In our book, The Forty Hour Principal, we wrote about a phenomenon in schools – the “cult of busyness”. To be busy is the thing that we often seem to end up aspiring to and judging ourselves on. This is supported by almost everyone around us. There’s an unspoken assumption that “busy” is ok, it’s important to be busy, and that it’s what we should desire and aspire to. On the flip side, the assumption is that not being busy means you’ve been unproductive or worse still, lazy.
I’m wondering about this as I watch my teachers walk into the meeting room after school one day. There are those who arrive first. Haven’t they had things to do straight after school? I wonder. And those who always arrive last, rushing in, often flustered, usually slightly embarrassed, and always “incredibly busy”. Why are they so much busier than those who arrived first?
Being busy has a time component built into it. Too much to do, too little time. But those coming in last to staff meeting never seem to consider the time that they are taking from the other people in the school, those who have arrived first. Invariably, staff meetings start five minutes late, and so our early birders can have easily been waiting for nearly fifteen minutes. (To be honest, they’re probably using the time to take a breather, to grab a coffee and to have a chat, but it’s still their time that is lost.)
When they’re asked later in the day how their day has been, they will answer, “crazy, busy!”, even though a portion of it has been wasted by someone else. How much of our days are actually wasted by someone else or by doing unproductive things?
Research by Salary.com found that wasting time at work is pretty common. Up to 89% of people waste time at work every day. The top 10% waste over three hours! That’s fifteen hours per hour of week!
What constitutes wasted, or lost productivity time though, is in the eye of the beholder. Having a break, grabbing a coffee, getting to the toilet are all good for our physical and mental well-being. Let’s face it, we all need a break. Teachers not taking a break are often those who are the most stressed and ironically, those with the least amount of available time!
Meetings are obviously a first point of call for principals to look at if they’re hoping to reduce potentially unproductive time for their staff. It’s certainly not a bad mantra to say, “Let’s get the job done bloody well, and all get home early”.
Staff meetings are curious beasts. For many, a staff meeting is a cultural necessity.
“I believe that our meetings at school are important as they foster the inclusive learning environment that we want to maintain…and I’m actually good with that.”
“What’s the alternative? Lots of decisions made in the principal’s office, with no input from us? Meetings give me a chance to have my say.”
Of course, holding a meeting at 3:15pm on a Tuesday afternoon isn’t always conducive to that dream of everyone having input. Some people, frankly, are well past their best at this time. Including many principals!
As the Harvard Business Review puts it, time is zero-sum. This means that every minute we spend stuck in a meeting that is going nowhere, is also a minute lost towards making a real difference. No amount of money can buy back that time. It’s gone forever. Time therefore needs to be treated more preciously, and not just by that fine measure of economics. Time is precious because no one really knows how much they have.
So, what’s the alternative?
As a principal you have power over a lot of things. Meetings are one of them. You can decide when they are held, and how often. This particular power could become one of your superpowers!
Take time to review your meeting schedule. Do they have to happen weekly? If so, why? Which meetings are best conducted with everyone – is it important for everyone to attend? Have you considered using email or social media to free up meeting time? If meetings are a necessity, have you considered the best time to have them?
For some reason, many schools appear to work on the notion that the more meetings crammed into a normal week, the more organised and “up with the play” the school must be.
However, when faced with multiple meetings per week, teachers begin to make trade-offs concerning how and when to get on with their classroom work. Sometimes this is to the detriment of their class programmes. Sadly, more often than not, our teachers pinch and borrow from their own personal time to get that work done. Research has shown that this can lead to burnout and/or staff turnover.
If you are committed to lots of meetings, what other ways can you consider to free time for your teachers? Can you minimise the length of meetings or reduce the energy sapping brain work that may be expected of your teachers after a full day in the classroom?
To make your meetings more productive, consider the following:
- Stick to an agenda that is relevant to everyone. Meetings that run with agendas full of stuff that has already been discussed and decided by others can be a waste of time. This sort of information can be shared in other ways.
- Share the lead of the agenda items with others. You don’t need to be responsible for all the talking.
- If you need people to be prepared, then give them the time.
- If you are raising new issues, be clear as to what the next steps are going to be, who is going to do them and how everyone will know it’s been done.
- Start your meetings on time. Tough luck for those coming in late.
- Oh, and the elephant in the room … cellphones. You don’t need people checking their Facebook accounts during meetings. It’s rude, it’s unnecessary and it’s distracting. (And, just quietly, it’s an indication that you need to improve your meetings!)
Of course, it’s not only you as principal who likes to call meetings. It’s important that you get your management team on board as well. Review the timing of your meetings with theirs. Look to free up time by alternating meetings over a two week or even four-week period.
Professional Development is an important key to success in your school. Take time to consider whether this important key is really worth the time and money on a tired Tuesday afternoon. Where’s the value in this for anyone? Your professional development sessions are probably best batched into a super Teacher Only Day instead.
I started this post talking about the cult of busyness. If being busy is the thing that you hang your hat on at your school, then at least give your teachers the time and respect to be busy in the places that really make a difference – their classrooms. It’s worth a thought!