- by Blaine Helwig
Solving Aimless "Therapeutic" School Meetings
Most professional people I know dislike meetings of any kind. As a matter of fact, one of my engineering colleagues once philosophically stated, “Nature abhors a vacuum, and humans abhor meetings!” She made this comment for good reason. Meetings can be a flagrant abuse of one’s time and greatly reduce overall productivity, or they can be invaluable to move the collective work forward.
There is not a great mystery to a good meeting versus a poor one. In fact, everyone in attendance generally knows if the meeting possessed value either at the onset or by its conclusion. If there is value, these types of meetings can be defined as ‘productive meetings.’ They usually begin with a written objective on the agenda to state the intention, and the gathering departs the room with ‘next steps’ and ‘accountable assignments.’ As expected, the follow-up meeting begins by reviewing the accountable assignments from the prior meeting and ultimately, the collective work moves productively forward with clearly defined organizationally outcomes and results.
The exact opposite of the productive meeting is the ‘therapeutic meeting.’ I have attended hundreds of meetings in three (3) different professional fields – engineering, finance and public education. Each field had its share of meetings, but public education in particular is strewn with therapeutic meetings. They possess the exact opposite characteristics of productive meetings: an overall objective and agenda that does not directly impact the social and academic climate at the campus in addition to no actionable accountable assignments and next steps. A campus or a school district that continually has therapeutic meetings has one overriding characteristic by the month of May – poor student outcomes.
In the public school system, meetings can generally be classified in two areas: district meetings and campus-based meetings.
I attended district administrative meetings for more than a decade in two different school districts. Senior administrative personnel scheduled monthly meetings, and each one had an objective and an agenda. However, these meetings never had ‘next steps’ and ‘accountable assignments.’ Why?
First, the everyday workings at any one of my districts’ eighty-two (82) elementary campuses was for the most part independent of central office. Central office personnel only possess so much bandwidth to effectively and efficiently monitor that many schools to any depth. Additionally, these administrator meetings were more operational in nature – introducing new initiatives or updating district policies, procedures and providing up-to-date standardized assessment information.
Second, these monthly meetings rarely if ever addressed any pedagogy or methodologies to dramatically improve academic student achievement since the vast majority of district administrators do not possess that knowledge by way of prior campus leadership results. Thus, district personnel relayed mostly procedural information at the gathering that satisfied their written meeting objective and agenda as well as a self-rationalization of task accomplishment that justified both their job and usually a relatively high annual salary.
Unlike district meetings, school principals – especially Title 1 administrators cannot afford conducting weekly therapeutic meetings. There is administrative accountability at the campus level from standardized assessments, primary grade literacy outcomes, student discipline data, etc. that is not generally present in central office administrator capacities. A campus administrator is in a singular position of accountability. Although, on the upside, if the campus is not performing well in any variety of areas, a principal is afforded the unique opportunity to invoke change – immediate and positive change. However, they must create and implement a viable plan in order to press student social and academic achievement significantly upward.
So, what should weekly meetings at the campus sound and look like?
First and foremost, any meeting that is called must look and be a productive meeting with an objective, agenda, next steps and accountable assignments. Those elements press the principal to create and implement a plan of engagement and action with their staff regarding campus and district policy and procedures; moreover, it drives the campus administration to transparently demonstrate that there is an ongoing and adjustable approach to any and all social and academic issues at the campus. If the principal cannot design a meeting with these four (4) elements, then it is better not to have one. Why? The meeting will not only lack purpose and direction, it consumes time – one of the most valuable resources at any school. Again, if there is one singular aspect that most people will not tolerate, it is a monopolization of hours of their time in therapeutic meetings. Finally, it is important to emphasize that these four meeting elements can take place in an oral - ad hoc meeting; however, the lead administrator much emphasize the elements in that setting with the appropriate follow-up.
Of course, appoint a time keeper so the meeting begins and ends on time. It is always beneficial to have a designated person track the speaker(s) time allotment on each agenda item.
Principal Note: It is highly recommended to strategize your scheduled weekly faculty meetings. For example, if the information will only be relevant for the intermediate grade levels, consider only requiring those teachers show-up for a meeting. Almost all classroom teachers desire information that is relevant to their needs; consequently, the principal should require compulsory attendance at meetings for only the affected teachers. Additionally, if there is nothing relevant to discuss in a given week, the principal should not require teachers to attend a faculty meeting ONLY because it was scheduled on the annual school calendar at the beginning of the school year. Again, strategize meetings at all levels at all times - ALWAYS respect your teachers' time.
When a meeting is planned, an administrator should ask themselves how the information can be most easily communicated? For example, in the eyes of a principals who had little choice in whether or not to attend a district meeting, many principals believed that most of the presented information may have alternatively been conveyed in an email. Again, as mentioned earlier, district administrative meetings are often scheduled regularly so that there is a justification of central office roles and jobs since academic improvement is usually chronic in many school districts. Thus, the senior management may be viewed by the superintendent of a traditional public school system or the founder of a charter public school system as accomplishing some task or supervisory role when a district principal meeting occurs. It is important to note that district level therapeutic meetings can occur with impunity – school year after school year. In general, there is not public data or individual accountability that stems from those types of meetings.
However, a campus principal cannot afford to follow the same lineage of thought at their school as district administrators. Their role at the campus is much more publicly accountable than a central office administrator. They must develop a plan of action via their weekly meetings and group interactions to press the collaborative work. An elementary administrator holds an instructional leadership position and their interactions with staff must clearly indicate that they possess a social and academic plan for their students. Again, as previously cited, every weekly educator or planning meeting must include the four (4) elements to guide the campus work.
Lastly, the author coined the adjective 'therapeutic' to describe nonproductive meetings since they often bestow upon the speaker or administrator an internal and comforting warm fuzzy feeling that they are accomplishing something, and/or the meeting attempts to convey the general impression that management knows what they are doing. However, there are real world ramifications if the principal elects to not align a meeting to the four (4) essential elements -- student outcomes will more than likely remain chronically low and many of his or her seasoned educators will be cognizant that there is a leadership issue at the campus. Eventually, the mass of therapeutic meetings will result in higher-than-expected faculty turnover each school year.
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