Skip to content
ascd logo

Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
September 1, 2006
Vol. 64
No. 1

The Principal Connection / Unleashing the Energy

Most scheduled gatherings of teachers are, in fact, meetings at which teachers yawn their way through lists of informational items announced and commented on by the principal. If any clear communication results from these meetings, it takes place in the parking lot long after the official meeting has ended. In my years as acting principal, I led many meetings that fit this description.
Yet I have also led faculty meetings that were productive gatherings filled with creative collaboration and teacher learning. When conducting such meetings, I felt like a facilitator of unbounded teacher energy. I watched as leadership emerged and creativity surfaced from normally quiet staff members, as teachers launched rich, vociferous conversations around real issues, and, when necessary, willingly allowed meetings to stretch beyond our contractual time.

How One School Got There

One of the most dramatic changes I saw in faculty meetings occurred at Pleasant Hill School in Palatine, Illinois. The teachers and I both knew that the meetings I conducted were top-down and filled with administrivia; at times we spent more minutes deciding whether to have tuna or chicken salad at the faculty luncheon than we did on analyzing critical data from local assessments. We knew that good meetings, like good lesson plans, should have clear goals, an organized agenda, and a setup that encourages people to interact respectfully. But we wrestled with how to make change. What was the best way to break through a stultifying structure and turn meetings over to teachers?
Then attendance at a day-long professional development session with a talented consultant shifted how we organized our school improvement efforts and conceived of faculty meetings. Realizing that we needed a structure and amodus operandi for faculty to meaningfully participate in our school improvement goals, we formed five standing voluntary committees: Teaching and Learning, Safety and Discipline, Staff Development, Communication, and Budget. Each committee met monthly, and our faculty meetings soon connected directly to committees' work. Reports and recommendations from committees became the main agenda for our weekly faculty meeting. Any faculty member could suggest an agenda item for consideration. Unless I had crucial issues that could not be shared elsewhere, my agenda items came last. Faculty meetings became, in actuality, faculty meetings.

Setting Ground Rules, Facing Fear

  • We made attendance voluntary; however, if a teacher chose to miss a meeting, that absence was interpreted as tacit support for all decisions made at the meeting.
  • We promised to listen to one another.
  • We agreed to take turns speaking.
  • We committed ourselves to respecting differences of opinion.
  • We agreed to invite quieter teachers into the conversation, and teachers who spoke often and impulsively agreed not to dominate discussions (this was the hardest rule to keep).
  • We agreed to say what needed to be said at the faculty meeting, not in the parking lot.
  • We promised to respect confidentiality.
Personally, I was scared. Giving up control of faculty meetings meant I had to trust teachers and have faith in the process of collegiality. I didn't have time to attend most of the committee meetings. I had to trust that teachers would wrestle with school issues and report about them directly to fellow teachers and staff—always supporting our major commitment to serve kids in all we did.
Slowly, as I let go and the committees did their work, teachers took ownership of crucial issues. I heard fewer comments like “she always . . .” or “they won't let us do that.” Teachers emerged as true leaders, able to make decisions and hold themselves and others accountable. Teachers began directing the parade; I only had to stay informed so that I could stand in front of the group and look like I was leading. As Roland Barth has quipped, “Hey, I am the leader. Wait up!”
Complaints still surfaced. Some teachers thought that they were being asked to do “the principal's job.” Others objected to the multiplicity of meetings. Strong-voiced teachers still dominated the meetings; chronically cranky teachers remained cranky. Our smaller leadership team, consisting of the chairs of each committee, tackled these and other issues. My work as principal continued, and the many problems that were mine alone to resolve remained on my desk. The buck still stopped with me.
Unleashing the creative energy of teachers can be difficult and scary; it occasionally feels like losing control. But at Pleasant Hill, once we gave teachers more control, faculty meetings no longer stimulated naps—they promoted real conversations about teachers' aspirations and shared goals. For teachers to begin their journey, I first had to let go.

Joanne Rooney has contributed to Educational Leadership.

Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
From our issue
Product cover image 107026.jpg
Teaching to Student Strengths
Go To Publication