Innovation: Education

How to make meetings more effective

Good meetings can be hard to find

self-analysis and teamingWe’ve all been there: staff meetings that could have been an email or team meetings spent admiring problems and getting nowhere. And I’m not claiming innocence here:  I’m definitely guilty of creating bullet list agendas or meeting with no agenda (or outcome) at all. 

But over the past couple of years, I’ve upped my meeting game. I’ve gathered some awesome tips and tricks, and I’m here to share.

The only 7 reasons for meetings

Last fall, I was an eager student at one of Elena Aguilar’s Art of Coaching Teams workshops.  This training was chock full of brilliance, and I’ve put so much of it into action already. For example, did you know that there are (only) seven reasons to meet? For real. Check it out. Here they are, in no particular order:

  1. Share information
  2. Learn something
  3. Solve a problem
  4. Make decisions
  5. Plan
  6. Build community
  7. Set goals, calibrate, & reflect

Of course, there are caveats for each of these.  Take reason 1, for example, sharing information: if it can be done via email you don’t need to meet! Brilliant! And collaboration should be central to the meeting: otherwise, why are we meeting? The big takeaway here is that you should know the purpose of your meeting at the start.  Or better yet, when you draft the agenda.

 

A photo showing a copy of the book 'The Art of Coaching Teams', a pen, and a table tent that includes a quote from Rumi.
I knew it would be a great workshop when Rumi was quoted on the table tents.

 

A good agenda is crucial to an effective meeting

A well-crafted agenda is a beautiful thing. It gently guides the group to a preset outcome or goal. It can create the space to connect and laugh and learn together, it can clarify how (and if) a decision will be made, and it can nudge us back on track if (when) we digress.

But it takes some time and thought to prepare an effective agenda. I’ve heard some recommendations that suggest that building the agenda should take almost as long as the meeting itself! Of course, we don’t always have time for that.  But I have a few tips that can help streamline the process.

State your purpose

A solid agenda begins with a clear outcome (or two or three). What is the purpose of the meeting? What will be accomplished by the end of the meeting? You should be able to articulate the outcome in one to three bullets. For example:
  • Reflect on our team goals for the year and add evidence to our school plan
  • Calibrate our assessment tool for the energy projects.
  • Plan the student exhibition night

It’s kind of like backward design for agenda building, y’all! We need to know where we’re going. Once we know that, we can then plan our route.

(Aaaand a few more words on purpose)

Teachers attend a lot of meetings. Faculty meetings, team meetings, PLC meetings, IEP or 504 meetings, SST or EST meetings… the list goes on. Most of the time these meetings stay relatively focused on their primary topics, but other times agenda creep happens. For example, when you find your team discussing the spring dance in the middle of planning your upcoming project-based learning units. If this is happening at your meetings, consider articulating the purpose and purview of each meeting.

The table above is one example of how you might define and shape your myriad meetings.

Figure out the what, why, and how

Once you know your purpose and outcome, it’s time to figure out how to get there by planning down to the minute, thinking through the what, how, and why of each item. As a facilitator, it is so helpful to be clear about what we’re going to do, why we’re doing it, and how it will happen. (Because really, if we’re not clear, how can we expect anyone else to be!?)

Often agendas articulate the what, but skip the why and how. Adults, like students, want to know why we’re doing something. So tell them. Provide the rationale for each agenda item: is it to discuss, to learn, to assess? Then figure out exactly how you’ll accomplish that item. Break it down. What resources are needed? How will discussion flow? What will participants do?

Check out the agenda below for an example of how the facilitator (me!) laid out the what, why, and how for each agenda item.

This meeting was really productive. Why? Awesome teachers and a solid agenda!
Sean Hirten, 7th & 8th grade team leader at Rutland Town School, creates a lot of agendas. He has found
that the more time you spend on an agenda, the better the meeting will be. You will be more prepared to facilitate and others will respond to that. People know why they are there and what we will discuss. [It also] helps with buy-in.” 
Hirten also suggests adding times and prioritizing what needs to be done; “This gives me an excuse to be a bit pushy [during the meeting] because I set times.” 
Which brings us to another important point: time.

Be honest about time

This needs little explanation. But please, please, I beg of you, be realistic about how long it will take to do each item on your agenda well. Sure, you can rush through the conversation to stay on time, but if you don’t reach a resolution or natural conclusion, you may have to revisit the topic again. And that’s not very effective or efficient.

I am a master of making things work on paper, shaving a minute or two from here and there. But guess what? Just because it works on paper doesn’t mean it’s sufficient for real, live humans. Trust me.

Consider:

  • the task or topic: sharing a classroom highlight will typically be quicker than discussing the new progress report template.  Sometimes, hour-long meetings only offer enough time to address one topic sufficiently.  While unanticipated challenges can always occur, do your best to evaluate how much time it will take to reach the desired outcome. Less is more (and who doesn’t like leaving early if you happen to under plan!).
  • the number of people in the group: the amount of time it will take 3 people to share their observations is vastly different than the time needed for 20 people to share.  Since it’s important that all voices are heard, consider using pair-shares or small group discussions to move things along more quickly in larger groups.
  • the process: this is where figuring out the ‘how’ can really come in handy. What will this time look like? How will folks engage with the topic? Does a decision have to be made?  How will it be made?

Inevitably unexpected things come up and it’s not uncommon to get off schedule, but over time and with diligence in planning you can dial it in and vastly improve your estimates and planning.

Open and close the meeting with intention

The beginning and end of the meeting are important times. Upon arrival, we have all come from another busy facet of our day, and often need a moment to relax, decompress, or settle in the new space.

Hirten likes to start meetings off with a game. “Even for the cynics this can work to lighten the mood, provided it is a fun game, and not too long.” Laughing together is a great way to build a team, and can also double as an opportunity for teachers a chance try a new game to bring back to their students.

A photo showing a team of educators building a tower out of index cards.
The Art of Coaching Teams workshop included team challenges, like this tower building challenge. Not that we’re competitive, but we totally won.

Sharing highlights and notable moments is another great way to open. This not only connects us, but also gives us a window into each other’s classrooms.

Similarly, a well-executed closing can bring a feeling of…er, closure to the meeting. If you’ve built in sufficient time, play the metaphor game:  have participants select an office supply item from a basket as a metaphor to represent how they feel at the close of the meeting (‘I picked the rubber band because I feel stretched’). Short on time? Close with a one-word reflection, or ask participants what went well about the meeting. Whatever you do, make sure to end on time. That matters.

Finally, build a template

Efficiency is where it’s at. Reusing a solid meeting template can cut down on agenda-building time. Your agenda template will reflect your personality and meeting style, but here are a few templates that I’ve found helpful.  Next time we meet I’ll just recycle this format and build the next meeting. Thank you, copy & paste.

Looking to improve your meetings?

"Agenda Exploration Activity - 20 minutes This activity can be used to reflect on the qualities of effective agendas (including your group’s current agenda template, if desired). Share the following three agendas with the group (feel free to include your own agenda as well). Have the group silently examine the agendas for a few minutes. Then, in rounds, ask participants to share responses to the following prompts. If your group in large, consider partnering up for these prompts, then doing a whole group share out. What features work/don’t work about each one? Which example do you think produce a more effective meeting? Why? How might we revise our meeting agendas to support a more productive meeting?"

Try this activity with your team!  In it, you’ll examine a few sample agendas to assess what works and what doesn’t.  Then you can create or revise your own team meeting template and rock your meetings!

Any great meeting tips to share?

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