Thursday, January 16, 2020

Team meetings and principal expectations

How often does your team meet?  Do you only meet when it is required?  Do you meet with the team members you see eye-to-eye with more often?  How productive is your time together?

A team is not a static enterprise.  It is a living breathing organism that ebbs and flows.  Every team has highs and lows, strengths and weaknesses.  Every team has successes and failures, leaders and followers.

A few years ago as principal, I facilitated a 2nd grade team meeting.  The purpose was to plan collaboratively with the district's new curriculum documents.  The district wisely invested in a solid written curriculum and spent a great deal of professional development time with the new documents.  Teachers needed to learn how to turn them into the taught curriculum.  I was excited and ready for the growth.  The team was anxiously willing and open to the new curriculum and wanted to make it happen.  They were not at all excited about my idea of collaborative planning.

The looks on their faces told their story.  Nevertheless, I pressed on.  For that meeting and several more.  In order to guarantee the written curriculum would be taught in every classroom, I wanted to stick with a protocol that required teams to discuss the learning targets for each unit and the method for students to prove mastery.  (Sounds like a PLC discussion, doesn't it?)

After a few meetings, one teacher approached me and asked me why I continued to hammer forward when the meetings weren't meeting the teachers needs.  I told her that I could easily see the frustration, but that we really needed to assure we were using the new, written curriculum with fidelity.  She nodded yes, and said, "But we are not talking about any learning at the lesson level, so is it actually making our instruction any better?"

Great question!  I turned it back around to her?  In her optimistic way, she agreed that it had forced her to really focus on the learning target rather than the activity.  She said that it also made her check to see if her activities were actually focused on the 2nd grade objectives.  Perfect!

But there was more truth to her words.  I was charged with ensuring that teachers were using the new, written curriculum in their classrooms.  I also needed their team meetings to be beneficial to them.  She told me they were not able to have the discussions they needed to have in order to design excellent learning activities for their classrooms.  Furthermore, she said they were so pressed for time, that they didn't want to meet any more.  They just wanted to take care of their own lesson preparations.

How could I do both?  How could I ask them to be true to the docs and give them time to take care of their team needs for successful classroom learning?

I found a way, although it was far from perfect.  But that is not the purpose of this story.  As their principal, I needed specific things from them.  They also had specific needs from their team meetings.  My needs were to grow the curriculum planning across campus.  They needed to talk about lessons.  As their principal, I listened and I tried to take a few steps back.  Again, it wasn't perfect, but it didn't make sense for me to command every team meeting.  They need to be productive in other ways too.  I needed to get out of their way as much as I needed them to use the new documents.

Now that I am a classroom teacher, I see things more clearly from both perspectives.

My advice to principals
Principals, unless your teams are a complete wreck, don't attend every team meeting.  This goes for the assistant principal and the instructional coach as well.  Give them some time without you.  Otherwise, every meeting is contrived and shallow.  They won't storm and norm.  They definitely won't perform.  Every team must find its relational pattern and learn to work together.  It won't happen if you are always present.  Another strange side effect is that they won't meet without you either.  I've had fellow principals say, "They can meet all they want without me."  They usually don't.  Especially if the team relationship is strained.  (If the team is really moving a grooving, they will insist that your instructional coach is part of the team)

Get feedback from your teachers about their team meetings.  Ask them what is working and what needs to be better.  Please don't do this by simply asking them during a team meeting.  You'll only get opinions from the teachers who already think they are on your good list or they are always willing to share their personal opinion.  You won't hear any truths from most teachers.  Ask individually or send a survey.  If you send a survey, share the results.  Be transparent.

Also, don't dictate an agenda for team meetings that gives teams no flexibility to meet their needs.  The second grade team I worked with was crushed under the expectation to focus on the learning targets every meeting.  They had other team needs that would make school better for kids!  If I had continuously pushed them to keep their entire focus on the learning targets, it would not have been pretty.  I had to clear the path for them to meet their own needs without giving up on the necessity to use the curriculum documents.

It is OK to ask for some type of team notes so that you are in the loop.  At another campus, years ago, I asked teams to submit their agenda for their team meetings at least one day prior to the meeting.  I would usually include an item from me that needed to be taken care of.  It was almost always related to the four questions that guide a PLC culture.  The purpose of the agenda was two-fold.  I wanted their meeting time to be intentional and I wanted to be able to ask good questions afterwards.  It was the best way I knew to hold them accountable for collaboration without commanding their time.

This is hard!
Considering all the teams I have been a part of over the years, many have been high-performing and many of them were much better teachers together than they would have been alone.  But finding the right administrative requirements while giving teams what they need is tough stuff for a principal.

I was lucky enough to work with one 3rd grade team that absolutely rocked their collaborative planning.  They started off like so many other teams and just met as the principal required.  After a few years, the team met almost every day.  They had purpose to every meeting.  They discussed learning targets and planned lessons collaboratively.  They looked at results and made improvements.  They also made sure that learning was engaging for kids.  I tried to shine some light on that bright spot for others to emulate.  But teams are made of individuals and relationships are always unique.  What works well for one team will not work exactly the same for the next team.  We can learn from the bright spots but it is hard to copy them!

Set your expectations and let teams do their own work.  If they don't know how to do it, show them what you expect, then gradually get out of the way.  Clear expectations are necessary.  The method of attack should be malleable.  Get feedback regularly.  Expose your bright spots.  Don't build barriers.  Clear paths for teachers to collaborate successfully!

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