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How to shine at staff meetings

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By Paul Noblefreelance writer, former head teacher and education adviser.

Don’t be a shrinking violet! Use our guide to help you communicate with your colleagues and make the most of every meeting

staff meeting

Bull at a gate. Dead duck. Snake in the grass. These unkind epithets have all been used to describe head teachers that I have known. Not, of course, to their faces, but most commonly during whispered exchanges after staff meetings or when drink had loosened their tongues. Anyway, you must know what kind of animal your head teacher is if you wish to understand staff meetings and perform well in them. As chairperson, your head teacher’s role is crucial; get to know them, observe how they work and learn how they like to run things.

The modern meeting

Twenty-first century staff meetings are more efficiently run than when teachers only met to discuss school uniform and litter in the playground. Meetings can be orderly or shambolic and are greatly affected by group dynamics, so – particularly if you are a new teacher and not yet assimilated into the pecking order – you have to be careful.

Be wary of sitting in a central or dominant position (this is presumptuous). Sitting alongside the head is supportive but a little too cosy to begin with. David Attenborough once described a meeting at the BBC at which his main friend and supporter sat opposite him: he had never done that before. He immediately realised that he was in for a confrontation: so that’s another position to avoid. If you wish to launch a bid for power, lurk somewhere at the back, but otherwise this position can be seen either as vaguely threatening or as a retreat from life.

Do not be late for the meeting. For preference, arrive early and serve the coffee. This will, of course be seen as currying favour, but then favour is what you are after at this stage. Do not leave early (as if you would!). A teacher who stood up on the dot of five o’clock, announced that they were going to the supermarket and then left, was carrying out a deliberate snub as part of an ongoing feud. Don’t go there.

New teachers should be attentive but should start by keeping a low profile. One much revered colleague kept such a low profile that he actually fell asleep during a staff meeting, which would not have been so bad except that he was chairman at the time. It is useful to take notes, but you should only record the decisions that are taken. You can check these against the minutes later.

Speak up

Low profiles are not forever and you will be eager to play a full part in proceedings and make effective interventions. When you do have something to say (don’t speak otherwise), it is good practice to try to build upon statements that have gone before; this is not only a constructive way to build an argument but also flattering to the previous speaker, such as ‘Mel made a good point’. Tentative and polite (‘Can I suggest?’) is better than opinionated or brash (‘I think…’ or ‘Clearly…’). Please avoid using AMLS (At My Last School) or a similar remark. One teacher at my school actually became know by the acronym AMLS, so avoid that trap. It is also constructive to encourage other members of staff of speak, so don’t be afraid of doing so – but check they are awake first.

Do your groundwork

When you have a ‘big idea’, one that you enthusiastically wish to put to the staff, prepare the ground first. Take soundings beforehand, sow seeds of the idea, and put it to the head teacher in private, otherwise you risk your idea being rubbished, or worse, ignored. Teachers can be at their least creative when in staff meetings and will turn into abominable no-men given half a chance. Before and after meetings are critical times: read the relevant paperwork, check the minutes and take any necessary soundings before the meeting. Afterwards, do any tasks allocated to you and perhaps volunteer for jobs that you are willing and able to undertake at that point rather than make a show of martyrdom during the meeting (‘I’ll do all playground duties in March’). Alison (let’s not protect the guilty) once volunteered to do ‘The Parable of the Sower’ at Harvest Festival and then asked, ‘Where does that story come from?’ Ever afterwards she was addressed as Head of RE.

Finally… you should be prepared for anything. No two staff meetings are the same; they can be like board meetings at Shell BP or bun fights in the village hall. Which type they are can change from week to week, but it is as well to remember that it is ‘a committee of one, that gets things done.’

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