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Making Meetings Work

Solutions to the common pitfalls that can sink a meeting — so educators can make the most of their collaborative time
Illustration of group of coworkers around a table, seen from above

Educators have a particularly tricky relationship with meetings. Teachers, school leaders, and district officials are famously short on time, but they’re also often desperate for collaboration and connection, knowing that those partnerships are key to professional growth and wellbeing, as well as to streamlining the services that help students learn and grow.

For meeting facilitators at every level, this clash between reality and aspiration can create enormous pressure to make sure meetings are efficient and meaningful — with no droning monologues or confusing activities.

Here’s how facilitators can work through sticky moments, avoid common pitfalls, and make the most of the time you have with your group. These insights come from Meeting Wise: Making the Most of Collaborative Time for Educators, a handy book by Kathryn Parker Boudett and Elizabeth City that’s full of tips and strategies for making better meetings.

Take the attention away from yourself. Ask open-ended questions and wait for responses. Take notes while people talk, which may encourage more people to make eye contact and speak with one another.

Common Dilemmas — and Solutions — for Meeting Facilitators

When there’s silence: You’ve asked a question, or proposed an idea, and then . . . nothing. What next?

  • Count to 10. It’s easy to think that silences are much longer than they actually are, and your group may just need time to think about your last point. Giving them at least 10 seconds will also encourage those who need more processing time to speak up.
  • Remind your group that silence is OK, and that you’re comfortable with wait time. This signals to them that you want to hear their responses; you’re not going to answer this question yourself.
  • If the group stays quiet, check in. Ask, “Why is it quiet? Are you all thinking? Confused? Not interested?” You might realize they’re not clear about the question, or that they’re distracted by another issue.
  • Sometimes groups are quiet because they’re having trouble keeping track of the discussion. Visual tools — noting options on a poster board, projecting an outline — can help.

When the activity isn’t working: You planned, prepped, and presented with excitement, but the activity you’ve asked your group to do has fallen flat. What do you do?

  • If you’re short on time, it may be best to just let the activity run its course, while trying to wrap it up as soon as is feasible. Get feedback at the end of the meeting on what went wrong.
  • If it’s a longer session, seek help privately. During a break, check in with a co-facilitator or a member of the group about what she thinks might help. Often, another person will have noticed a glitch that you haven’t.
  • Enlist help publicly. Say to your group, “We seem to be talking in circles. What could help us all go deeper?” or suggest that everyone take a 10-minute break — and return with a suggestion on why the group is stuck, and what to do about it.

When you’re too much at the center of things: You’re doing most of the talking, or your group seems to be relying on you for solutions. How can you make the dynamic more balanced?

  • Take the attention away from yourself. Ask open-ended questions and wait for responses. Take notes while people talk, which may encourage more people to make eye contact and speak with one another. Or try the opposite: look at specific people, which may encourage them to speak. Rest your chin on your hand or take a drink of water — signaling that you’re not going to talk right away.
  • Be transparent about what’s happening. “Try talking with each other, not to me,” “This is our collective conversation, so I’d like for you to pose that question to the group.”

When there’s an energy lull: Low energy often coincides with low productivity. How can you amp up the mood?

  • Take a five- or 10-minute break, especially if you’ve been sitting for more than 90 minutes.
  • Get everyone talking, using a pair-share activity or small group discussions.
  • Get them moving. Ask people to post ideas around the room and do a “gallery walk” to look. Or try inviting people to discuss with someone they haven’t worked with yet, moving them away from the people they’re sitting next to.
  • Have some fun. Toss a ball for talk turns, do a quick energizer, or play a word game.

Additional Resources

Meeting Wise — and Data Wise

These and other Meeting Wise practices are integrated into a suite of professional development offerings called Data Wise — programs that help educators use data smartly. The emphasis of these team-based trainings — in person and online — is not only to use data to improve teaching and learning, but to develop an approach to data-informed decision making that is not overwhelming, that is useful, and that is collaborative.

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