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July 1, 2019
Vol. 76
No. 9

Making Teacher Team Meetings Work for Teachers

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Leadership
Professional Learning
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Have you ever participated in a team meeting in which little was accomplished? Perhaps time ran out before work was completed. Or maybe the team got stuck on an agenda item, and the result was to create more work than they had before! How can schools restructure meetings so that they truly serve the team, and not the other way around?
I wrestled with this question regularly in my first years as an elementary school principal. I required each grade-level team to meet weekly to unpack the reading and math curricula, create common assessments, analyze student data, and share instructional ideas. Thanks to our professional reading and training, our faculty was well-versed in the tenets of professional learning communities, and we all saw the value in collaboration. But even though we had strong buy-in for why we should meet and what kind of tasks we should tackle together, I couldn't say that our meetings were serving us well.
Far too often, I observed teams completing only part of their work, running out of time, and then telling each other to finish up on their own. "We'll circle back to this at next week's meeting," they'd say, but by the next week, there was a new load of lessons to plan, data to analyze, or student issues to discuss. The pace of instruction would not wait for last week's team meeting agenda.
It occurred to our school leadership team that we could sit back and have teachers continue to go through the motions of working as collaborative-learning teams or we could reimagine the way time was used in our meetings and make that time better work for us. As Rick DuFour put it, "We have always worked hard. Will we now choose to work smart?" After much reflection with the leadership team and discussions with grade-level team leaders, I put forth the following guiding principles to help our school reimagine our weekly team meetings:
  1. Work should get done at the meeting.
  2. We must manage ourselves so that work gets done.

Visualizing Meeting Time

The importance of the first point was made crystal clear to me by an activity we required of all our grade-level teams when we began the process of reimagining our meetings. Our leadership team knew that our teams were not completing tasks at meetings, but we needed the teachers' reflections to really diagnose the problem and generate incentive for change.
At each grade-level team's next meeting, I gave each individual teacher a marker and a paper with a circle drawn on it. I asked them to turn the circle into a pie chart that represented how they spent time in a typical team meeting. But there could be only two categories on this pie chart: accomplishing work and creating more work. The teachers had to divide their charts between these two areas, according to their personal perceptions.
After they finished their pie charts, the teachers displayed them in a central location for all to see. At each meeting, this was a powerful moment. All our teachers had the same general perception: We were making work for ourselves in meetings more frequently than we were getting work done. (One teacher's pie chart, defying the instructions, even had a third section carved out marked "Wondering what we're doing!")
I then led the teams in a candid conversation about the state of our team meetings. During this group reflection, I asked, "How do we make it so that team meetings actually make your jobs easier?" The teachers shared their frustration about the sheer number of agenda items they typically had to address during a team meeting, including some that administrators felt were important, but that had low value for people doing the teaching. Instead, they wanted to use meeting time for more detailed instructional planning with their colleagues, who could help them make good ideas better and ensure that their pacing of lessons was consistent with the curriculum.
The leadership team agreed to proceed in that direction. From that point on, grade-level teams set aside their previous agenda formats for the formation of agenda items oriented around lesson planning. As a school, we also acknowledged that there would be difficulties ahead as we spent more time on some priorities and less time on some other items that were once mainstays on our meeting agendas.

Who's Talking?

Deciding to refocus meeting agendas was a significant breakthrough for us, but there was more to be done. I knew that even with clearly articulated and improved meeting goals, unconstructive behaviors at team meetings could sandbag our work. One very real problem I had noticed at meetings was the tendency of some team members to dominate discussions, process information out loud too often, or go off on tangents. These behaviors, though not ill-intentioned, could easily consume an inordinate amount of meeting time.
To address this problem, I again had all teams use another regular team meeting time to participate in a reflection activity. I once again gave each teacher a marker and a paper with a circle on it. This time, I asked them to create a pie chart that would be divided into slices according to "Who's Talking?" at a typical team meeting. There could be as many slices as there were members of that team, but no names were to be written on the slices.
Once these charts were completed and displayed, we had another candid team discussion, this time about whether all voices were being heard in meetings and how teams could work more interdependently. Seeing many pie charts split into very unequal slices raised questions about whether quieter or more reserved team members were being drowned out at meetings. I steered the conversations to a discussion on how we needed active discussion at team meetings, but how unfocused talk could prevent us from accomplishing the practical goals we'd recently established.
These discussions ultimately led to new meeting protocols for the teams, which included pausing and paraphrasing what the previous speaker said before commenting, the use of participation chips for some dialogues, and taking turns among teammates in making the first comment or question on each topic.

