maxims, intended impact or success stories
Without expertise, we won’t choose well what to give our attention, thinking and time to.
But expertise is highly specific and hard to develop: leading time together on misbehaviour in schools requires a very different knowledge base to leading time together on subject assessments in schools. So we need different conversations to develop ourselves in different roles.
Five enjoyable get-togethers
When we call something a meeting, it tends to bog us down in logistics, admin, minutiae, bureaucracy and sclerosis.
Instead, we could think about them as get-togethers: well-prepared, enjoyable, challenging and well-followed-up conversations. Reframing what they’re called can help us rethink their purpose.
All of our staff time together must have a crystal-clear, razor-sharp, electrifyingly exciting purpose, rather than fuzzily ‘meeting’. Get-togethers can set direction, bring clarity, sharpen focus, add insight, create unity, improve dialogue, boost team spirit, and move with speed towards goals – if well planned, well played and well followed up. When together, teams can dream dreams – and even live them.
What are the conversations we need to have together in schools? And how could we design them to improve our experience of them?
Get-together #1. Briefings
What: short, sharp, verbal, regular clarifications on what, why and how of the crucial foremost priorities for teaching staff, and all staff
Why: to bring clarity, unity, consistency, urgency
How: clear owner for regular prep and follow-up; clear purpose decided and shared; well thought-through audience; useful feedback from a coaching partner
Limits: time only for clarifying questions (to understand, not to challenge); high numbers in all-staff or all-teacher briefings
(a) overload without written clarity too; part-time staff access
(b) low follow-up for lateness/absence;
(a) combine with a written bulletin to amplify clarity.
(b) invite challenge with comments and concerns on the shared bulletin document, rather than in person when time is short.
(c) combine ‘show-me’ with closed questions and options to gather rapid input
Get-together #2. Debriefs
What: precise reviews of launches, initiatives or key moments (like INSETs/exams)
Why: to keep improving operations for next time; to trouble-shoot to resolve snags and adverse side-effects; to work out whether and what’s best to adapt
How: clear owner for prep and follow-up; clear purpose decided and shared; well thought-through audience; useful feedback from a coaching partner on joy and challenge
Limits: single-focus, rather than spread across multiple initiatives
Pitfalls: irregular so easy to neglect to do at all
(a) calendar a schedule of debriefs in 1:1s or for a team
(b) ask the magic questions: what do you think? What should we stop doing? keep doing? start doing?
Get-together #3. Problem-solving
What: deep discussions and conversations as a team or partnership
Why: understand a problem, its causes and potential solutions; share multiple perspectives and ways of thinking
How: invest deep thinking time in advance to create a summary overview of the best thinking
Limits: time-consuming, so best single-focused either on one problem, or the problem of which initiatives to prioritise and deprioritise
Pitfalls: insufficient time to deeply understand the problem and its causes; options blindness or fog.
Fixes: do less, better – fewer things in greater depth. create pairings for feedback loops.
Get-together #4. CPD
What: learning together
Why: keep building shared knowledge and expertise for better cohesion, alignment, decision-making, trust-building, problem-solving, for better impact together.
How: assign CPD curriculum leads so that all staff roles/teams have CPD sequence of knowledge well selected and sequenced over time
Limits: learning is complex, invisible, forgettable – and staff are in different positions
Pitfalls: overcomplicating; oversimplifying; underestimating required knowledge and complexity.
Fixes: plan, and seek feedback on the plan, well in advance.
Get-together #5. One-on-One chats / Line Management Chats
What: regular conversations as a partnership
Why: motivation, ownership, shared thinking, follow-up; half the air-time each!
How: choose and agree the partnerships; schedule regular chats; support new line-managers with CPD on how to line-manage well
Limits: finding time for multiple conversations
Pitfalls: overstretch, insufficient time, lack of focus, low follow-up.
Fixes: prep well, share agenda, questions and 1-pagers in advance; do less better.
APRA: four habits of valued get-togethers
- Agenda: draft, consult on and share an agenda of prioritised questions in advance.
- Prep: prepare and share vital pre-reading in advance.
- Review: review prior actions to start next time.
- Actions: agree clearly owned actions by the end of the time.
No nonsense: four rules for leaders of get-togethers
No Agenda in advance, no get-together.
No Prep in advance, no get-together
No Review of prior actions to start, no get-together.
No Actions chosen to end, no get-together.
Checklist to turn get-togethers into great conversations
How can we make briefings, debriefs, problem-solving, CPD and 1:1s into great conversations – conversations that really move things forward?
Before: Prep & Response
1. clarify the purpose with a 1-sentence summary of why we are getting together
2. prepare questions and a 1-sentence summary for each question in advance
3. share the questions and summaries in advance
4. invite input on the questions and summaries in advance
During: Cohesion & Challenge – Considerate Courage
1. start with appreciation, encouragement, inspiring awe, reconnection with purpose/impact
2. revisit agreed actions and reconnect with the big picture
3. keep to time – no tangents
4. ensure participation, listening, and no interruptions
5. encourage honesty and challenge over struggles and difficulties
6. agree actions by the end of the time together
7. end by reconnecting with purpose, seeking feedback, and/or heartfelt appreciation
After: FollowUp & Response
1. share agreed actions in writing afterwards
2. check understanding of the agreed actions and invite feedback
3. clarify understanding where anything is unclear
Review: Asking Questions, Sharing Thinking
1. What’s going well?
2. How are we preparing?
3. How are we allocating our time together?
4. How are we balancing tough honesty and upbeat energy?
5. How are we following up?
6. What should we do differently?
Time is treasure
One of the most precious (and least renewable) resources we all have is our time.
One of the most important decisions we make in our lives and in our work is how we invest our time.
One of the most important determinants of the quality of our work and our lives is how we prioritise our time.
No amount of money can buy back time.
We must invest our time together in the most valuable use of our time together.
Learning, challenging, problem-solving conversations.
Prep. Joy. Challenge. Follow up. Expertise.