Making Faculty Meetings Time Well Spent

By Stuart Singer, author of The Algebra Miracle

If Charles Dickens had spent a few decades attending faculty meetings, he might have written:

“They were the best of times; they were the worst of times”.

Certainly during my career I experienced both.

Not all meetings are created equal

In a recent post Mel Riddile explained his philosophy on the overall purpose of a faculty meeting:

“Faculty meetings should be teacher-led, and, like student homework assignments, should add value and help to improve and enhance classroom instruction.”

His comment brought to mind a parallel strategy I employed with my students. On the first day of school I would distribute the homework assignment sheet for the initial two weeks. I then announced:

“You will notice that each of the daily assignments appear to be somewhat random. On Tuesday, for example, you will be doing problems 2, 5, 8, 11, 12, 13, 14 and 25 on page 47. Let me explain what I am doing. I have determined that these are the specific problems you need to be able to solve correctly in order to master this topic. One thing I do not believe in is busy work.  Consequently I will only ask you to work on the problems that are necessary for you to become academically stronger. You will never be assigned something like problems 1-40 and then discover that they are all basically the same.”

I would then make a contractual agreement with them.

 “So here is the deal I always make with my students—for my part I will never assign you busy work. In return you will do the assigned homework which will enable you to succeed.”

Given a week or so to furnish proof that I would keep my end of the bargain, the vast majority of my students would complete all of their homework on a regular basis.

The attitude of teachers toward faculty meetings is very similar.

Not all time is created equal

For teachers time is a critical commodity. There is the constant pressure to ensure that each lesson plan is neither too long nor too short. There is scant opportunity to produce materials between classes or at lunch. Likewise the school day offers little time for remedial help. Consequently, the ability to have uninterrupted hours in the afternoon are crucial. As a result of that reality, from the perspective of the teacher, unproductive faculty meetings represent a significant loss of irreplaceable time.

But these gatherings can be wonderfully productive as explained by Riddile.

“Professional learning is a process not an event. Experience taught me that continuing to shift topics with no follow-through only served to frustrate and confuse teachers. Instead, we collectively chose a theme and followed-through on that theme throughout the school year. We built a foundation of quality instruction one brick at a time.

“The operative word here is implementation. If a topic is worth taking the time to address in a faculty meeting, it should be worth the time and effort needed to adequately follow-up. In the follow-up process, we learned what was working and which teachers needed additional help. We made use of our “bright spots” to share what worked in their classrooms.”

This is not the approach taken by every administrative team. When I served as the Curriculum Coordinator I can recall several staff meetings where conversations like this ensued:

“I was looking at the calendar and there is a faculty meeting scheduled for next Monday. Any ideas of what we can talk about?” An awkward silence would follow as the principal looked around the table of APs. Finally a number of the “usual suspects” were proposed—attendance or tardy policies, assembly issues, field trip guidelines, etc. The results of such skimpy planning were rarely positive and did little to enhance staff enthusiasm for faculty meetings in general.

Condemning the innocent

Some faculty meetings fail because they are primarily designed to preach to the choir. I have sat in the audience and listened to lengthy discussions of teachers who release their classes before the end of the period, do not enforce the tardy policy, begin their lesson well after the tardy bell or are guilty of a variety of other educational misdemeanors. These are conversations that have previously occurred in large-group settings. At this point it would be far more effective to direct these concerns at the relatively small number of offenders not at the entire group the vast majority of who follow the rules. This approach in a faculty meeting not only wastes time it contributes to lower morale. And it can diminish the importance of subsequent meetings.

Faculty meetings can be one of the most powerful methods of communication within a school’s staff. But to be successful and relevant they required time, planning and a clear vision of their objectives.

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