Sticking to Agreements

There was one more step needed to actualize our new approach to team meetings. At the beginning of each new school year, team leaders were asked to lead a discussion with their teams in which they created working agreements for their time together (for example, "begin meetings at 9:05"; "resist side conversations"; or "put phones away"). The purpose of the working agreements was to ensure that the meeting time was productive. Every September, once these agreements were established, they were posted by each team for administrators to see. Unfortunately, as the year went on and teachers got busier and demands on teams grew, the agreements were usually forgotten and rarely revisited. Who has the time to circle back when your meeting agenda is already so full?
Since we had just reimagined what a team meeting could be, we now needed to reaffirm our commitment to our stated working agreements for meetings to ensure that teams operated efficiently. For example, if a team agreed to start at a certain time, they all needed to be there at that time. If they agreed to complete certain small tasks prior to the meeting, they all needed to do it.
To reflect on their working agreements, I had the teams use a "stinger" activity. All the members of each team gathered around a large poster that showed a vertical continuum of responses. At the top was "Oh Yes," followed by "Sure," followed by "Umm …" in the middle, and onto "Nah" and finally "No Way" at the bottom. This poster was laid flat on a table and team members examined it, each holding a token. I then read their working agreements one at a time (for example, "Agreement #1: No side conversations when we're discussing an idea") and asked them to drop their token on the poster by the response they felt best aligned with how well the whole team lived by that agreement. Once all team members' tokens were on the continuum, the teachers stepped back and had a discussion on that agreement. Why were they seeing a certain level of negative response on that agreement? Was this agreement still important? If so, what could we do to make it a reality at our meetings? This exercise helped teams to decide which agreements they really needed, and then to focus on maintaining them.

Making Time

As you can imagine, the types of reflection activities we used to reevaluate our use of meeting time can be risky for teachers. The administrator or coach facilitating the activities needs to assure teachers that this information won't be used against them, and the team members must have developed some trust in each other and the school leadership. We were fortunate to have these things in place. It was critical that we had made the underlying reason for the activities clear: We were going to make meetings serve our purposes, and we were going to accomplish more at meetings. This was a win-win—greater opportunities for focused planning at meetings would improve lessons for students and accomplishing more at the team meeting would lessen teachers' load outside of the meeting. Having a strong "why" for the work helped everyone accept the need for change as serving a greater purpose.
As a result of our reflective work, there were significant changes to our team meetings. Agendas were shorter, but team members were more focused and engaged, so more work was getting completed. This created a sense of accomplishment among the teachers. The work at meetings more closely matched what teachers thought was important, giving the weekly team meeting the purpose it had lacked.
But I should also acknowledge that even though we have improved our meeting agendas and behaviors, we still rarely have enough time to accomplish everything! This will always be a challenge in schools. A recent Rand Corporation study concluded what has been obvious to teachers all along: "Few teachers reported sufficient time to collaborate with their peers." Our jobs require constant execution of instructional plans, but our on-contract planning time is never enough. If you engage in this work of enhancing meeting processes, it's important to know ahead of time that the improvements you succeed in making will not fully solve the time problem. There will never be enough time for teachers to accomplish all they need to at team meetings, but you can maximize what time they do have.
End Notes

1 DuFour, R., DuFour, R., Eaker, R., & Many, T. (2010). Learning by doing: A handbook for professional learning communities at work (2nd ed.). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

2 Johnston, W., & Tsai, T. (2018). The prevalence of collaboration among American teachers: National findings from the American teacher panel. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation.

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