Thursday, February 20, 2014

"Meeting" Our Needs

Our profession is unique in how various our different chores and roles can be. To risk stating the obvious, in a given week, a teacher may work like a graphic designer, a school  nurse, a strategic planner, a researcher, a project manager, a mediator, a writer, and an interior designer in addition to their primary role of care-giver. This means that we each need a multitude of skills to do our work. Our weekly one hour team meetings are a tool that support us in all of these roles.While we have had a lot of training to become teachers, running effective meetings is not usually part of that. In the past, team coordinators  had some specific training about facilitating meetings, but we still see how all of our meetings could do more, so we had an opportunity to reflect on our meetings, how they work, and how they can serve us.

Last year, for the first time, the board approved two days each year when the center will close so that teachers can do professional development.This year, our work will be to support teachers as they find their path to in-depth project work with young children. Friday's early release focused on meetings, which are a tool for all of our work, and can therefore support us as we pursue more depth in our curriculum.

Our center puts children and their families at the center of our work. In this spirit, I called upon our families to share with us their collective wisdom about what makes a great meeting, and used their input to design our time together on Friday. Since they work in a variety of fields, their advice served us in all the various ways we meet.

We heard from sixteen parents and I distilled their seven pages of wisdom into a few key ideas. I added to these ideas a few of my own, and we had a lot to talk about. Here are the major themes.

Meet with intention.
There are different sorts of meetings: information sharing, decision-making, problem-solving, or planning. One parent suggested that we know ahead of time if we're going to have a "blue-sky" meeting or an "in the weeds" meeting in advance, and plan accordingly. Some folks suggested that some shared ground-rules for meetings can be helpful, which is another kind of intention-setting.

It was also suggested that we have a sense of what kind of work can happen in the meeting, and what should happen out of it. This will be different for different teams, but having a shared intention about it will help us keep from meandering through unclear conversations that eat up our precious time.

The idea of being intentional in our meetings is nothing new for us. This is why we started our meeting with a brief mindfulness exercise guided by one of our teachers, Kara Magaldi. We also remembered the slogan coined by Anne Lamott "WAIT: Why Am I Talking?" which we use to remind ourselves to be mindful with our speech when we are together. We also addressed sharing anecdotes, which can be useful to set the context of a conversation or share important information, or build relationship by sharing a laugh or a poignant moment, but can also eat up our time together without noticeably contributing to our goals for the meeting.

Managing time is a part of every meeting.

There were a few different points of view about time-keeping among our contributors. Many suggested that time-keeping could interrupt or stunt a brainstorm, while others asserted that it was crucial for getting through business items and decision-making. Either way, it was agreed upon that it's important that time be kept in a way that serves the meeting.

During our early release day, teaching teams had two "mini-meetings" of fifteen minutes each. The brevity of these meetings seemed to help folks focus so that they could accomplish something in so little time.

Have a facilitator and a (separate) note-taker.
Many people mentioned the importance of a "chair" "convener" or "facilitator" for the meeting, someone who is invested in the process of the meeting as well as the content. A long time ago, at PTCC, this person was usually the administrator who was present at the meeting. The administrative team decided that the meeting was owned by the teachers, and are now participants or helpful witnesses in the meetings. Generally, the team coordinator is the facilitator AND often the note-taker in our team meetings.

I asked that the two non-coordinating teachers take a turn leading each one, and that another person take notes. We heard that this was helpful for many teams who were able to learn things about their meeting just by shaking things up, or who discovered that they liked taking turns with this kind of leadership and will make it part of their regular practice. Others found that they learned about the roles that they don't usually inhabit, but were happy to go back to the roles as usual.

Agenda, agenda, agenda....
The word "agenda" came up 33 times in our collected contributions from parents! Some were sure to point out that there are relationship-building, brainstorming or visioning meetings that do not require agendas, but that most other meetings require one, with approximate times for each item.

Our teaching teams have had different relationships to agendas over time. Some use a template each week, some create their agenda over the week, others in the first five minutes of the meeting, some develop the agenda collaboratively, others leave this job to the team coordinator.

I asked teams to develop an agenda, with times for each item at the start of their meeting to test out how this can help people. Afterwards, we heard that taking specific time with the agenda at the outset gave folks more time later in the meeting because they were more organized. As one teacher said "a strict agenda resulted in a more relaxed meeting".

     Next Steps and Accountability:
       Many of the parents who contributed to our knowledge of meetings, talked about creating lists of clear next steps along with who would do each one, with deadlines. Teams were asked to spend part of their second "mini-meeting" creating such a list to be revisited at their next team meeting.

In addition to these contributions from families, we practiced some other helpful practices.

Checking In at the Start of a Meeting
We talked about "Check-ins" at the start of meetings. These are common in our center, but there hasn't been a shared, clear idea about what their purpose is, so sometimes they take too long, turn into story-telling sessions, or are uncomfortable for people who don't understand why we do them. I shared the following with teams, and encouraged every team to check in to start their first mini-meeting.

Check-ins are:
·         A way members of a team build relationship.
·         A way to share own your perspective and how it might affect the meeting
·         A way to name and then “shelve” experiences or feelings so that you can focus more fully on the meeting.

Check-ins work best when:
·         You do them every week “whether you need them or not”.
·         They only take a few moments per person.
·         Everyone understands the purpose of the exercise.
      Accentuate the Positive
      In order to best learn from our mini-meetings, teams described what was working well as they finished up. This practice (known sometimes as an "Appreciative Debrief") can help teams to learn from their success. I suggested the simple and whimsical "three stars and a wish"; tell your team three things that worked well and then one that might be changed.

    What makes a great meeting?  
      Throughout our time together, I asked teachers this question. Our answers were tightly tied to respect for one another and for the meeting: punctuality, considering how, why and whether we are interrupting each other, and honoring the intention of the meeting are all hallmarks of a good meeting.We also need to find time for fun, connection and humor. Finally, some kind of recording the conversation and making plans for accountability must be a part of every great meeting.

   What about you? What have the best meetings you've been a part of taught you?


  1. Having failed to add my two cents prior to the meeting I'll do so now. I often co-lead meetings at work and in preparing for one of them my supervisor suggested that the leaders of the meeting should offer an outcome and/or deliver a result of the meeting. So, if you are canvassing opinions then report back on what you found, and let people know when you have implemented an action as a result. A prerequisite, or corollary of this was to make sure to set achievable aims for your meetings and if it is a new initiative to summarize the discussion and state the decision at the end of the meeting. My partner's work's approach is to discuss items of general interest first then move down the list in order of number of people affected/involved so that as people can leave when they feel that items of interest to them have been covered.

  2. Thank you for your contribution! I think this idea that some work is done outside of the meeting is key. Because our meetings have only four or five constituents we don't often send things to committee or offer to do a task and then report back. Our leadership structure is quite flat, which is great for a lot of things, but tricky when it comes to delegating tasks and decisions to one another because there is a sense that these things must be done together... which often takes a lot of time.