“Well, that’s two hours of my life I’ll never get back!”
These are words I’ve spoken too many times as I’ve walked out of unproductive meetings, where the leader did most of the talking and nothing was accomplished. In the daily lives of educators, no one has time or energy to waste in a meeting that has no purpose, useful outcome, or valuable information.
Whether you are a teacher leading a team meeting, an assistant principal leading a parent conference, or a principal leading a school improvement committee, you must know how to lead a discussion that has a focused purpose, involves all participants, and leads to meaningful decisions, vital information, or resolutions to concerns.
Here are some tips for making sure everyone walks out of your meetings feeling happy about the way they spent their time.
Establish a Time and Place
Notify all participants with the time and place well in advance. When choosing a place, make sure there’s plenty of space for attendees to sit facing each other. This could be a table that fits four to six people, or a set of tables placed in a square, with chairs on the exterior perimeter.
Also make sure there’s a clock visible so you can monitor the time without looking at your phone. Keeping track of the time will ensure you remain productive and cover all topics without running over.
Be Organized and Prepared
Always have a meeting agenda that notes the purpose of the meeting and the key topics you’ll discuss. A few days before the meeting, e-mail the agenda to attendees to solicit input for additional items, and also attach any documents you’d like them to review before the meeting. That way, everyone will be informed and prepared for discussions.
Make sure to be on time to the meeting. In fact, be there first! Give yourself time to organize materials, ensure the meeting space is ready, and greet people as they enter. When you feel prepared, calm, and friendly, that will help set a positive tone for the meeting.
Identify the Purpose of the Meeting
Every single meeting I’ve ever led (as a teacher, an instructional coordinator, special education chair, budget committee leader, and principal) started with these words: “The purpose of our meeting today is _______________.” Even if you’re just meeting with parents to discuss a concern, it’s helpful to start by stating the purpose of the meeting. It helps focus your intentions and signals the start of the discussion and the work you hope to accomplish.
The purpose of the meeting identifies why you are meeting, the goals of the meeting, and anticipated outcomes. Here are some examples:
Team Leader Meeting
The purpose of this meeting is to discuss math assessment results [why], identify strengths and areas for growth [goals], and plan next steps for instruction [outcomes].
The purpose, today, is to review your child’s progress over the last quarter [why], discuss the upcoming quarter [goals], and consider how we can support _________ [outcomes].
The purpose of our meeting is to identify the needs of our school [why], prioritize and discuss the funding available [goals], and make recommendations to our school council regarding budget disbursements [outcomes].
Manage the Meeting
After establishing the meeting’s purpose, review the agenda and ask for additions or clarifications. This ensures that everyone understands all the items on the agenda and contributes anything you might have missed. Also, if it is a large meeting, make sure to designate a timekeeper, a secretary, and a person to record important points on chart paper (when appropriate).
Next, identify meeting norms, such as expectations for discussion, participants’ behaviors, and how you’ll make decisions. Examples of meeting norms might include:
- Show respect.
- Everyone has equal voice.
- Decisions will be based on what’s best for students.
- One person speaks at a time.
- Stay on task.
When facilitating the meeting, you might use any or all of the following techniques:
- Pose open-ended questions.
- Call on people, or go around the table to get everyone’s input.
- Provide visuals in handouts or on charts.
- Validate everyone’s input (even when you may not agree).
As the leader of the meeting, it’s your job to keep everyone on task, including getting long-winded storytellers back on track and putting a stop to off-topic discussions. In moments like these, consider saying something like, “I hear what you are saying and would be happy to add this to the agenda for next time, but right now, we are here to discuss ______________. Are you okay with that?” The person will likely say yes while still feeling heard and valued.
Finally, make sure to establish a decision-making method. Will it be by majority vote or by consensus? Consensus is my preferred method because everyone wins. Consensus means everyone agrees to support the decision and live by it, even if it wasn’t some people’s favorite idea. Majority vote has winners and losers and can lead to strife. If you choose consensus, be sure to explain what it is and what it means.
End the Meeting Properly
At the end of the meeting, thank everyone for their time, review what you discussed, and identify next steps (if any). Ask for any last remarks or suggestions, as multiple voices are better than one.
Send out meeting notes within 24 hours, while the information is fresh on everyone’s minds. Encourage attendees to review the notes and ask, “Did I capture your thoughts and the discussion of the meeting accurately?” By asking this question, you let people know that they are still active in the process.
Don’t waste time in meetings by relaying information that you can disseminate through an e-mail or handout. Meetings are for discussion, problem solving, and decision making. Attendees should leave with more understanding than when they entered.
By leading better meetings, you will help constituents feel like their time is valuable and their input is critical. Then together, you can make better decisions that lead to better outcomes.