10 Essential Elements Of A Successful Meeting

What do we want classes to look like for our students?

When I reflect on this question I realize that it is does not have to be the same answer for each teacher; in fact, it should not be the same answer for every teacher.

Mrs. Jennifer Harrington, “All in” English Teacher

Teachers have different strengths. Teachers have different goals and objectives, teachers have different students with different needs, and, of course, teachers have different styles. Some may be comfortable dressing up as characters from the Outsiders, while others break out in a cold sweat at the thought of dressing up on Halloween, let alone a random day in February. All of us need to be who we are and not try to emulate the style of a successful educator we admire.

That being said, there are certain non-negotiables that are essential in teaching. Students need to know what is expected; they need to have a realistic road map for success. They need to have time to think, to ponder, to explore, to reflect, to speak, to be heard, and, most of all, they need to feel cared for and loved.  

Several years ago, as a young principal, I was preaching those ideas to my staff.  After delivering what I thought was a pretty great power point I walked out of the faculty room on a high.  Looking for a pat on the back and a stroking of my ever fragile ego, I went to a teacher who also happens to be a good friend.  

I approached him smiling and said, “Hey what did you think? Pretty good huh?”  

One of the things I respect most about this friend is he is honest, upfront, and has no desire to blow the proverbial smoke up my ass. He just tilted his head to the side with a “come on” look on his face and said, “Dude, it was a faculty meeting. I just shut it down and tried to get through it. I really don’t have any idea what you said.”

He must have seen the look of half hurt, half anger on my face, so he quickly replied, “but that little cartoon guy that you had on the powerpoint that looked like Mr. Smith and moved was pretty cool.”  

“It’s called an animation asshole,” I retorted as I stomped out of his room.

I may have been angry and hurt at the time by his comments, but they made me rethink how I was running meetings. He was right, and I knew it; my meeting was boring and something to get through. I am a notoriously bad participant in meetings. Sitting still and listening, not a strength. Rather, I am often checking my phone, email, whispering to the person next to me, cracking jokes, and leaving the room for extended bathroom breaks.

I hate meetings!

Well, I hate meetings unless I am the one running them and doing all the talking.  

I had mistakenly perceived my faculty’s conformity as engagement and interest.  All it took was a stink eye here, a splash of sarcasm there, and one or two instances of calling out the teacher who dared to step out of line, using their embarrassment to keep the masses in line.  Again, pretty much the exact opposite of how I wanted them to treat our students.

I would like to think I have grown since those early years.  One thing I have found, just like the lessons our teachers deliver, there is not one way to run a successful meeting. Everyone needs to find their own style, but there are certain non-negotiables for running successful sessions as a leader.

Determine The What, When, Who, and Where

Just like a good lesson, you need clear goals and objectives to run a good meeting. What is the purpose? Is it to make decisions, to plan, to deliver information, obtain information or for professional growth?  Is the meeting really necessary? If so, who needs to be there? Don’t waste people’s time, but respect the fact that some may feel undervalued if they are left out.

As a central office administrator I try schedule as many meetings as possible in the schools, allowing me to get out of my office, get into the buildings, and interact with students and staff members. It also makes things more convenient for the building level administrators.  

I have found that taking a little more time into scheduling the meetings saves much more time in the long run. Educators are busy; the more lead time you give them, the better.  It is not fair to spring a meeting on your participants and it only leads to frustrated and distracted individuals who are thinking about everything but the meeting you just called.  Using simple scheduling applications like Doodle or by creating a Google Doc with time options can go a long way in showing you respect those you work with.

Prepare

You can not walk into a meeting without doing some preparation and expect it to be successful. Create an agenda that supports the goals and objectives of the meeting. Think about what it is you want to accomplish and create a plan that supports that. Take yourself through the meeting; think about ways to engage participants. Think about obstacles you may face. Create protocols and activities that get people involved.   

Certain topics and decisions can be emotional for some. Too many times to count I have reacted with authority rather than understanding in these situations. No good comes from this.

I have learned through the years that the best leaders listen rather than react. The most confident leaders do not get offended when they are challenged. Rather, they try to empathize and determine if there is a better way. Thinking ahead about who may be upset by what you say and why they are upset can help you to react with compassion and thoughtfulness, and, at the very least, you will not be caught off guard by the person who tries to derail your agenda.  

Respect People’s Time

Educators work hard and we need to respect this. Start meetings on time and end them on time. And, please keep them short! Usually after an hour not much happens but a spinning of the wheels.  I would rather end a meeting and schedule another one than run a marathon meeting that makes people never want to come back.

Just like I want teachers to set up their students for success, I try to do the same for those I lead. Take the time to send a reminder email, put a call out to that principal who is notorious for being late.  It does no good to embarrass people when they arrive late, a fact that I still struggle with. How can they be their best if they have just been scolded? It is always better to address your concerns after the meeting and privately.  

