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Meetings: Painful or Productive?

by Jean Haeger

We’ve all been in meetings that are painful: the same predictable voices drone on and on; discussions go in circles, leaving everyone scratching their heads; decisions get made and no one is quite sure how. But meetings don’t have to be this way!

By following a few simple guidelines for designing agendas, any meeting can transform from painful to productive. Here’s how:

  1. Establish clear outcomes. What is it that you want all participants to leave with? It’s critical that outcomes are nouns, and are defined by knowledge, skills, or products that are both realistic to achieve and easily measured by the end of the meeting. Frequently, outcomes are framed as verb phrases: discuss this text; analyze these data; review an assessment. However, when stated as a verb, it becomes very difficult to measure the impact of an outcome. Sure, we did the activity, but so what? The “so what” lives in the understanding that’s deepened, the skill that’s developed, or the product that’s created. For example, by the end of this meeting, participants will leave with: an understanding of how implicit bias can impact our interpretation of data; the ability to access and act on students’ standardized test data; suggestions for revising an assessment.
  2. Use opening moves to start every meeting the right way. Teachers’ lives are often harried: moving from class to class, with only infrequent bathroom and snack breaks, always with more on their minds than there’s the capacity to process. Opening moves such as CRAN, which stands for Connections, Reflections, Agenda, and Norms, can help teachers make the transition from the demands of their recent activities with students to the focus needed for meaningful interaction with colleagues.
  3. Define processes. Those who develop agendas often start with the topics they’d like to see addressed: plan the next assessment, look at student work, score habits of work. However, agendas aren’t always clear about the processes that will be used to work through the topic and arrive at an actionable outcome. For example, if your group wants to support one another in the development of rich and meaningful assessments, you may decide to use meeting time to share your work. In order to determine the best process to use, the educator who brings work must decide what kind of feedback will be most helpful. Is the assessment fairly well-developed and your teammate is looking for ways to improve it? Then a tuning protocol would be a good choice. This example tuning protocol guides the group in refining assessments aligned with competencies and performance indicators. Or perhaps a teammate is having trouble resolving a problem in their work; the consultancy protocol by the School Reform Initiative “helps presenters think more expansively about a particular, concrete dilemma,” making it easier to find a way forward. While meetings don’t always need a formal protocol, your process should always ensure the intended outcomes are attained and all voices are heard.
  4. Set realistic timeframes. One of the most common problems with meeting agendas is that they are too full; there is not enough time to tackle the issues at hand with the depth required. Assigning timeframes to each element of the agenda can serve several purposes: those designing the agenda can determine how realistic the scope of the agenda is; a timekeeper or process observer can support the facilitator by helping to keep the meeting on track; a debrief at the end of the meeting can help a group reflect on their use of time in order to make adjustments to their processes for future meetings.
  5. Close thoughtfully. The bell just rang, students are coming in, or contractual time limits are hit, so it’s time to end the meeting. But what decisions were made? What are the next steps? How will you continue the conversation you were so deeply engaged in? By holding firm to a 5-10 minute closing period on your agenda, the last few minutes can be spent wrapping up the meeting and preparing for next steps. It’s important for the growth of the group that time is allowed for reflection. A few methods to consider:
    1. To summarize, ask questions like: What decisions did we make? What next steps will we take? Who will do what by when?
    2. To process, ask questions like: How did we do as a group? Did we achieve the outcomes we set out to accomplish for this meeting? What did we do well that helped us achieve our outcomes? What could we do better to help us adhere to our norms or be more effective?
    3. To establish takeaways, ask questions like: What are we each leaving with? What did we discuss or learn about in this meeting that will help us in our daily practice?
Helpful tip: If you’re responsible for crafting an agenda, you can use these agenda design guidelines as a self-reflection.
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