Time-Wasting Meetings
Leadership Insights

PD for Principals: Ditch the Status Meeting

By Terry Wilhelm January 12, 2016
Time-Wasting Meetings

Having dinner recently with some very respected teacher friends, I was particularly struck by one part of the conversation that sparked a range of strong emotions, from frustration to disgust. The topic was staff meetings. “Mind-numbingly boring” and “complete waste of time” were the end-pronouncements from my friends describing their experiences, weekly in most cases, representing four schools in three different school districts.

No learning, no collaborating: The dreaded status meeting

None of these staff meetings were devoted to team collaboration or professional learning. My friends were describing “status” meetings with informational agendas that covered every conceivable topic. They lamented that typically, much of the information did not even apply to them as teachers.

Reflecting upon my own 36 years in public education at the site, district, and regional service area levels, I could only concur. I could come up with nothing at any level that was a bigger time waster than status meetings. As a principal coming directly from the teaching ranks, I did not hold status meetings, but I certainly attended plenty of them. Taking a page from the business world, most education entities hold them. If I did the math for the ones I had to sit through, I could chalk up zillions of wasted hours.

Why do time-wasting meetings happen so frequently in schools and districts?

Why do principals and districts hold status meetings? In my experience, these are a few of the stated (and implied) reasons.

We’re a team

Don’t you love this one? As if forcing a group of people to sit together in a room every week, two weeks, or monthly makes them a team. Obviously the content of the agenda matters, but in the vast majority of cases, its content does nothing to overtly create a team.

We all need to know what everyone else is doing

Great idea! How about using email? How about a weekly, single page summary of everyone’s new and continued priorities? But please, not in addition to the meeting —in lieu of it.

I can’t be sure you read your email

This has got to be the most insulting of all rationale. I’ve heard it used more than once by district leaders to justify status meetings for principals. One principal, describing his district’s biweekly principals’ meetings, said, “It’s basically a five-hour brow beating. Each director gets up and has a whack at us. Then we walk out each time with a huge, new stack of to-do paperwork.”

My question for his district’s leaders might be, “How are you measuring the impact of your meetings on student learning? If you can’t, could you handle the agenda items by email?” I would ask the same questions of principals about their status meetings for teachers. It is simply a given that leaders have to trust their followers to be professional enough to read their email.

I’m in charge here

No one ever actually says this, but in my observation, it is an underlying motivation for holding status meetings in many settings. One regional leader I’ll call Sam was selected to lead a department of extraordinarily busy, highly competent consultants whose work in the field supported several dozen school districts. His supervisor immediately advised him to drop the unit’s traditional, biweekly status meetings, and simply meet his consultants in the field on an as-needed basis, preferably in their regional offices, on their schedules.

Unfortunately, he chose to continue the status meetings. Given their content, felt by many to be useless and time-wasting, as well as his demeanor in running them, it was interpreted by many in the unit as a symbol of his need to “prove that he’s in charge,” hindering, rather than helping, his acceptance as the new leader.

The type of meetings district leaders hold are a model for principals

As a district leader, how can you coach your principals who still hold status meetings? Even if they are not creating smoldering discontent among their teachers, status meetings waste valuable, contractually-sanctioned time that could be used for teacher collaboration and other kinds of professional learning.

And finally, what are you modeling for your principals with the meetings you hold?

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