Strong Opening

The opening of a meeting sets the tone; it is essential to do it right.  A quick ice breaker activity is a great way to get people to decompress from their hectic days. Get them up and moving, have them connect with others, share a positive, or give them a chance to “purge” all the frustrations they are experiencing.  More recently I have tried to incorporate some mindfulness techniques. I have been surprised with how even the surliest of the people I work with have embraced a quick break from their day to just “be.” It seems to enable them to be their best self and helps them add value to the conversation, and more pleasant to be around.  Explaining the work that Harvard is doing in this area seems to give people the permission to enjoy practicing mindfulness.

Review the Agenda

Taking the time to review the agenda prior to the start of the meeting has made more of a difference than I ever imagined it would. When I learned this tip from my wife I thought it was unnecessary, but like many things, I did it because I am wise enough to realize most times she knows better than I do. Once again she was right! (Darn it!) I found taking the time to let people know what to expect, when to expect it, and why we are doing it has made a huge difference.  Seeing the big picture lets educators make the connections necessary for sound decision making and learning.

Capture The Key Points

Nothing is more frustrating than running a great meeting only to forget what was decided. Who has to do what? What are the next steps? What did we decide again?  Meet, meet, and meet and never accomplish anything is unfortunately too common in schools. Determine who will take the minutes, how they will be vetted, and what information is important to capture.  Creating a meeting template has been helpful for me.

Meeting Notes
Date:   
Purpose of Meeting:
Participants in Attendance:

Agenda

Action Items:

Task(sDecisions Made:

Decisions in need of further discussion:

Keep It Simple

It is great to prepare and it is great to provide your participants with information and resources. Just remember that, often times, less is more.  

Have you ever been at a meeting where you have had so many papers that you never know which one you are supposed to be looking at?  I once had a boss who gave us so many handouts that you could almost hear the cries coming from the Humboldt Forest. She gave us a ton of great information, but we spent so much time shuffling through papers and concepts that we often left more confused than when we arrived.

If you have handouts, keep them to a minimum and hand them out when it is time to use them. You can only accomplish so much in one session. Determine what is a priority and focus on that.  When you try to do to much, you end up doing nothing.

Involve Participants

Kids can’t listen to a teacher lecture for 45 minutes. I  know that is not the best way to learn, yet I often catch myself running meetings that way.  Ask people to think, to process, to talk. Remember the old saying, “it is not what you tell them, but rather what they hear.” I have started building in 2-3 minute reflection times. Asking people to think about a problem or information they were just presented with helps them to better make sense of what has been said. It is impossible to be creative, to problem solve, or to see a vision without time to think. I have been challenging myself to slow down, slow down my meetings, and give people the opportunity to think. The return I have gotten has been well worth the time.

Remember The Little Things

We all need to feel valued. We all need to feel like we belong. The little things go a long way in facilitating a successful meeting and leading a successful organization. If you want a meeting to go well, people need to be comfortable, ready to learn, and, most importantly, they should know that you care about them and their opinion.  Some little things you can do include:

  • Play music as they arrive
  • Have coffee and water available
  • Have snacks
  • Make sure the room and seats are comfortable
  • Have materials they will need ready
  • Smile

I recently read an article from Edutopia by Youki Terada that offers evidence to the benefits of greeting students at the door.  As I read it, I shook my head up and down and almost felt anger that every teacher doesn’t do this. Then I realized–as I often do–I can be a dope.  Why don’t I greet people at the door for my meetings?

I go running into the room, head buried in my phone, often think about what just happened or what I have to do after the meeting.  Since this epiphany I have been trying to put my phone away, greet people, get to know people, talk shop, and talk family. I have been trying to get to know people on a deeper level and build better relationships. All the things I beg teachers to do. If we as leaders can’t model this, how can we expect those we lead to do it with their students?

Process The Meeting

Probably one of my least favorite of the essentials is processing the meeting, but it may be the most important. If you spend so much time preparing and delivering a great meeting without closing the loop, your meeting is not a success.  I have found that after each meeting I need to close it out by:

  • Sending a reminder email with the to-do list
  • Calendar next steps
  • Provide the appropriate people information on decisions made
  • Review what action items I need to take
  • Process the meeting while it is still fresh in my mind

Let’s be honest, no educator ever said “I can’t wait for that next meeting”. Yet, they are necessary if you want to move your district, school or organization in the right direction.  

But, when you take the time to plan and close out a meeting properly, they not only are more efficient, those you lead will have more confidence in you as a leader. I am hopeful that some of the strategies will be helpful, but always keep in mind that you have to find what works best for you and your people.