Running effective meetings

Well. September has arrived, and school is almost upon us. With two days of INSET to go before everything starts happening at once, I thought I’d share my advice on running effective meetings at school. Too many times have I twiddled my thumbs in a meeting that’s going no where, or jiggled my leg up and down under the table in frustration at a meeting that is desperately off on a tangent. You know the ones I’m talking about.

Running an effective meeting is a SKILL and it has to be learnt – sometimes, the hard way. I’ve chaired many a meeting, and I’ve managed and lead many a team, and these are my top things to focus on for a productive meeting that people will leave feeling happy:

  1. Send the agenda out ahead of time along with the minutes of the previous meeting
  2. Make sure a good set of minutes is actually taken
  3. Preparation for the meeting is key
  4. Stick to the agenda and stick to timings
  5. NO ‘ANY OTHER BUSINESS’
  6. Chairing a meeting is an art form
  7. Action logs

The Agenda

Ahh … the agenda … the bane of many people’s lives. Forgotten about, sent 15 minutes before the meeting, or just not shared at all. You probably recognise this kind of agenda, and you can immediately tell what your mood is going to be like throughout the meeting:

An agenda should be an important and helpful document that lets the entire team know what will be discussed and how long for. People that know pretty much how long a meeting will last are able to better plan their time around it, inevitably making them happier. Ideally, you’d want to send out a detailed agenda a few days to a week in advance so that everybody has plenty of time to look at it and ask questions if necessary. Teaching can be all consuming during the week sometimes, so you might also want to send out a reminder the day before or something. Not only will this help your team be more prepared, but it will demonstrate that there is some planning that has gone into this and that the topics to be discussed are actually of some importance.

This kind of agenda makes me happy:

It’s short and sweet, contains all the relevant information, and has some important key features. Including rough timings on the agenda is a good way to ensure not only that your team can plan their time around it, but it also helps you stick to the point during the meeting and to not go off on a tangent.

Your agenda will obviously give more information than ‘department topic’ but the point being that in a departmental meeting, you should only really be discussing things that relate to the whole department. Going off on tangents or having individual conversations with members of staff in a meeting is not the time or place – especially in a large department. All that does is signal to the other members of staff that their time is not important enough to worry about talking things that have nothing to do with them.

Notice also that the agenda doesn’t have an item for ‘any other business’ at the end of it. AOB needs to be sent back the meeting hell that it came from. Too many times have I been in a meeting where AOB is used an excuse for people to just sit and gossip, talk about irrelevant matters, or drag the meeting out til kingdom come. Having AOB on the agenda is just asking for your meeting to be derailed and waste everyone’s time. If the agenda is sent out in advance, your team will have the opportunity to raise a concern with you over something they feel should be talked about but has been left out. If they’ve made a valid point, great!, update the agenda (this is where having it as a live document on something like Google Docs is really good) and let people know. If you think that their point is not relevant to this meeting at this time then explain your thinking to them and catch up with them about it another time.

Meeting minutes

You can tell a lot about somebody’s meeting by looking at the minutes taken during it. If the page is basically blank, or has so much on it that it’s all a bit jumbled and confusing, chances are their meetings are ineffective.

Minutes are a LIFE SAVER for when you were furiously trying to scribble down your actions to complete but missed one of them off. Minutes held centrally for everyone to see and refer back to are the cornerstone of effective meetings and productivity.

While we’re on the subject, can we please stop letting the Chair of the meeting take the minutes. These are two different roles. The Chair needs to be completely focussed on the discussion taking place and ensuring that it is being lead effectively and productively without going off on a tangent. They can’t, then, also be taking the minutes to capture the conversation correctly. It’s too easy to miss someone’s potentially outstanding contribution. I’ve found that it also slows down the whole flow to the meeting because when a discussion is finished, you don’t want to have to be sat there waiting for the Chair to finish writing the point down.

Minutes should be checked by whoever was chairing the meeting and then sent out pretty soon afterward to allow comments/alterations to be suggested by the rest of the team. Minutes should be a fair representation of the conversations had and this can only be achieved by making sure that everybody is happy with them. It’s best practice to quickly approve the minutes from the previous meeting at the start of the next meeting.

Action logs

Meetings should be productive, right? They should be a chance for discussions to be had openly about matters that relate to the whole team, to then decide on a course of action to take from there. Most of the time this will lead in an action point being assigned to somebody; they’ve been given a task to complete.

The absolute best way of keeping on top of these tasks is to keep an action log, separate to the minutes, of on-going actions that the team is working on. Whether that be liaising with other members of staff about something, or developing a project, or improving parts of the curriculum, these things should all be written down and assigned to a specific person/people to maximise efficiency and productivity.

It would be a good idea to have the action log as a live document (again, Google Docs/Sheets would be good for this. Can you tell I’ve just done my Google Educator Certificate?) for people to refer back to and update as and when they complete a task. If the action log is reviewed at each meeting it not only provides a chance to update about tasks within the team, but also provides that extra nudge for somebody to keep on top of their actions. When an action has been on-going for quite a number of meetings, it’s a good indicator that a problem is arising and that member of staff needs some more support to complete it.

Chairing the meeting

Chairing a meeting is an art form. It can be tricky and requires somebody who is able to steer a conversation in the right direction and keep other people at bay who might be trying to control the meeting – sometimes without even meaning to.

It’s imperative that the chair of the meeting is prepared. They need to know exactly what it is that’s going to be discussed, and should have spent some time thinking about these topics to anticipate ‘sticking points’ in the conversation. There will sometimes be certain points that are going to rile people up or could be dragged out into a huge debate that nobody has time for. If these points are anticipated, the chair can prepared in advance what they’re going to do if the meeting starts to be derailed. A lot of the time, this can be solved by ‘parking’ the conversation for another time – coming back to it when there is a more relevant time and place.

Summary

Meetings are so often painful. But there is absolutely no reason why they need to be. I think the biggest things to sum up everything above is to be super prepared for the meeting (having a good agenda, sticking to it, taking good minutes) and chair the meeting effectively, keeping it brief. When meetings are short, and a list of actions has come out of it, people leave the meeting feeling productive and that it was a good use of their time. Think to yourself – if you’re holding meetings that don’t generate any action points, is there a need for a meeting in the first place? If no actions are being taken as a result of the meeting, then you’re probably just disseminating information. Try to find another way to do that without having to get everybody together when they could be working on something else that is more urgent.

Finally, try getting your team to rate the meeting out of 5 at the end of it. It’s an honest and open reflection of how the meeting as gone whilst it’s still fresh in people’s minds, and will provide key feedback for you to improve your meetings in the future.

I feel like I could have written pages and pages about this topic, and I might do another time, but if you have any questions/comments please fire away!

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