A few weeks back, New York City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said that principals would not be required to attend district meetings this coming September. The reasons behind the move seem calibrated to the individual needs of school buildings: Let the principals focus on the new school year, teachers, students, and parents without being pulled away for district business. All makes sense.
But the move also raises an important concern: When gathering groups of educators, how can that time be used most productively? And when it isn’t productive, is the best answer to kill the meeting?
In our work at Ed Direction, a practice area of the Cicero Group, we consistently hear from educators across the country that they need more time to meet with families, mentor those new to the profession, plan engaging lessons, review student work, and assign grades. Many educators have written about bad meetings in blogs and articles. Perhaps Patrick Lencioni, the author of Death by Meeting, says it best: “bad meetings not only exact a toll on the attendees as they suffer through them, but also cause real human anguish in the form of anger, lethargy, cynicism, and even in the form of lower self-esteem.” Meetings can be deadly!
But before we say, “Yes, let’s take the work online with email!” it is worth pondering the challenges behind “asynchronous systems” of communication where individuals connect on their own timeline through email. In a recent New Yorker article, “Was E-Mail a Mistake?” Georgetown University professor Cal Newport outlines the shortcomings of asynchronous systems of communication, noting: “The era that will mystify our grandkids is ours—a period when, caught up in the promise of synchronicity, we frantically checked our in-boxes every few minutes, exhausted by the deluge of complex and ambiguous messages, while applauding ourselves for eliminating the need to speak face to face.”
Sometimes meeting together is the most efficient way to get things done! Indeed, an effective meeting is a core element to collaborative school improvement. To get there, the solutions require good leadership and insights from improvement science.
Good meetings are fundamental skills of an effective school
At Ed Direction, we work with schools of all kinds (especially schools in a turnaround situation) to improve teaching and learning. In our school improvement work, we emphasize that collaboration is an essential part of the day-to-day work of effective schools. And a fundamental element of productive and efficient collaboration requires effective meeting practices.
Our four indicators of productive and efficient meeting practices are below:
- Intentional: Teams commit to how they will work together, including clearly defined roles, responsibilities, and protocols that promote productive dialogue.
- Data-driven: Data are used to signal what is working for students and what may need to be adjusted to increase learning and growth.
- Action-oriented: Teams prioritize meeting objectives that require action during and after they meet; if a meeting’s objective is simply to inform, it can be an email.
- Reflective: The quality of a meeting is the responsibility of the team. Opportunities to learn and grow as individuals and a team are discussed at every meeting.
Perhaps New York City Public Schools needed to abolish certain meetings. But a blanket moratorium on meetings for a month doesn’t seem particularly conducive to improving schools. Just because you don’t open your inbox for a month doesn’t mean that you aren’t receiving emails. You’ll just have a mess when you return. Wouldn’t it be better to simply utilize the available tools well and establish parameters for how you’re going to manage emails?
As we work with school systems, we have learned some practical lessons:
- Before a meeting starts, participants deserve to know why they are meeting. We suggest teams always have a stimulus for the meeting that frames the purpose and desired outcome. This decreases the likelihood that individuals will leave grumbling under their breath, “why were we just meeting?” It is a valid question, and the less apparent the answer, the more frustrating the experience.
- Agendas are a helpful and underutilized tool. A simple solution for most teams to improve meeting quality is always to have an agenda. We created software to simplify meeting planning and follow up, and the first thing we do with teams is to construct an outcome-based meeting agenda template. Teams appreciate knowing that action items, agendas, and follow-up communication is taken care of in the most painless way possible.
- If you can’t clearly and concisely answer the questions, “What do we need to accomplish in this next meeting?” and “Who do I need in order to accomplish this task?” then it isn’t time to meet. This doesn’t require cancelling the meeting. Just postpone it, at least until you’re ready.
- Not every meeting is created equal. In-person meetings can be the perfect setting for collaboration and working through complicated issues. In fact, done well, these can be the ticket for improving schools. Delivering a message that requires nuance and ensuring the audience doesn’t misunderstand what is being communicated: perfect for a meeting. Updating professionals on basic changes to policies or outlining a set of initiatives: send that with an asynchronous email. The point is that good leaders will know when and why to bring people together.
We applaud NYC Schools Chancellor Carranza for making a clear decision about meetings, especially if that has been non-productive collaborative time. For any leaders, we hope you’ll have the courage to make similarly impactful decisions. But please remember that getting rid of the meeting doesn’t eliminate the issue. When you do meet, make sure your meetings are intentional, data-driven, action oriented, and reflective, and that you utilize agendas and can explain the stimulus for the meeting. Your teams will thank you!