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June 22, 2022

This Summer, Plan for Better Team Meetings

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Four tips for making your school and district meetings worth attending.
LeadershipProfessional Learning
This Summer, Plan for Better Team Meetings
Credit: / Shutterstock\
If you’ve ever led a team meeting, chances are you’ve made a few mistakes. Perhaps you and your staff arrived unprepared to address the problems at-hand—and no one was eager to talk. Or maybe someone brought too much baggage into the room (distracted by a parent communication, for example) and pulled the rest of the team away from the meeting’s purpose. Or, worst of all, perhaps you held a meeting for the meeting’s sake, with no real agenda or purpose in mind.
These hiccups are, in many ways, good. They allow room for growth. After all, we wouldn’t be effective leaders if we didn’t value continuous improvement. So, how can we address a lack of cohesion in team meetings and bring all voices to the table? How can we ensure meetings become more focused and embrace the collective over the individual?
Here are four tips from experts in the field to kick-start a teamwork transformation.

1. Embrace the Power of “We”

ASCD author and leadership coach Jill Harrison Berg understands that true teamwork is more than the absence of working in isolation. Engaging in collective reflection about a team’s vision, strengths, and identity “can build solidarity and even a sense of pride in team membership.” As Berg recommends in a recent Educational Leadership column, “it’s time to talk up the power of ‘we.’
For example, instead of calling a meeting “Jack’s meeting,” Berg suggests giving your team a nickname, a symbol, or a special handshake. This simple act can spur a sense of collective identity among members. Another way to deepen a team’s identity (if the team has been working collaboratively for some time) is to ask each member to identify a strength of each teammate. There’s power in articulating these qualities, says Berg.

2. Limit Team Norms

To bring about a transformation in team meetings, there needs to be a set of parameters in place for productive discussions, especially if the aim is to engage the voices of all educators in the room. Coming to an agreement on team norms can play a powerful role in eliciting the perspectives needed for a group of educators to tackle hard problems.
But proposing too many norms can backfire. In their July 2019 Educational Leadership article, Harvard professor Kathryn Parker Boudett and teacher leader Meghan Lockwood propose, as a general rule, limiting norms to 5-7 to make it easier to keep them front of mind. “Longer lists,” they write, “can send the message that everything is a priority, which of course means that nothing is.”
See examples in the image below, adapted by Boudett and Lockwood from the book Meeting Wise: Making the Most of Collaborative Time for Educators (Harvard Education Press, 2014).

3. Cultivate a Culture of Co(n)frontation

According to assistant superintendent B.C. Preston and school improvement expert Jenni Donohoo, “teachers work to maintain a culture of nice and in doing so, avoid critical conversations about ineffective instruction and assessment practices.” While confrontation may seem risky, they write in the November 2021 issue of Educational Leadership, it’s more likely to be done effectively when leaders lay the groundwork ahead of time—communicating to the team that it is OK to question traditions, purpose, and current practices.
It is important for school leaders to empower staff to collectively confront what has not, is not, or will not work, regardless of how a program or initiative started. To manage confrontation, leaders should strengthen the team’s skills for conflict resolution and negotiation. Encouraging mutual respect among faculty and modeling norms of communication will go a long way toward making co(n)frontation a team meeting asset.

4. End Team-Building Sessions with Action Plans

Having a knockout team-building session that accomplishes even your wildest expectations won’t hold water if goals and next steps for the year haven’t been set. According to leadership expert Fred Ende, cultivating this planning process requires several steps. First, the actual team-building work must be connected to outcomes for the year ahead. Second, there must be a set schedule to ground the team’s development over time (newer teams may need more detailed schedules, while veteran teams can operate more loosely). Third, Ende writes, teams must move from talk to action and ensure that the process actually happens. Devote time throughout the year to accomplishing and sustaining the work.

Esteban Bachelet is the associate writer of Educational Leadership magazine.

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