As a consultant to many school districts across the country (and world), most of my “engagements” focus on helping students, staff, schools, and systems go “to the next level of excellence.”
Because this focus is both process and outcome oriented, I need to build strong relationships with my (new) colleagues, and understand the history, dynamics, and complexities of their system and its “moving parts.”
If a project, for example, involves strategic planning at the leadership level, or a needs assessment for a special education department or social-emotional learning initiative, I may work with a district or school for two or more months.
If the project, however, involves systemic change where we are building the infrastructure and capacity needed for long-term, sustainable outcomes, I may work with a district or school for one or more years.
Currently, I have the honor of working with twenty schools in three diverse communities in three different states as the Lead National Consultant on three five-year federally-funded School Climate Transformation Grants. We are currently in the middle of Year 2—a year, due to the pandemic and other national and world events, that has been unlike any other year I’ve experienced in my 40 years as a school psychologist and educator.
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Meetings. . . And More Meetings
During the past few weeks, I have spent most of my consulting time in two types of (virtual) meetings:
- Meetings where administrators, staff, and others are analyzing the data from this past school year to determine the progress, accomplishments, current status, and needs (for the next school year) of students, staff, committees/teams, and/or schools.
- Meetings where we are strategically planning for the beginning of the coming new school year—aligning students and staff, curriculum and instruction, resources and technology, and services and supports—so that everyone and everything is ready for “Day 1.”
Of course, given the past 16 months of the Pandemic, some of the data are non-existent or “fuzzy,” and we are continually trying to differentiate whether students’ academic and/or social-emotional gaps (a) existed before the Pandemic; (b) occurred during or are due to conditions related to the Pandemic; or (c) are new, but unrelated to the Pandemic.
Critically, most of my meetings these past few weeks have been “productive.” Some could have been “more productive.” And in a few meetings, the meeting did not seem to be “productive” for everyone attending.
And while we did not ask participants to evaluate and share their meeting experiences and perceptions, I always wonder if my evaluation that a specific meeting was “productive” is universally shared by everyone else who was at the same meeting.
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Indeed, at a few meetings, valued colleagues were admittedly (or not) multi-tasking. Some, in fact, were in two meetings at once!
As an aside, it is interesting that—unlike a conference room where everyone is physically present—in a virtual meeting, you are more aware of participants’:
- Attentional Presence (and whether they are engaged in the meeting, or reading or working on something else);
- Physical Presence (for example, when they momentarily move to another part of their office to file or pick something up—assuming their camera is actually on); and
- Interactional Presence (and whether they are in a muted conversation with someone else in the room with them).
These three factors contribute to meeting participants’ engagement.
And this engagement (a) communicates their commitment to (or prioritization of) the meeting, (b) affects others’ feelings regarding the quality and collaborative nature of the meeting, and (c) predicts the productivity of the meeting.
And it’s not that the same multi-task or “off-task” behavior doesn’t also occur in in-person meetings.
It’s just that we all need to be evaluating the quality and productivity of our (virtual) meetings this past year—especially as many districts and schools will likely use both in-person and virtual meetings this coming year.
Indeed, just as our staff and schools will use this past year’s data to improve different educational processes next year, we also have an opportunity to re-calibrate and improve the expectations, norms, and interactions in our meetings next year.
This will ensure that their productivity and outcomes will move “to the next level of excellence.”
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Evaluating and Improving Meeting Participation and Productivity
Whether you work in a large or small organization, department, or team, at some point, you need to attend and participate in meetings.
If you are a CEO, department head, or team leader, you often are chairing or facilitating those meetings.
But even as a meeting participant, we should leave every meeting explicitly asking ourselves:
- Was the meeting productive relative to its actual or potential outcomes, and to the time invested in preparing and participating?
- Was everyone attending fully committed to meeting—and the colleagues there—relative to their personal preparation and participation?
- Was I fully prepared for, and present, participating, and productive at the meeting?
- Am I excited about preparing for and participating in the next meeting of this same group?
At times, you may want to spend the last five minutes of every (most) meetings discussing the answers to, implications of, and improvement steps resulting from these questions.
But for right now, schools, districts, and other educational agencies or organizations can ask these essential questions in an evaluative way to determine what needs to be added, modified, or changed to improve the quality of your meetings next year.
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But beyond these questions and this (self-)evaluation, let’s remember that there are some expectations and norms that create the foundation for all effective meetings.
We discussed these a few Blogs ago when we differentiated between group members who have a “Me-First” attitude or perspective, and team members who have a “We-First” attitude or perspective.
[CLICK HERE for April 17, 2021 Blog]
The foundation for all effective meetings involves Team Members who:
- Come prepared and on time
- Listen to each other with interest
- Participate actively in discussions
- Keep side conversations to a minimum
- Treat everyone with respect and in a dignified manner
- Interact positively and productively with others
- Ask questions for clarification when they don’t understand
- Encourage different points of view
- Are honest and open to the ideas of others
- Focus on issues and content, not personalities and personal agendas
- Are willing to compromise
- Check for others’ readiness before finalizing decisions
- Keep the best interests of their constituents in mind
- Commit to supporting all final decisions—even when disagreements exist
- Follow through on agreements and action items
- Review the effectiveness of each meeting at the end of the meeting, making suggestions to improve the group process in the future
In a virtual meeting world, this includes (a) requiring everyone to keep their video cameras on; (b) making sure (ahead of time) that everyone is trained and skilled in using the technology; and (c) ensuring that everyone agrees to stay only on meeting-relevant documents or websites.
In an in-person meeting world, this includes (a) turning off all hand-held devices; and (b) a commitment (once again) to stay only on meeting-relevant documents or websites (if computers need to be on at all).
In addition, it is always important to have a written Meeting Agenda (that was shared ahead of time), someone taking notes or summarizing decisions on a virtual or physical whiteboard, and someone else taking Meeting Minutes as part of a permanent record of the meeting.
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After reviewing countless websites, reports, and articles on “How to Run an Effective Virtual Meeting,” my primary conclusion is that it is more about running an effective meeting, and then adapting—as needed—to a virtual platform.
And thus, I recommend that you start with the essential post-meeting questions and the fundamental characteristics of an effective meeting above, and then decide what modifications are needed. These modifications may be specific to the people who are attending your meetings, or the fact that some of the meetings are virtual.
In addition, I strongly recommend that you begin the new school year with a discussion (not a lecture) of the Meeting Norms above, why they are important, how they will facilitate participation and productivity, and when they will be evaluated during the year.
You can also post these Norms in any (conference) rooms where most of your meetings will occur, and remind people of the norms at the beginning of each meeting.
Finally, you may want to discuss appropriate and productive ways to address situations where one or more people are not fully following the expectations and norms—so that there are norms even for “how to disagree” or “deal with difficult people” in a meeting.
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I hope that the suggestions in this Blog are useful to you. Given the number of meetings some of us attend in a typical week, and their importance to the effectiveness and outcomes of most organizations, it is important to periodically re-calibrate this process so that we can truly move to the next level of excellence.
For districts and schools, a logical time for this is at the beginning of the new school year. But this must be a planned event that is focused on the future but guided by the past.
And so, at the “end” of this school year, it is a good time to think about how you will approach this in the coming months.
If there is anything that I can do to add value to this discussion and process in your setting, please feel free to contact me.
As always, I am happy to provide a free, one-hour consultation or “chat session” on how to apply these (and other) ideas to best meet the needs of your students, staff, schools, and system.