I’ve been reading two books lately, Brain Rules – 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School, by John Medina and inGenius - A Crash Course On Creativity by Tina Seeling. I recommend them both. Oddly enough, they’ve gotten me thinking about faculty meetings. Not, lest you jump to conclusions, as hotspots of creativity. As a veteran teacher, I’ve sat through more of them than I care to count. Mostly at one school, but not entirely. A few thoughts come to mind. The first is that faculty meetings seem to be structured and run the way many classrooms are. The organization and the presentation are about as original as what goes on hour after hour, day after day, in many, many schools. The “sage on the stage” is the principal, division head, or whatever other titled person is leading the event. The faculty is arranged in orderly rows. The leader is the adult/teacher, the faculty is the youth/students. Everyone slides neatly into his or her role. The faculty is talked at, given all the “vital” information, anecdotes, and instruction they require. In short (or long), a lecture. Question and answer, or “discussion” follows, linearly, hands rising for recognition like needy fifth graders. Everyone plays their role: class clowns clown, good students ask for a review of the facts, head nodders nod, people with off the wall ideas get looks of scorn, emoters emote, note takes take notes, note passers pass notes, the devil’s advocates advocate, the peacemakers pacify, some whisperers pretend engagement, the tired strain to stay awake or nod off, poor listeners ask questions that have already been asked, and everyone sighs deeply when the long-winded drone on. Eyes are on the clock. For years I have been at a loss for words as to how so many smart people can convene at a meeting and collectively become so dumb. Little, if anything is changed, except by administrative fiat. Herewith, a stab at wrestling with this conundrum, inspired afresh by Medina and Seeling. I claim no particular originality. These thoughts have to have occurred to many of my colleagues sitting in a meeting at one time or another – when they were supposed to be paying attention!
Medina’s first chapter is titled “Exercise”. What if people were encouraged to move around a bit, before, during or after meetings? Watch the leaders at the front of the room. They get to stand, roam, gesture, and move about as they see fit to help deliver their message. The people who need the oxygen to help stimulate their attention and thinking, are asked, even required, to sit still. As noted above, faculty meetings are much like classrooms. How much time do faculty get, or are encouraged to take to exercise during a meeting? During the day? Assuming, of course, they are permitted to leave the building. What if a meeting began with five minutes of dancing? Simple yoga? A chance to just stretch and breathe?
Medina rightly points out we don’t pay attention to boring things. “Before the first quarter-hour is over in a typical presentation, people usually have checked out.” I can’t remember how many years ago I checked out on topics like dress code, gum chewing, attendance taking. Vital pedagogical issues, to be sure, but too much information on these or any issue leads a brain straight to the check out counter.
I’m NO fan of PowerPoint presentations, especially those that are simply cue cards for a speaker. That said, a few pictures might save time and get a message across. Got a dress code? A few pictures of violators might illustrate the point quickly. A couple of shots of gum under desks, squashed into rugs, tacked on a wall, might be a more forceful reminder to address that issue. It could even become a community response by asking students to generate a dozen or so gross shots of “gum pollution” to share with faculty. A public service project for a photography class perhaps. Use music, use food, use a prize – some hook to help presenters to make their point (if they must) short and to the point, and then move on. In a not so subtle way I’m encouraging leaders here to consider TEACHING, not as a task their underlings do, but as something they can do to model for those they collaborate (?) with. Including recognizing that we learn with more than just our ears and putting that knowledge into practice.
When do faculty meetings occur? At the end of the school day when Medina describes what he calls “the nap zone”? Not just a cute name, but a time identified by sleep research. Medina couldn’t be more explicit when he says, “If you are a public speaker, you already know it is darn near fatal to give a talk in the midafternoon.” Or perhaps your school schedules meetings before the regular school day, bringing grumpy, underslept faculty to the gathering, before they head off to encounter grumpy, underslept adolescents. Sleep, healthy sleep, especially for adolescents, is an issue worth discussing at...a faculty meeting? Now there’s a dilemma worth tackling. When do you schedule the sleep issue meeting?
It’s also worth asking how stress intersects with faculty lives. Medina suggests that individually, the worst kind of stress is the feeling that you have no control over a problem – you are helpless. I refer back to my point at the beginning. Classrooms and faculty meetings can be indistinguishable. Especially in the current testing environment where teachers and students are being asked, no forced, to teach, learn, and regurgitate on terms dictated by others, up to and including our president. It’s worth questioning whether a meeting will add or reduce the stress in any teacher’s life. Or any student’s life? How can a meeting add to rather than reduce a teacher’s sense of professionalism?
I fell asleep recently (in my own bed, not at a faculty meeting) musing on a suggestion of Tina Seelig’s, “ask questions that start with ‘why’”. Children do this all the time. How many times did my children ask me, “Why?” Why is this meeting necessary? Why is it necessary to present information in this way? Why now? Why will this meeting make school life better? The point of asking why, of “reframing” as Seelig calls it is because, “’why’ questions provide an incredibly useful tool for expanding the landscape of solutions for a problem. Of course, this presumes that the point of a meeting is indeed to engage a faculty in solving problems, finding solutions, creating new ideas. Just like they do in their classrooms. Or not.