How to Be a Wise Meeting Participant

Tips on how to make the most of back-to-school professional development meetings

August 9, 2018
Meeting Wise

For teachers, before it’s back to school, it’s back to meetings: professional development, curriculum planning, and goal setting with colleagues and supervisors for the new school year.

Although the content of these meetings is valuable, they can still feel onerous. As August days wane, many teachers are craving time to set up their classrooms and plan out lessons, or yearning for a few more moments of vacation.

To make the most of back-to-school meetings, keep in mind that you, as a participant, actually have considerable agency over the tone, productivity, and significance of sessions. Here, we provide advice on “wise participation”: how to shape and optimize back-to-school meetings, even when you aren’t the facilitator. We pull this advice from Meeting Wise: Making the Most of Collaborative Time for Educators, a handy book by Kathryn Parker Boudett and Elizabeth City.

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When there’s an elephant in the room — a significant, awkward, or upsetting issue that’s not being discussed — it’s often a good idea to mention it. If you can do so in an impartial way, you may help the group more openly state their ideas. 

Task 1: Keeping to (and Deviating from) the Agenda

Participants have almost complete control over whether an agenda is closely followed or widely ignored. But while staying on task is a straightforward way to respect everyone’s time, sometimes the right decision is to deviate from the agenda. 

Tips

  • Be on time —  it’s as easy as that. The group will get more accomplished, and you’ll have a better chance of starting off on the right foot.
  • Understand the purpose. You’ll be more able to ask useful, pointed questions that the whole group will appreciate. If you are confused, phrase it carefully —  “I’m not entirely clear of the purpose here. Could we clarify our goals?” — in order to avoid slighting the facilitators.

Common Dilemmas

  • If you think the meeting is serving the wrong purpose, speak up carefully and courteously. Mentioning, “To be honest, I’m not sure if this is the most essential thing for us to be discussing today, given our limited time. I’ve had the impression that many of us wanted to talk about XX instead,” signals to the facilitator that you and others have thought about what the team needs.
  • When there’s an elephant in the room — a significant, awkward, or upsetting issue that’s not being discussed — it’s often a good idea to mention it. Some facilitators may feel uneasy bringing up a divisive topic, but if you can do so in an impartial way, you may actually help the group more openly state their underlying ideas.  

Task 2: Supporting Full Engagement

As a wise participant, supporting engagement means managing yourself, while helping others likewise engage productively.

Tips

  • Think before you sit. Sitting next to a friend can at times inspire confidence, but it can also lead to distracting side conversations. Sitting next to someone new may offer up a new perspective, but it can also feel uncomfortable. Know yourself and what’s best for you, and don’t be afraid to mix up seating occasionally.
  • Use people’s names whenever possible, which can demonstrate your own attentiveness and help others feel valued and included.
  • Build on the ideas of others. When participants combine creative thinking, rather than continually coming up with independent ideas, the group can better flesh out ideas and anticipate challenges.

Common Dilemmas

  • When you’re unprepared — you haven’t completed the prerequisite work — it’s best to come clean right away. Being transparent can lessen feelings of guilt or embarrassment. You can still participate by actively reflecting and building on the ideas of others as the meeting progresses.  
  • If you tend to talk too much: Try writing down your thoughts first instead of speaking them out loud. You can also try keeping a mental “tally,” and refrain from speaking until you’ve heard three other voices in the room.
  • If you tend to talk too little: Try setting a goal before the meeting begins that you’ll speak at least three times in the meeting. You can also ask facilitators to give more “wait time” during the meeting so participants can gather their thoughts.
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Education cultures often veer toward protective and “nice,” which can drive participants to avoid any disagreements. But conflict can be a productive, healthy part of a conversation.

Task 3: Managing Conflict

Education cultures often veer toward protective and “nice,” which can drive participants to avoid any disagreements. But conflict can be a productive, healthy part of a conversation.

Tips

  • Be courageous. If you voice your own vulnerabilities or fears (“I’m worried about…” “I’m noticing a tension between…” “One thing that makes me uncomfortable is…”), you may inspire others to own their differing opinions.
  • Challenge ideas, not people. When you need to disagree with someone, make sure you put the emphasis on the idea, not the person expressing it. “Sarah’s idea won’t work for our students,” can come off as more hurtful — and counterproductive — than something like “Thinking back to last year, I’m not sure if that proposal will work for our students.”

Common Dilemmas

  • When everyone is playing nice — not proposing alternate ideas or anticipating challenges — you, as a wise participant, are in the perfect position to play devil’s advocate and help the group think beyond conventions.
  • When someone is upset, try to wait for a break to comfort the person. Often, addressing those emotions during a meeting can make that person feel worse. Remember, too, that emotions running high doesn’t necessarily mean the group should change the subject.
  • When you want to help the facilitator because he appears to be floundering or missing important cues, try to offer assistance while focusing on the group. Rather than saying, “George, I think this meeting is getting out of hand,” try, “I think the group seems to be missing a point here. George, could you repeat what you said?”

Task 4: Maintaining Awareness of the Role You Play

Above all else, it’s crucial to remember that, as a wise participant, your actions and behaviors determine how effective meetings will be.

Tips

  • Be mindful of your preferences and ask for what you need, whether that’s extra wait time, additional background information, or short stretch breaks. Chances are, other people in the room need those extra supports, too.
  • Weigh your words. In comments and suggestions, try to strike a balance between inquiry — a desire to understand other people’s perspectives — and advocacy — helping people better understand your perspective.
  • Provide constructive feedback — it’s key to having successful meetings in the future. If your facilitator presents the opportunity, let the group know what you think worked well and what could be improved about the collaborative experience. If your facilitator doesn’t provide a clear moment for feedback, that doesn’t mean you’re off the hook. Brainstorm with other participants about what could work better next time, or ask for a private word with the facilitator. The learning of your colleagues — and your own learning — depends on it.
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Meeting Wise — and Data Wise

These and other Meeting Wise practices are integrated into a suite of professional development offerings called Data Wise — in-person and online programs that help educators use data smartly. The emphasis of these team-based trainings 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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